Big Cat Sanctuary Draws Volunteers, Visitors

SPRING HILL –
Conan the cougar sat on a wooden table within 10 feet of the children calling out to him.

His owner, Susan Moore called his name.

“Hi, Conan,” she said. “Hi, handsome.”

His head turned, but not toward Moore. His ears rose upward when he heard the distant sound of a plane’s engine. His gaze turned toward the sky.

Conan is half Florida panther and half South American cougar. Genetically, he is slightly handicapped. A calcium deficiency meant he has shorter-than-average legs. He has had health issues. That is why he is at Moore’s sanctuary.

Nonetheless, Conan is a killing machine.

Such an animal is different from other big cats, which often give clues as to when it is tired of being pestered or wants to attack.

They crouch. They show their teeth. They lower their ears. That is not the case with cougars, Moore warned.

“Its ears will still be up and it could be purring away, but they can take your arm off,” she said.

Moore cages a variety of big cats, from Bengal tigers to black leopards.

She also has a pot-bellied pig, white-tailed deer, emus and ostriches.

Four times per year, she hosts an open house. Most of the crowd spends their time staring into the cat cages.

Some of the animals like to pose and preen before the spectators while others are shy. One leopard climbed a tree while an African serval remained hidden under a blanket.

“We have the open houses in three-hour durations so it doesn’t put too much stress on them,” said Moore’s son, Jim.

He moved to Spring Hill in 2000 and he and his mother opened the sanctuary in 2001.

Volunteers come locally and overseas. Moore said people from the United Kingdom, Japan, the Netherlands, Spain and France have traveled to her 10-acre property and stayed there for a couple months to learn about the animals.

Sometimes they want a career working with big cats, but other times they go for the experience.

Most of the work consists of laying down food and water, yard work and cage cleaning.

“If you go into a cage with a cat you haven’t raised, you’re stupid,” Moore said.

A few minutes later, people gasped as an African male leopard growled and swatted at a female leopard. She was in heat and he was still healing from surgery. She was horny, but he was ornery.

The next open house likely will take place in July.

Moore’s Wildlife Survival Sanctuary is located at 18212 Booming Road, south of County Line Road.

Reporter Tony Holt can be reached at 352-544-5283 or wholt@hernandotoday.com.

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