'Missing' lion found within sanctuary near Masaryktown after causing media stir

Savannah lies sedated after she was thought to have escaped from Survival Outreach Sanctuary near Masaryktown. She had simply dug a hole under her cage.
Savannah lies sedated after she was thought to have escaped from Survival Outreach Sanctuary near Masaryktown. She had simply dug a hole under her cage.
Published Jan. 4, 2014

MASARYKTOWN — The Facebook posting about 11 a.m. Friday was brief, but it created a spectacle that continued well into the evening.

Lion on the loose in Spring Hill.

Within an hour, media crews swarmed this tiny community at the Pasco-Hernando County line. They searched for any sign of Savannah, a 7-year-old lioness that had reportedly escaped from Survival Outreach Sanctuary. The "missing'' lion even spawned a Twitter account as helicopters buzzed the area.

After a search that lasted a couple of hours, authorities found the big cat resting among the trees at the 10-acre licensed facility on Bowman Road. She had dug a hole under her cage but had not escaped the 10-foot high fenced area. Officers tranquilized her with a dart gun and put her in another cage.

"There was never any danger to the general public," said Baryl Martin, a spokesman for the Florida Wildlife Commission.

But word of a lion on the lam created plenty of excitement among the lunch crowd at the Masaryktown Cafe, less than a mile north of the sanctuary.

Server Cecilia Soto, 23, called to warn her parents who live nearby and have goats, horses and sheep. Soto of Spring Hill said she was glad to hear the animal was never actually loose.

"One, it could hurt somebody, and two, they might have had to kill it," she said. "I hope they had tranquilizers and not guns."

Sanctuary owner Judy Watson alerted the wildlife agency, in keeping with rules requiring such facilities to report any time an animal is not in its cage.

Cages are subject to a host of rules that change regularly and depend on the species, said Gary Morse, another spokesman for the wildlife commission.

"There aren't enough Sunday papers to print them," said Morse, who said late Friday afternoon that he had already received more than 30 calls from media outlets across the nation. "I don't know how I'm going to return them all," he said.

Morse said the sanctuary, which was incorporated in 2000, has a stellar safety record. "We've never had any problems with this facility," he said.

Watson received a misdemeanor citation for improper caging that allowed an animal to escape, but Morse said those are given whenever an animal escapes its cage. Watson could not be reached for comment.

The website says the sanctuary "is dedicated to providing permanent, responsible homes to abused, unwanted and abandoned exotic animals of all species."

The first of the sanctuary's goals, the website states, is "to provide large natural enclosures for rescued animals so they may live with dignity for the rest of their lives."

In 2012, donors to Grassroots Groupon donated $2,190 to help build a hurricane shelter for Savannah. The donations were enough to build two shelters.

Staff writers Tony Marrero and Alex Orlando contributed to this report.