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Photography by Robert Castro

“I’m bacally the urban Jungle Book story,” says Clayton Rosaire of his upbringing in a storied family of animal trainers and circus performers. “I grew up with lions and tigers and bears. One of my cousins was a chimpanzee. One of my best friends was an elephant.” When he began performing with lions and tigers at age 17, Rosaire was the youngest big cat trainer in the world. Now 35, he’s taken over operations of his family’s Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary, an ever-growing large-animal rescue in eastern Sarasota County founded in 1987 by his mother, Kay. The nonprofit sanctuary is a permanent home for dozens of exotic animals and teaches people about conservation.

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8:21 a.m. “My daughter, Ella, goes to Tatum Ridge Elementary, and my son, Clayton Jr., is in pre-kindergarten at Sarasota Christian. Either my wife, Danielle, or I drive them to school every morning, just like any other family. And then we head to the zoo.”

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9:53 a.m. “I’m building a big bird cage inside a larger enclosure for alligators. This is our fourth aviary. People think, ‘That [exotic bird] will go great with my new living room set.’ Then they have the bird a week and it won’t stop squawking or it got out and ruined a piece of furniture, so they get rid of it.”

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11:01 p.m. “I took over the performing side of things from my mother, Kay, a while back, and now I’m taking over day-to-day operations. But she’s still very much a presence here. She might have retired as boss, but she didn’t retire as my mom.”

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12:24 p.m. “We have a little workshop out back. With all of our cages and enclosures, there’s always something that needs to be fixed or built. We always accept help. We have a wish list of supplies on our website—everything from tools and fencing to toys for the animals.”

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2:17 p.m. “My Aunt Pam and Chance the chimpanzee and I are doing a demonstration. My mom, dad, stepdad, three of my aunts, cousins all give us a hand. They’ve been around animals and know what to do. You can’t just take someone off the street and say, ‘Hey, come help me grab this Kodiak bear.’”

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2:42 p.m. “Samson, our white tiger, is one of our most popular cats. There are only 3,500 wild tigers left in the entire world. [Through our educational demos] we hope to spark something, get people thinking about these animals and what they can do to help.”

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4:08 p.m. “These two cubs, Elsa and Raj, are in training. I’m just saying hi, seeing how they’re feeling. My grandfather always said, ‘Before you can teach an animal anything, it has to have a spot for you in its heart.’ If they love you, then they’re willing to work with you.”

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4:59 p.m. “Chance and I are just going for a little ride. He’s a cool guy. He’s young, he likes to go for rides, climb stuff, jump on the trampoline—just like my kids.”

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7:30 p.m. “My wife and my best friend and all my cousins are getting together for a barbecue. That’s why you have friends and family—to spend time with them. We all live a wild life together. And we’re OK with that.”

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