A slight rumbling accompanies an early-evening mist that settles lightly on a canopy of palm fronds. It sounds, at first, like a distant thunderstorm announcing its impending arrival.
But this call has no connection to the weather—only to the wild. It’s the roar of an African lion, a bellow that sets off a chorus of cawing parrots, chirping frogs, and whistling squirrel monkeys and lemurs.
The symphony of safari sounds seems at once familiar and completely unexpected. That’s because the setting is so far out of Africa—and so close to homeowners in western Palm Beach County.
At McCarthy’s Wildlife Sanctuary—smack dab in the middle of a residential community, The Acreage, in West Palm Beach—owner Mark McCarthy oversees a collection of 21 wild cats and more than 175 rescued, surrendered or seized wild animals. The roll call includes everything from white tigers and venomous snakes to injured birds and deserted exotic tortoises.
Rescues and seizures by Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officials explain many of the cases. But every animal has a story—like the Bengal tiger taken in by McCarthy after police, making an arrest at a Motel 6, discovered it inside a hotel room. Without the willingness of a local sanctuary owner to care for these homeless animals, most would be put down.
McCarthy’s private animal kingdom, which he has run for the past 22 years, is one of five “sanctuaries”—not including Lion Country Safari, the drive-through park in Loxahatchee—in Palm Beach County. Combined, these sanctuaries, each one within a stone’s throw of a neighbor’s home, maintain more than 100 wild cats.
Those are the ones on the record. Officials from the FWC say that there’s no telling how many people are harboring exotic and dangerous pets without permits or licensing. People like the self-proclaimed “tiger whisperer,” who, unbeknown to his neighbors, is raising a Florida panther cub in his one-bedroom condo in Boca Raton.
But if neighbors at The Acreage are concerned about the National Geographic special playing out in their community, it doesn’t show. In fact, Stephanie Schmidt, whose house is only yards from the tiger and lion enclosures, calls the daily chorus emanating from the sanctuary “comforting.”
“It’s the best alarm system you could ever have,” says Schmidt, who can even hear the cats from the nearby elementary school at which she teaches. “We’re so used to it that we hardly hear it anymore. ... It really is pretty cool to live next door to [the sanctuary].”
Cool or not, tending to exotic animals in a residential setting raises its fair share of questions and, at times, criticism. For people like McCarthy, however, it’s a simple matter of following your heart and doing the right thing...
To continue reading, please pick up a copy of our December/January issue...