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A Melrose man blind in one eye enters a cage with two full-grown Bengal tigers.
He locks the door behind him and approaches the 8-year-old sisters unarmed and unafraid.
It’s not a suicide attempt.
Carl Bovard does this on a daily basis.
“These two are the reason I started this place,” said Bovard, 42. “I’m probably most bonded to them.”
Amira and Bali are two of 14 big cats Bovard cares for at Single Vision, Inc., a non-profit endangered species educational wildlife facility at 8185 Forest Hills Road in Melrose.
Bovard conducts weekly tours for the public to view his six tigers, two lions and other exotic animals up close.
The future of his facility and others like it across the country is being challenged. A petition to the U.S. Department of Agriculture from several animal welfare groups is seeking a federal ban on licensees who allow the public to have direct or physical contact with big cats, bears, or nonhuman primates of any age, as well as breed them.
Amira gave birth Feb. 22 to Bhutan, the first cub born at Bovard’s facility. He took in two more cubs shortly after — another tiger, Summer, and Leo, a male lion. For the past six months, Bovard offered interactions with the cubs before they weighed 40 pounds. The Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission prohibits contact with the public once that weight is reached.
“Almost every guest that comes out here says this is the closest they’ve been to a tiger,” Bovard said. “When you go to a zoo, they’re sleeping or they’re 100 yards away from you. Here, they’re in your face.
“And when we have a cub, we will give people the opportunity to touch them and play with them, and people get a passion from that. You’re not going to protect anything you don’t have a passion for and a love for. So that’s what we try to spark in people.”
Bovard graduated from Indiana University with a degree in biology and started his career at SeaWorld. Years later, he developed an affinity for tigers while working as a zookeeper.
He adopted Amira and Bali in 2005 and founded Single Vision, Inc.
“A big reason why I started this,” he said, “is I had worked at a sanctuary, and one of my biggest arguments with the owner was about expanding their enclosures. I wanted to be able to give tigers a better life. Since I couldn’t afford to fence in my whole property, I built a great big play area, and I initiate play.
“If my cats were just stuck in a cage all day every day like most big cats in this country, I wouldn’t be going in with them. That’s just too much pent-up aggression. Here, I give them a chance to expend that energy every day.”
The FWC’s requirement for two tigers is a 10 x 24-foot cage, constructed of 9-gauge wire and a safety entrance. Bovard’s cages are more than twice that size.
The enclosures at Carson Springs Wildlife Foundation and Sanctuary, 8528 E. County Road 225 in Gainesville, go well beyond the state requirements.
“It’s one of the best facilities in the country,” Bovard said of Carson Springs. “If I die or anything happens to me, that’s where I want my cats to go. They won’t be worked with there, but they would have an awesome home.”
Christine Janks and her husband, Barry, opened Carson Springs in 2007 after living in South Africa for five years and working to protect cheetahs.
They started with a serval named Tocatta and now provide a home to more than a dozen rescued cats, including lions and tigers, on their 274-acre farm.
“Our animals are kept in more of a park-like environment,” Janks said. “I don’t feel the minimum standard for caging is adequate. Our cages are as much as 10 times more than what’s required.”
Although Janks is in favor of stricter rules and regulations for obtaining a license, she doesn’t want the USDA to become overbearing on those who meet the qualifications.
“We’re the professionals,” she said, “and if you think enough of us to give us a license, then you ought to let us handle them the way we think is best. Someone in a state agency somewhere shouldn’t be deciding the protocols.”
Janks does support trying to stop breeding with the USDA petition. Most tigers, she said, are bred for photo purposes and then go to hunting farms, sanctuaries or get euthanized once they weigh too much.
“Carl does some things I’m not too crazy about, but he does a really good job. Carl has some babies, but I feel, because I know Carl, that he’s not going to abandon those or mistreat them. But Carl is a particular individual, and in a lot of cases that doesn’t happen,” said Janks, who would also like current animals in captivity to get genetically tested and designated as purebred or not.
Bovard and Janks are against the part of the petition that aims to prohibit the separation of animals from their mothers before the species-typical age of weaning. Both said the ability to bottle feed cubs during that period makes them much easier to deal with as adults, especially in Bovard’s case.
Big Cat Rescue, Carole Baskin’s non-profit educational sanctuary in Tampa, is one of the petitioners to the USDA. Baskin began rescuing animals in 1993, when she and her late husband visited a fur farm.
“I started crying ,” she said, “and my husband told the guy, ‘How much for every cat here?’ We came home with 56 bobcats and a lynx that day.”
Baskin bred some cats in the early years of her sanctuary. She was told it would help save them for future generations, but her outlook changed after attending some American Zoological Association meetings.
“When we started out, we were stupid and didn’t know the entire scope of what was going on,” she said. “What I discovered is that none of these animals in private hands are serving any kind of conservation value. So we stopped breeding in 1997, and since then I’ve been trying to end private possession.”
While Bovard acknowledges most breeding happens for the wrong reasons, he doesn’t want to be punished as a result. He hopes to move to St. Augustine and build a park for his animals.
Brovard notes there are more tigers in the United States privately (around 4,000) than in the wild worldwide (less than 3,000), and those statistics alarm him. But he said the issues are circuses, zoos and owners who have them in small enclosures and/or in states without regulations.
“I don’t have any problem with exotic ownership as long as it’s done properly,” he said. “To me, we need some tigers in captivity so people can see them and get educated and help conserve them. Other people don’t see it that way.”
Janks feels the USDA needs to identify specific concerns and address them individually rather than pursue a universal change in the system at the federal level. She also questions Baskin’s motives.
“She’s doing the same thing we are,” Janks said. “Her budget is a couple million dollars, which is way above any of us. That’s her livelihood and everything she does, and (her) thought that, ‘I could be out of business next week, and it would make me very happy’ is a little disingenuous.”
Baskin said the petition isn’t designed to take animals away from their current owners, but she believes a ban on the breeding and public exposure of big cats would eventually eliminate the trade and need for sanctuaries.
“I think people like to define themselves as being the rescuers,” Baskin said. “And if there are no more animals out there to rescue, then they don’t have a role in life any longer. It’s all they do, and that’s what they want to do until they die. They’re not looking at the bigger picture.”
The USDA will consider all public comments it receives regarding the petition on or before October 4.