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Benefit is planned for crippled lion

Published Sep. 13, 2005

Spend the Fourth of July on Easy Street, get up close and personal with lions and tigers, oh my, and help an injured cat while you're at it.

Wild Life on Easy Street, a refuge off Sheldon Road for exotic animals, is hosting Family Day on Saturday to raise money for Nakoma the lion, bought at an auction for $200.

It may sound like a bargain, but because Nakoma was crippled, "the only other person bidding was a taxidermist," said Judy Watson, education director at the refuge.

Used by his former owner for photos with people eager to be pictured with a lion, Nakoma was deprived of food, vitamins and calcium to keep his weight down because Florida law prohibits human contact with cats weighing more than 40 pounds, Watson said.

As a result, the cat's backbone failed to form properly, and it can no longer support the animal's weight. So while Nakoma was only slightly crippled as a cub, "since he's grown and put on weight, he can hardly walk," Watson said. Nakoma is now a little more than 2 years old. Lions in captivity typically live about 20 years.

Life has not exactly been easy on Easy Street for refuge owner Carole Lewis either, not since her husband, Don Lewis, turned up missing last August.

The discovery of Lewis' van at a private airstrip in Pasco County, then an unconfirmed sighting of the millionaire in Costa Rica only compounded the mystery. In the meantime, Lewis' disappearance has muddled financial matters at the animal compound.

With 147 animals, "if we don't start raising public donations, it will limit us to how many new animals we can take care of," Watson said.

The 40-acre refuge is home to exotic cats, including cougars, tigers, leopards, servals and lynxes. It also provides sanctuary to swans, llamas, goats, chickens and an array of domestic cats that freely roam the range.

But Nakoma is an unusual monetary drain because veterinarians say they need to take an MRI (magnetic resonance image) of the lion's backbone and hips to determine what, if anything, can be done to help, Watson said.

A spinal tap, which already has been performed, cost $3,000; the MRI will cost $1,000; and $2,000 will be owed to specialists just to see if Nakoma can be helped.

Because the cat would need to be anesthetized too many hours if the refuge tried to transport him, "we're looking for the services of a traveling MRI," Watson said.

Family Day, which takes place from 3 to 7 p.m. Saturday, costs $10 for adults and $5 for children.

Hamburgers and hot dogs will be on sale from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.

The event is limited to 100 people. For reservations and directions, call 926-2907.