ST. AUGUSTINE, Fla. -- 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.
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"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.
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. 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," Warrick said.
The animals have found safe haven at the reserve, where even predator and prey can become best friends.
Maleyshka, a sweet-natured Siberian lynx, 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 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. The two were featured on "Nat Geo Wild," a National Geographic Channel program.
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. 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 inspired her wolf rescue, which evolved into a mission to help other exotic animals.
A lasting endeavor
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 also 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 ranch. All of those have since died.
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, to be able bring her to the sanctuary.