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A lot of little girls go to bed and dream of ponies. But not Patricia Engesser. Her childhood dreams were filled with snarling tigers. And she didn’t wake up screaming.
“I always wanted a tiger,” Engesser said. “So, I married a guy with one.”
Engesser and her husband, Robert, have been married about 26 years and own The Zoo AKA Jungle Safari between Chiefland and Trenton.
It is one of six licensed wild animal facilities in Levy County.
“It’s a family kind of thing. They’ve done animals in one way, shape or fashion forever,” Engesser said.
She said her animals, which include lions, tigers, leopards, baboons, lemurs, a kangaroo and a large python, to name a few, are part of a traveling zoo that treks all over the U.S.
The Zoo also breeds big cats and loans them to zoos in temporary need, she said.
Engesser said she enjoys her job but admitted it was a lot of work.
“Anytime you’re working with animals, it’s 24/7.”
She said someone must always be there to clean their cages, feed them, administer any necessary medication and be ready in case of an emergency, such as bad weather.
Engesser said she prides herself in the care she provides her animals. “The guys (employees) sometimes tell me, ‘ If we ever die, we wanna’ come back as one of your animals.’”
Still, there is an element of danger, Engesser said. For 22 years, she traveled with The Zoo. And on one occasion, while standing on a fence meant to keep the public out of an area where tigers were being kept, she found herself in a predicament.
“I turned to answer a question … I turned around, and this tiger had my whole forearm in her mouth. I said, ‘Empress (the tiger), please let it go’. Fortunately, it worked out for me. Otherwise, I’d be called ‘Lefty’. Never turn your back on a tiger.”
And she said despite having so many large wild animals, neighbors have never complained. And they’ve never had an escape at their facility, which is being rebuilt to include an area that provides about three times the space.
“We’re pretty diligent as far as if you go in the gate, you shut the gate. If there’s a lock, you lock the lock.”
Patricia Zerbini, owner of Two Tails Ranch just outside of Williston, said she’s also never had a problem with neighbors, though she said the region has become more populated over the years.
Zerbini, who said her family has been working with animals for nine generations, keeps about 10 elephants, some camels and zebras on a 10-acre facility.
The elephants, some of which are boarded by Ringling Bros. Circus, are retired from show business and provide students and volunteers a way to gain valuable experience, she said.
“It’s basically to educate people about elephants,” she said. “I think they’re very extraordinary animals, and I thought there was a need to take in animals that need a home.”
Zerbini said she also has a small museum and does educational tours by appointment.
She said she’s been in the area for about 25 years and was drawn to Levy County because of its low taxes and sparse population.
Within the last few years, some controversy has erupted over the keeping of large, potentially dangerous animals in Levy County.
According to records from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, Levy County has about six facilities that keep Class I and Class II animals, both of which are described by the FWC as wildlife that may “pose a significant danger to people.” Specific experience and special caging is required.
Some examples of Class I animals are lions, tigers, bears, gorilla, hippos, crocodiles. Examples of Class II wildlife are coyotes, cheetahs, ostriches, and specified types of apes and monkeys.
The issue is between the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Levy County Board of Commissioners, who say the state needs to consult local government before deciding it’s OK to issue permits allowing certain types of animals to be kept in Levy County.
But Levy County Attorney Anne Bast Brown said this is not a new issue for the state of Florida.
“The FWC has never included coordination directly with local government,” she said in a phone interview on Sept. 17.
However, she said the state is now working with the county to change the application process for people wanting to keep Class 1 and 2 animals.
“All Class 1 animals will have to go through the county’s code enforcement first,” she said. About two years ago, the commission started requiring all new wild animal facilities to apply for a special exception to zoning, and be approved by the County Planning Commission and the Board of Commissioners.
Levy County Commissioner Lilly Rooks, in a phone interview on Sept. 16, said the new application process is important because it will better prepare various county agencies to deal with incidents involving dangerous animals.
“We don’t want our emergency responders to go into an unsafe situation with Class I or II animals.”
As an example, Rooks described a recent ordeal involving an escaped monkey in Williston.
She said residents found the monkey in their backyard and called the authorities. Levy County Animal Control was sent out but realized they were not prepared to catch monkeys.
FWC officers had to come out to try and catch the animal, which, according to FWC spokesperson Karen Parker, is still on the loose.
Suzanne Billiar, a veterinarian in Ocala, keeps Class I, II and III animals at her home in Morriston, and she said the county is treating her unfairly.
She said, in an interview on Sept. 18, the FWC issued her a Class 1 permit to keep a lion, tiger, bear, and two chimpanzees that she received from a person that was no longer able to care for them.
She said she thinks the specifics of the zoning ordinances are arbitrary, and now she has to pay thousands of dollars in legal fees to try to keep those animals.
“We were harassed,” she said. “Fish and Wildlife is on my side.”
Billiar admitted her neighbors complained about the proximity of the animals to their own property, but it’s a complaint, she said, is unjustified.
“The chances of those animals getting out and hurting someone are one in a million.”List of Class 1 and 2 animal keepers in
•Suzanne Billiar, Morriston
•Johnson's Exotic Petting Zoo, Morriston
•Ringling Bros., Williston
•Tarzan Zerbini Circus, Williston
•Two Tails Ranch, Inc., Williston
•The Zoo AKA Jungle Safari,