As we headed out to the Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary in eastern Jacksonville, the two little ones in the SUV wondered if there’d be lions, and tigers AND bears – that infamous line from the Wizard of Oz. “Not sure,” I replied, and for now that seemed to satisfy them. Actually, I wasn’t sure, myself. We were visiting a sanctuary for endangered big cats and rescues from those in “serious situations.” That much I knew, but visiting any kind of wildlife sanctuary, one never knows what you’re gonna get. As it happens, we were greeted by a collection of critters that included tigers, lions, cougars, leopards, bobcats, Arctic foxes, coatimundis, and, yes, one bear! Although Disney World was about three hours south, with its world-renowned Animal Kingdom, this trip provided an opportunity to show the next generation about a sanctuary that takes in some very large animals in need of a home.
Our first encounter was with Dozer, the handsome Siberian Tiger who greets sanctuary visitors. (Photo above.) He was rescued in 2017 along with three other tigers who were living in a private facility in South Florida. According to staff, he is known for watching those who enter the ranch and then stalking them as they pass. He thinks he can’t be seen, says his bio. True to his name, Dozer missed out on a fresh chicken and leg treat because he chose to nap instead.
Next up were the male and female lions, Abu and Rosa. Abu paced in his enclosure providing an entertaining pacing show. Letting out the occasional low growl, we were told he was excited that his favorite staff member was nearby – something I’d never expect from the King of the Jungle. Next to him is the lioness Rosa, and while Abu and Rosa interact at a distance, they may eventually share one enclosure. Says Kurt Lessenthien, the sanctuary’s Adoption Coordinator, “Abu came to us in November 2019 from a refuge in south Florida. Two male lions they had together started not to get along, so they opted to give up one of them. We got Abu. Rosa came in February 2022 from a facility that was downsizing and asked us to give her a home. It is possible that in the future we will introduce Rosa and Abu and have them live together. That will be a decision made by the executive director and the board of directors. The process starts with having the two animals next to each other – as they are now – and seeing how they act toward each other for some time. At some point the decision may be made to introduce them. Before that happens, however, we would have to spay Rosa. Both are intact and we do not allow breeding at our sanctuary.”
Rounding one of the corners of the sanctuary, we came face to face with, yes, a bear! Since his arrival had to do with a federal confiscation case, we didn’t get too much information, and so we didn’t ask. It was just satisfying to know that that a beautiful, huge brown bear had been in a difficult situation, and see him happily chewing on a stick.
The sanctuary came to be thanks to the efforts of a former police dog trainer, Curt LoGuidice, who is the not-for-profit’s executive director and curator. He began working with exotic animals in the early 1980’s and, after obtaining the proper credentials, was asked by the Florida Panther Project to provide educational presentations about this endangered animal. And, as it says in LoGuidice’s bio, his “rescue mission had begun.”
Over the years, Lessethien has had some memorable experiences in this line of work. He shares two of them: “Early in my career here I was tasked with giving a golf cart tour,” he says. “It was for a former Marine wounded in combat. It was an honor and a pleasure to give him and his family a tour so he could enjoy the animals even though he could not make it around himself.” And the other? “This was when Catty Shack Ranch went to rehome four tigers from a refuge damaged by Hurricane Irma. The people who went brought home four tigers and a blind fox named Piper. They saw Piper there, fell in love with her, and asked if we could give her a home. The refuge that had her agreed and that brought Piper to us. We had to build a new habitat for her and help this sightless fox feel comfortable in her new environment. Successes like that make great memories.”
Not-for-profits are always in need of something, and when WAT asked Lessethien what the Ranch could use, he replied that since they’re in the middle of a huge renovation, the greatest need is “monetary donations, supplies from our Amazon wish list or the donate page of our website. Gift cards to Lowe’s and Walmart.” He added that spreading the word about the work they do goes a long way to helping them move forward towards this renovation and even expanding the sanctuary.
Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary was listed as the #1 Top Attraction in Jacksonville, according to Trip Advisor.
Photos by MJ Hanley-Goff