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Putting his life on the line for his lions

BROOKSVILLE — The radio station called, and Jimmy Jablon went to wake the lions.

"Yes, I'm still in one piece," Jablon said into his cell phone Tuesday morning as he walked to the far end of the enclosure where Ed and Lea were cuddling mid-nap.

Jablon slapped Ed on the chest and the year-old, 225-pound cat raised his head groggily.

Then Jablon grabbed Lea's head, opened the 2-year-old, 250-pound lion's mouth and pointed it toward a videocamera to show off massive teeth to the Miami radio host and other viewers watching live on the Web.

"As you can see, they're quite content, and I'm content in here," Jablon, 46, said in a thick Long Island accent.

On New Year's Eve, Jablon closed the gate on the 4,000-square-foot pen to begin a month of captivity with the two lions. The goal: garner enough publicity — and subsequent donations — to keep his non-profit wildlife and exotic animal rescue operation afloat.

"We need about a hundred and fifty thousand to get through the next two years," Jablon said. "That shouldn't be a problem. There are so many people who love animals, they should get off their butt and do something."

Founded in 2002, Wildlife Rehabilitation of Hernando Inc. is situated on 14 acres behind Jablon's ranch home just north of the Pasco-Hernando line.

The place is home to Bengal tigers and Siberian tigers, white lions and cougars. There are spider monkeys and emus, alligators and lemurs. They were raised in captivity, Jablon said, and can't be returned to the wild. He also rehabilitates and releases native animals such as raccoons, foxes, hawks and deer.

Jablon started offering guided tours by appointment, but that hasn't been a moneymaker, he said. So he resorted to a publicity stunt.

The Associated Press picked up Jablon's story. He has appeared on most local television stations, CNN and Good Morning America. He did nine radio interviews on Tuesday.

He says visitors have logged about 43,000 hits on his Web page, www.wrohflorida.com in the past few days. At one point Tuesday afternoon, about 550 people were logged onto the chat room. One wiseacre typed in the question that might be on many minds: "How long until they eat him?"

Jablon insists that won't happen. The lions are still young and small enough to be manageable, though his arms are lined with red scratches.

"I'm not risking my life," he said. "I'm enhancing their life."

Jablon can escape to an area about the size of an office cubicle, where he set up a computer, chair, sleeping bag, video camera and coffee maker. He uses a spigot to wash up and a portable toilet when nature calls.

Jablon got Lea at the age of 6 months. She was a "photo cub" up north, making money for her owners until she grew too large, he said.

"She reached her weight limit, and they got rid of her," he said.

Ed came at the age of 8 weeks from an animal facility in New Jersey after Jablon sought a companion for Lea.

Jablon said he has the necessary licenses and permits from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the U.S. Agriculture Department, and officials come to inspect the enclosures for cleanliness and safety standards.

But Carole Baskin, chief executive officer of Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, groaned when she heard about Jablon's stunt and went to his website.

"I am appalled at the stupidity that people will display in order to gain attention," she said, adding that stunts like this do more harm than good.

"It sends the worst possible message, that these cats can be made into pets, and that just fuels the demand for them or for contact with them," she said.

Florida law prohibits keeping lions and tigers as pets, but it's easy to get around that law by claiming the operation is for rescue or conservation breeding, Baskin said. A USDA license requires only $40 and a one-page application that asks for name, address and phone number, she said.

A New York native, Jablon moved to Florida in 1989, running an irrigation business for about a dozen years before starting in 2004 his own business as an insurance adjuster.

He closed that operation in 2008 and since then has operated the sanctuary full time. He insists he's not taking a salary — "never have, never will," he says — and is living off dwindling savings and a cashed-in life insurance policy.

He hopes to raise enough money to get back to a full-time job. If not, he said, he'll have to shutter the operation and find homes for the animals.

"I wish there was no need for me to do any of this," he said.

Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report. Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

Putting his life on the line for his lions 01/04/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 4, 2011 9:39pm]
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