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Handsome the lion with Clayton Rosaire 

Not everyone knows it, but there’s a jungle to be explored just beyond the Celery Fields on Palmer Boulevard. Enter the gates of the Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary and you’ll find a wondrous menagerie with species just as numerous as the range of people who come to see them.

The Habitat commits to their animals for the duration of their lives, and the care that they receive is thorough. The park’s founder, Kay Rosaire, is an eighth-generation animal trainer, and her experience shows. She and her son, Clayton, run the Big Cat Habitat and train the animals themselves.

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Buck the Kodiak bear

Tigers, bears and a cougar greet guests as they enter the park, which acts as a permanent home for more than 150 rescued exotic animals. The animals are active and playful in large enclosures, many of which have their own circulating pools of water for swimming. Staff and volunteers are available to answer your questions around the grounds, and are extremely friendly.

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Mia the liger.

For a donation, staff members can even give you the opportunity to feed the large mammals treats—but don’t worry, there’s no danger of losing any extremities. Each snack goes onto the end of a long pole that's extended through protective fences, allowing for interaction with no risk involved.

Chickens, roosters and a very photogenic peacock roam freely around the snack area at the Habitat, where you’ll also find primate houses, tortoise enclosures and a group of emus. The baby goats are the stars of the petting zoo area; their cuteness can only be matched by the toddlers who try to love them.

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A tiger plays with a ball in the pool. 

With a large number of big cats on site, not all of the animals can be in the outdoor enclosures at one time. This gives visitors the chance to see the big cats up close while they are in smaller, individual cages. Though these holding areas may look sparse, the lions and tigers are given treats and attention throughout their time inside, and the shade provides a great spot for a nap while they wait their turn to go play.

If herbivores are more your speed, head to the back of the Habitat, where you’ll find an open field area filled with camels, zebras, donkeys and even llamas. Congregated under cover and all eating together, the unlikely grouping of animals incites a giggle from young and old alike.

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Handsome in his habitat.

Visitors can spend as much time as they like admiring each and every animal, but it would be remiss to opt out of the 1 and 2 p.m. shows, which feature Big Cat Habitat’s professionally trained animals. While we won’t spoil any surprises, both the Parrots in Paradise and Big Cat Encounter shows are a thrill.

According to Clayton Rosaire, the shows and the park itself are focused on education.

“We want to foster a connection between the animals and our guests,” says Rosaire. “If someone can come in and learn from the animals, which can teach love, respect, and responsibility, they will be more likely to advocate for them.”

The Rosaires constantly strive to provide first-class care for the creatures under their care. This April, the sanctuary began a $500,000 capital campaign to raise money for the construction of an on-site animal clinic as well as a private enclosure for young, sick or elderly animals who would benefit from time away from the public eye. 

"It's all about giving the animals the best possible care," says Rosaire. "We commit to them for life."

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Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary

Animals 7101 Palmer Blvd.

Kay Rosaire, founder of Sarasota’s Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary, started rescuing animals—lions and tigers and, well, you know the rest—more than...