Forrest the Kodiak bear is looking for a new home.
He’s one of more than 250 animals in Ocala’s Silver Springs Park, which is in the process of relocating its wildlife.
Following a January Florida Cabinet decision, privately owned Silver Springs Nature Park will become a state park on Oct. 1. All of the park’s animals must be transferred out before it falls into state’s hands.
A steady decline in tourism and nitrate pollution in the water prompted the decision to convert the park.
The park’s animals include panthers, alligators, rabbits, donkeys and turkeys.
Wildlife Manager Joanne Zeliff will be in charge of the animal’s move.
“I’ve got the main responsibility with finding homes for over 250 animals,” Zeliff said. “So that has basically been a 24/7 thing since the deal was official.”
All animals must be removed from the park, and it’s difficult to know how long that process will take, she said.
“I always felt like if the state took over, we would have at least native animals,” Zeliff said. “But when they said all of our animals had to go, that was a little unexpected. I know we’ll find good homes for all of them.”
The absence of the animals will leave the team of animal keepers unemployed, but the process has been emotionally devastating for the entire staff, Zeliff said.
Last weekend, senior bear keeper Wayne Carr planned a birthday party for the park’s three Kodiak bears. Carr and his partner prepared cakes for the birthday bears, and the birthday bears were joined by park visitors to celebrate.
“When you see them come out and they go straight for the cake, that’s the fun part of it,” Carr said. “You know they enjoy it. That’s what makes it special.”
After working with these bears for more than two years, Carr has developed a relationship with each of them, but it’s hard not to play favorites, he said.
“We all have favorites and my favorite is Forrest,” Carr said. “He was one of the first ones that took to me when I came here. And since then, we’ve always had a pretty good bond together. I love them all, trust me.”
Mike Llerena wrote this story online.