- Associated Press - Friday, January 1, 2016

ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. (AP) - Lions, tigers, a bear and now ligers too. Ligers?

Ares and his little brother, Yeti, are the newest residents at St. Augustine Wild Reserve - a nonprofit wildlife sanctuary that also is a rescue center for unwanted exotic animals. Deborah Warrick, a carnivore biologist and veteran wild animal handler, founded the reserve to educate the public about exotic animal ownership as well as prevent future animal abuse.

Warrick and sanctuary volunteers welcomed the brother ligers about two months ago. A liger is the hybrid offspring of a male lion and a female tiger. Lions and tigers are competing predators so they avoid each other in the wild. Ligers result from cross-breeding in captivity.

“You can see when they walk that they have bad hips. It’s just not a good thing to do, to produce a hybrid like this,” said Warrick, noting the ligers came from South Carolina where their former owner exhibited the big cats at a wildlife preserve. Weighing roughly 625 pounds each, Ares and Yeti are still considered babies at about 3 years old. They will reach well over 1,000 pounds each when adults, she said.

“They were no longer needed for the shows so they gave them to us,” Warrick said. The brothers share a spacious $21,000 cage where each has his own tub for bubble baths - a favorite pastime __ and separate den boxes for private snoozing, although they often doze together.

The reserve is home to about 150 animals and birds including a rare golden tabby tiger as well as Siberian lynxes, Arctic and grey wolves, snow and Bengal tigers, African lions, leopards, hyenas and coatimundis.

“Everything here is a rescue,” Warrick said of the sanctuary located about five miles west of World Golf Village in St. Johns County.

The reserve is licensed by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, United States Department of Agriculture and U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration to keep and care for the wild animals.

Several of the animals came from less than ideal circumstances. Some used to be pets. Others had been starved or kept in deplorable living conditions at old zoos or animal shows, Warrick said.

Some of the big cats were raised by people solely for use in photo opportunities. When the animal gets too big to be used or too difficult to handle, their owners want to get rid of them. Some go to zoos or sanctuaries like the reserve where they can be cared for properly. But some face a grimmer fate, she said.

“A lot of them end up in canned hunts where they are shot. So, we try to take in as many as we can so they don’t end up there,” said Warrick.

The animals have found safe haven at the reserve, where even predator and prey can become best friends.

Maleyshka, a sweet-natured Siberian lynx whose name means little girl in Russian, was a 3-month-old kitten when she came to the sanctuary from a breeder in South Carolina. About the same time, Warrick said they found a newborn white-tailed deer fawn cowering in a ditch after dogs had chased away her mother. Naming the fawn Amira, which means princess in Arabic, Warrick raised her with Maleyshka. That was about seven years ago and Amira and Maleyshka remain best friends.

“The two of them play together and they groom each other,” Warrick said of Maleyshka and Amira, who were featured on “Nat Geo Wild,” a cable television program on the National Geographic Channel.

Warrick has been taking in all types of critters since she was a kid.

“I didn’t play with dolls. I had spiders and snakes. My parents hated spiders and snakes but they let me keep them. I was lucky I had great parents,” she said.

A San Jose, Calif., native, Warrick began rescuing unwanted pet wolves in 1981. At the time, she’d broken her back skydiving and her instructor gave her a wolf cub as a get-well gift. That pup inspired her wolf rescue, which evolved into a mission to help other exotic animals.

Warrick founded St. Augustine Wild Reserve in 1995. The reserve has been highlighted in segments of programs on Animal Planet and “Nat Geo Wild,” and on “Jack Hanna’s Wild Adventures.”

Her credentials include a bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of North Florida and extensive experience as a trainer working with wolves, tigers, lions and other large carnivores. Warrick previously worked at the Los Angeles Zoo and created a wolf show for Busch Gardens Williamsburg in Virginia.

Years ago, the reserve received five Arctic wolves and an African lion from entertainer Michael Jackson when he no longer wanted the animals at his California ranch. All of those animals have since passed away.

Natasha, a 10-year-old Siberian lynx at the reserve came from Ponte Vedra Beach. A woman “thought it would be a cool idea to have an adult lynx as a pet so she purchased it from a breeder in Washington State who shipped it in to her,” Warrick said.

“As soon as she opened the crate, this monster came at her and bit her. She managed to shoo her with a broom into the garage where she lived for the next several months,” Warrick said. The woman only opened the garage door enough to feed Natasha. Warrick had to use a tranquilizer dart to sedate the lynx, who at that point was mean, so she could bring her back to the sanctuary.

The reserve offers guided tours three times a week by appointment only. It’s not open to the public on a drop-in basis like zoos. The reserve receives no government funding. It relies on revenue from an annual fundraiser, donations and money generated by the tours, she said.

Michelle Smith of Palm Coast and Jeff Osborne of St. Augustine are among about 30 dedicated volunteers at the center, which has no paid staff, not even Warrick.

“I fell in love by the third tiger and found out I could come out here and help and I have never left,” said Smith, who became a volunteer four years ago after visiting the reserve on a tour.

Osborne has been volunteering at the reserve about 2½ years.

“I’ve always wanted to do this, my whole life,” said Osborne, who discovered the sanctuary after moving to St. Augustine from San Diego.

All the animals have distinct personalities, Smith and Osborne said.

“When you take care of them, they each have their own special way of letting you know that they appreciate it. I feel like I have some of the best animal friends in the entire world,” said Smith, who makes birthday cakes with meat and whipped cream for the big cats. She also puts together the cardboard boxes, which are among their favorite toys.

As much as they love them, Warrick and the volunteers emphasized they are very careful especially when around the carnivores. Their wild nature is always there and can surface unexpectedly. Volunteers are not allowed inside the enclosures with the animals. Warrick also stays outside except on rare occasions, and then only with animals that she has worked with extensively. Even then, she said she can’t take anything for granted.

“No matter how sweet they are when you’re out here, they’re not going to be sweet when you go into their territory, Warrick said.

Warrick said none of their animals have escaped or hurt anyone since it’s been open.

Their mission, Warrick said, is to provide the best place possible for the animals to live out their days.

“We take good care of them. . They deserve that,” she said.

___

Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, https://www.jacksonville.com


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