Florida wildlife rehabilitation center's publicity stunt stirs controversy in wildlife rescue community
TAMPA, Fla. — The owner of a Florida wildlife rescue center is living in a cage with two lions, a fundraising stunt that has riled other animal rescue groups and underscores how difficult it is to keep such sanctuaries afloat.
James Jablon with Wildlife Rehabilitation of Hernando County, a semi-rural area about an hour north of Tampa, is over halfway through his month of eating, sleeping and otherwise hanging out with the carnivorous cats. Wearing a microphone, he talks with people who watch streaming video of his "captivity" online and post comments.
He maintains his unusual idea is a harmless way to raise $150,000 to keep the center -- home to 100 animals of all types -- running for the next two years. It is unclear how much money he has raised so far.
Those in the animal sanctuary world say it's extremely expensive to raise and care for exotic animals, especially when a single tiger can eat upward of 60 pounds of meat a week.
"It's been incredibly difficult for sanctuaries," said Josephine Martell, a spokeswoman for the Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries, a Washington-based accreditation group. "It's just like every other business, sanctuaries are cutting back on staff and capacity."
Actress Tippi Hedren, who starred in Alfred Hitchcock's "The Birds" and runs the Shambala Preserve in Acton, Calif., said it costs her more than $75,000 a month to feed her 65 big cats.
"Sanctuaries everywhere are folding because of the economy," she said.
Last September, the Wild Animal Orphanage in San Antonio closed its doors due to "overpopulation, underfunding and inadequate housing for the animals," a message on the defunct sanctuary's website said.
About 400 animals were displaced because of the closing, and Martell said it was difficult to find homes for them because other sanctuaries are so cash-strapped.
Even in the face of such shortfalls, Hedren and others questioned the wisdom of Jablon's stepping into the lions' den.
Jablon is "taking his life into his hands," Hedren said.
The stunt is not just dangerous but exploitative, said Pat Derby, owner of the Performing Animal Welfare Society, adding that it sends the wrong message to the public.
"We're supposed to be protecting the animals, not exploiting them," said Derby, a former Hollywood animal trainer who has three sanctuaries in California.
Jablon wouldn't speak with the Associated Press, saying that a London publicity-photo agency is handling media requests. That agency said that some large organizations like the AP would have to pay for access to him and the facility. The AP does not pay for interviews.
Jablon told the St. Petersburg Times he has set up an area with a computer, chair, sleeping bag, video camera and coffee maker inside the enclosure where he is staying with young lions Ed and Lea for a month. He uses a spigot to wash up and a portable toilet. He is prepared to climb a tree if the lions fight with each other and become dangerous.
On a recent evening, Jablon could be seen lying down in front of the camera as the two lions napped under a wooden shelter nearby.
Jablon insisted he will be safe because he has raised the animals since they were small and they are familiar with him.
"I'm not risking my life. I'm enhancing their life," he told the newspaper, which didn't pay for its interview or photos and never pays for news, according to editor Neil Brown.
Published reports show Jablon has been struggling for a while. Last February, he custom-made a motorcycle out of the skin and skull of an alligator to raise money for his sanctuary, which cares for about 100 abandoned and abused animals of all types and sizes.
According to a U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection report dated Sept. 27, 2010, the Siberian tiger enclosures at Jablon's facility were "not sufficiently constructed to contain these animals." The report also said that he did not have a feeding plan for the big cats and did not have records showing how he acquired several of the animals.
In another report dated May 13, 2010, a USDA inspector wrote about watching as two lions were unloaded from transport enclosures into permanent enclosures.
"The manner with which the licensee chose to unload the animals was potentially dangerous for the licensee and the people assisting or viewing the unloading as well as the animal," the inspector wrote.
Jablon's facility is among hundreds around the state that have licenses to care for the most dangerous animals, such as lions, tigers and many types of primates.
Carole Baskin, the owner of a facility in Tampa that has 116 exotic felines rescued from roadside zoos, circuses and abusive private owners, said there are about 1,400 tigers in captivity in Florida and an unknown number of lions. She has lobbied the Florida Legislature to ban the breeding, sale and private ownership of exotic animals, so fewer will end up at rescue centers like hers.
"People can buy a lion cub for $150 online," she said. "They're not a protected species and there's virtually nobody minding the store as far as keeping track of where these animals are going."
-- Tamara Lush, Associated Press
Photo: Jablon plays with Ed, a year-old African lion, at his Florida sanctuary on Jan. 4. Credit: Hayley Mathis / Associated Press