Each morning, she wakes to a cacophony of screams, howls, and laughter. OK, I know what you’re thinking: many of us who are parents (or pet owners) wake up the very same way. Except we don’t. Not really. Because for Deborah Warrick, the sounds originate from parrots, macaws, hyenas, lions, tigers..and yes, bears! Oh my! And she loves every minute of it. Well, almost.
Our interview takes place in the middle of a classic, blinding Florida downpour but Deborah and her volunteers have already been out cleaning cages and feeding animals. And we’re not talking Fido or Rover. For the purpose of this story, animals are defined as eleven tigers, three lions, three leopards, two hyenas, fourteen wolves, a cougar, and a variety of lynxes and bobcats – plus a macaw or two. The animals – and Deborah – live on a 7-acre preserve known as St. Augustine Wild Reserve, a 501(c)3 non-profit organization dedicated to exotic animal rescue.
Deborah’s passion for the exotic was evident at a very early age. “I didn’t have dolls,” she laughs, “I had spiders.” She went from spiders to skydiving, where a broken back sidelined her and caused her instructor to gift her with a wolf cub to keep her occupied. “I got hooked on wolves and started doing wolf rescue, then graduated to the big cats. Now we have bears and hyenas and all kinds of neat stuff here.” She grew up in California but moved to St. Augustine and established the St. Augustine Wild Reserve more than 20 years ago. Unlike zoos and roadside animal attractions, Deborah does not capture wild animals and keep them for profit; rather, she receives those who can either no longer survive in the wild or were given up by former owners.
And her goals are simple – to educate the public about the animals and to ensure that each and every one is safe, well-cared for, and protected while at the reserve. “Most of our exotic animals come from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Federation” she says. “Nothing that I have comes out of the wild.” The one exception is a very rare black coyote whose pelvis was shattered after being hit by a vehicle and who could never have been released back into the wild. “So,” Deborah continues, “Fish and Wildlife brought her to me.”
How can one person make all this happen? Experience, knowledge, education, and commitment – and a staff of dedicated and passionate volunteers. “I could never do any of this on my own without my volunteers. Everyone on staff here is a volunteer. They do everything from diet prep and cleaning cages to hauling rock and walking the tigers.” Wait. Walking the tigers? Deborah explains, “Tigers are very territorial so you don’t want to get in a cage with them. That’s when they’re dangerous. But they’re easy on a leash, and they love their walks. You just open the door, put the leash on, open the lock-out door, and off you go! And all of our wolves are leash-trained.”
Sounds crazy, right? But this woman knows what she’s talking about. She has over 35 years of experience working with exotic animals plus some impressive degrees. She received her AA from St. Johns River Community College; attended UNF where she graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Science in Biology; and then went on to UF for her Masters in Veterinary Forensic Science. “Having a degree gives you more credibility,” says Deborah. “I’m not just that woman who keeps tigers in her backyard!”
Besides Federal permits through the USDA, her other licenses include a Florida State permit, Class 1 for bears; Class 1 for lions, tigers, jaguars, and leopards; Class 1 for hyenas; Class 2 for Servals (a rare African Cat); Class 2 for lynxes, bobcats, and wolves; Class 3 for hedgehogs, foxes, zebras, and other, so-called non-dangerous species. And even though she makes it sound like a day at the dog park, the fact is that her volunteers are carefully instructed on how to properly handle the animals on the reserve; they are not even allowed to pet the animals until after completion of a 6-month training program. She emphasizes that, “We’ve never had a serious injury nor had an animal escape.”
The major hurdle faced by the reserve is funding. “We are a non-profit and would love a corporate sponsor for major expenses like vet bills and cage repair,” explains Deborah. The cages at St. Augustine Wild Reserve are considerably larger than what is recommended by Florida Fish and Wildlife and can cost from $20 – $40K to build. Vet bills can be as high as $20K, and the monthly food bill for the carnivores runs about $4K. What keeps the organization afloat are visitors who take the reserve’s educational tours, offered by appointment every Monday, Wednesday, and Saturday at 2 pm, with a special VIP tour at noon on Fridays.
“We love for people to see what we do here. Our animals are all happy, well-fed and well-cared for but the exotic animal population in the wild is dwindling due to poaching and habitat destruction,” says Deborah. “We want to educate people about exotic animal survival in the wild, the dangers of private ownership of exotic pets, and the importance of supporting animal sanctuaries like our reserve, as well as anti-poaching groups and organizations that raise awareness of how to coexist with wild animals.”
Learn more about the St. Augustine Wild Reserve by visiting www.staugustinewildreserve.org. Photography by Kate Gardiner.