Every once in a while, you stumble across an experience that makes you fall in love with travel again as if it were your first time on the road. I ran across just such an experience recently not far from where I used to live. The Survival Outreach Sanctuary in Spring Hill, Fla., provides a home to displaced exotic animals on a private, forested agricultural property far removed from the nearby urban hustle and bustle.
You’ll know you’ve arrived when the pavement ends and the path becomes decidedly more rustic. A staff member will drive out to buzz you in and your adventure begins as you follow in your vehicle under the tree-lined canopy along the path to the sanctuary’s single cozy guest cabin. Outfitted with safari-themed artwork and an efficiency kitchen, it’s a relaxing spot to rest in between animal encounters.
Hanging out with these magnificent creatures is something you’ll definitely want to make time for during your overnight adventure. It’s a sacred experience to be nearly close enough to touch a blue-eyed white tiger. Having one stare back at you with equal, unwavering curiosity is to experience divinity in its purest form. Similarly, if you’ve never watched a full-grown lion roar from less than 6 feet away while you drink your morning coffee, it’s an experience you won’t soon forget.
Enjoying a late afternoon beverage a few feet from a Siberian tiger while you relax on an observation bench with an affectionate pygmy goat in your lap is pretty memorable, too. Even the closest zoo observation experience can’t compare to the intimacy and at-will access to these magnificent creatures that are disappearing in the wild at alarming rates.
Be advised, however, the secondary safety barriers are there for a reason: to keep you from taking that extra step or two when you forget just how close you are to the main cage and find yourself wishing these majestic animals were available for public cuddling. They aren’t — no matter how many hours you spend gazing at them in wonder and wishing it were otherwise.
From an outreach perspective, however, this privileged opportunity to peek into the world of the great cats is precisely the point. The need for conservation has reached critical mass, and any opportunity to generate enthusiasm for preservation efforts and stimulate dialogue is worth taking the time to explore.
Sanctuary founder Judy Watson said, “People fear what they don’t understand, and what they don’t understand they destroy. That’s where we’re at right now.”
Cabin rates start at roughly $90 per night including coffee supplies and breakfast items, but extending our original three-night reservation an additional week brought our daily cost down to $71. We couldn’t stay at our favorite budget-priced business hotel chain for that price.
For those enthralled enough to book accommodations for an entire month, the discount bumps up to a whopping 45 percent. Free tours of the sanctuary are available to the public on Saturdays, with donations welcome.
If you’d like to experience the sanctuary with your group, catered lunches can be arranged in its outdoor seating space for $25 per person, complete with a guided tour by an animal specialist. Soswildlife.org has further details.