Tampa, Florida - On the Wild Side - My Family Travels

Many families associate theme parks and spring training with Tampa in central Florida, but this family loves wild animals and wild artists and there’s plenty of them too.

Big Cat Rescue team in facemasks
Team from Big Cat Rescue in facemasks to welcome visitors. Photo c. BigCatRescue.org

Meow…  To be more accurate, ROAR!!!  That isn’t Garfield in front of us — imagine instead Simba from “The Lion King.” We are at Big Cat Rescue, a Tampa educational animal sanctuary and one of a couple of offbeat sites in the Tampa-St. Petersburg area that make for an insightful and fun family weekend at any time of year.  The other is the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, and don’t jump to conclusions that an art museum is deadly for kids. If any artist can intrigue children, the eccentric and flamboyant Dali would be the one.

Where the Wild Things Are in Tampa

Back to Big Cat Rescue. It is not a zoo, although it is a place to inspect and interact with animals that would fit just fine on the Serengeti Plains of Africa. The over 150 residents here are mostly descended from the tribe of the lion. A few house cats that could easily have names such as Puff and Snowball reside here and some meows are heard, but walk around and you will hear big cats sounds that can be aptly compared to the tone of Homer Simpson yawning.

Roaming safely among the ample vegetation of western Florida behind metal fences in their “cat-a-tats” are some considerably larger and wilder felines with formidable names such as Bengali and Jumanji. There is also a feline named China Doll, but don’t let her girly name fool you; she is an 11-year-old Bengal tiger who weighs in at 400 pounds. Her neighbors include cougars, leopards, ocelots and other variety of cats you likely never heard of.

Big Cat Rescue, nee Wild Life on Easy Street, bills itself as the world’s most diverse collection of exotic animals. It is actually located on 40 acres off Easy Street in the Citrus Park section of north Tampa. “One difference between most zoos and Big Cat Rescue” says manager Scott Lope, “is that there is no breeding of animals here.” The residents consist entirely of abused or abandoned animals, mostly in the cat family.  Some were adopted as house pets by well-meaning people who learned in time that a fully grown bobcat makes as convenient a pet as, well, a wild animal.

Others were parts of performing acts, or actual roadside zoos and not all were abused; some were simply retired. However, volunteer Susan Mitchell tells the story of Shaquille, a black leopard who was regularly beaten by the owner of a Las Vegas animal act.  Mitchell says, “There was a man who was trying to teach him to jump through a burning hoop. I’ve heard broomsticks. I’ve heard baseball bats. I’ve heard different weapons that were used because Shaquille did not want to jump through a burning hoop.” Lasting injuries to Shaquille include permanent eye damage.

Other similar stories are heard. A baby Florida bobcat whom the staff named Faith was found one day in 2003 at Big Cat Rescue’s outside gate. Perhaps she was once a house pet that outgrew her welcome when she outgrew her home.  Or, maybe her mother was hit by a motorist and killed and rather than confessing to the accident, the driver scooped up the orphan cub and brought her to the sanctuary door. Faith was healed sufficiently and is one of
several former residents returned to the wild.  Scott Lope says, “It’s sad that a place like this has to exist. These are animals that were designed to be free, in the wild, and they are hunters, and they need to chase their prey.”

The staff works to keep the resident animals physically and mentally fit by encouraging them to behave as they would in the wild. That can mean making them forage for food or giving them some novel scent to investigate – anything to keep them from sitting around bored or pacing back and forth all day long.

Not all residents of Big Cat Rescue are big cats. In fact, some are not cats at all. A mute swan, a couple of peafowl and some guinea hens wander the grounds, earning their keep by eating ticks and fleas and entertaining the cats with their silly habits, like fussing loudly when upset and always walking in single file. Llamas, civets, fallow and Sika deer also call Big Cat Rescue their home. Scott Lope says they were brought or abandoned here just as the cats were and literally had nowhere else to go for care. So they too are at home here.

Hello Dali Comes to Tampa

On the other hand, the wild things at the Salvador Dali Museum are hanging on the walls. “You have to have good eyes see Lincoln in that painting,” offers a bespectacled man standing next to me. This oil painting is officially named (deep breath), “Gala Contemplating the Mediterranean Sea Which at Twenty Meters Becomes a Portrait of Abraham Lincoln.” It is one of the Spanish surrealist’s trademark trompe l’oeil (French for “trick the eye”) artworks, with a double image. On one hand, viewers see the back of Dali’s wife Gala peering at the sea and a fiery sky, framed in a mass of solid black and dark blue painted lines. Step backwards and one should see the image of Lincoln as it looks on an American $5 bill. My neighbor squints but still no sign of Lincoln. He tries a new tactic. He takes off his prescription glasses and – what do you know – there is Abraham Lincoln. He then offers me his prescription glasses.  I put them on and sure enough I now see Lincoln in this optical illusion.

The experience is weird. But then again, Salvador Dali was weird. His artistic subjects are dreamlike, like a dream you might have one night in which Fenway Park is in your backyard, but it is not really your backyard because part of it morphs into your old cinderblock-lined college dormitory which turns into a prison occupied by mythical gryphons holding pitchforks.  No flowers in vases deck the walls in this art museum; no wave-crested landscapes hang for eternity here. The sheer size of Dali’s paintings, plus their intricate details and double images attest to Dali’s skill as an artist.

But what about taking youngsters here? How does one keep little Tyler and Emily occupied in a museum where the exhibits don’t come with touchscreens and video monitors? A museum press release reads, “Because of Dalí’s sense of whimsy and fun, a visit to the museum can be a rewarding and enjoyable experience for the entire family. His holograms, optical illusions, and strange dreamlike canvases can engage a child’s attention like few other artists can.” Dillydally with Dali or Art & Crafts for Families are two special projects where children can discover the creative world of Dali every day in the Education Classroom with stories, puzzles and activities which educate and encourage family interaction. Gallery treasure hunts are also available to allow families to explore the Museum on their own. 

If you choose to tour on your own, suggest to your kids that they examine a Dali original and compare it to the muted colors of a print. Try playing a memory game. Ask the kids to study Dali’s 1921 self-portrait, for example, then turn around. Then ask them what are the colors of the scarf and cape Dali wears in the painting. Or consider playing a Dali-esque version of “I Spy.” In addition, the museum information desk periodically has family discovery guides for children and parents to complete in the galleries. Not bad ways to get young, first-timers involved in comprehending the magic of art.

Details for Planning a Tampa Family Vacation

During the coronavirus pandemic, opening hours and access to both Big Cat Rescue and The Dali Museum are changing as their respective counties respond to public health regulations. Before going, be sure to check their websites for the latest updates.

There’s a variety of convenient lodging in Tampa, in addition to St. Pete’s beach resorts. The Watergarden Inn at the Bay Bed & Breakfast at 126 4th Avenue, NE, St. Petersburg, is a 14-room, antiques-filled bed and breakfast in a house built in 1910. Rates from $-$$$ include full breakfast.

Good chain hotel choices with double room rates around $100-$150 include the well-priced Hilton Garden Inn/Tampa Ybor City at 1700 East 9th Avenue, Tampa as well as the Wyndham Days Inn & Suites at 5405 North Church Avenue, Tampa, which includes continental breakfast in their prices.

For more about those nearby theme parks (such as Busch Gardens) and spring training grounds (think New York’s Yankees, among others), contact the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau.

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