Tiger World found a home.
Nearly 10 months ago, a Chester County zoning board refused to allow Rock Hill's Lea Jaunakais to build a tiger sanctuary in that county after a backlash from residents terrified of the proposed refuge.
But the 31-year-old businesswoman is now buying Metrolina Wildlife Park, a zoo northeast of Charlotte near Rockwell, N.C. Jaunakais (pronounced YAWN-ah-KICE) has volunteered there for several years. Metrolina officially closed Dec. 31, and she plans to reopen the park this summer as Tiger World.
Timing isn't in her favor. Tiger World's resurfacing follows a Christmas Day tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo that left one visitor dead and two others injured.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also has a pending animal welfare case against Metrolina's owner, Steve Macaluso, who is selling the 30-acre park to Jaunakais.
But Jaunakais remains optimistic, excitedly talking about the zoo that will become hers next month. She's already purchased several acres of land and a 150-year-old cabin beside the park. She's even built some big-cat exhibits on her newly acquired property. Those enclosures were approved by the USDA in the fall.
Four miles from Exit 68 of Interstate 85, the park sits off a dead-end path called Cook Road in Rowan County, N.C. New houses are rising in the area, the latest neighbors in a community that grew up around the zoo Macaluso opened in 1996.
Jaunakais expects the zoo to initially attract some 10,000 visitors per year. That's not many compared to a place such as Columbia's Riverbanks Zoo, which can draw thousands daily.
Not your average zoo
But the park isn't a mainstream zoo. It's rustic, the kind of wooded destination where visitors park in an open field and walk through paths beside chain-link enclosures.
Even the cabin, which Jaunakais hopes to eventually convert into a gift shop, has a sort of country/exotic flare. A Macaw named Mac greets visitors from his cage beside the kitchen table, which sits on a rug bearing the image of a tiger.
Pictures of tigers and tiger memorabilia are found throughout the living room and kitchen: a tiger bobble-head by the window above the sink, a coffee table with legs shaped like elephant heads, three couches -- one in leopard print, one in a white tiger pattern and a third covered in jungle-themed material of elephants, giraffes and tigers.
A lizard's aquarium sits above the television, which is tuned to Animal Planet.
This backwoods safari is Jaunakais' haven several nights a week. She spends the rest of her time back in Rock Hill, where she is the vice president of Industrial Test Systems, a company that produces strips and kits for testing water quality. When she's not in Rockwell, the animals have Adam Horton, who moved here from Florida to manage the facility.
No one could have convinced Jaunakais in March that she'd be here, sitting at her kitchen table talking about a place many Chester County residents wanted no part of.
Many of them, fearful of tigers mauling their livestock and families, motivated county leaders to ban exotic animals. But even before the ban was passed, a county zoning board unanimously ruled that Jaunakais' property didn't fit a special exception in the zoning code.
"I kind of didn't know where to go," she said. "I'd done so many things to move towards my goal. I was pretty crushed, actually. I remember my dad saying, 'Lea, it's not what's happened. It's the goal. The goal is that you want to have a tiger sanctuary and rescue animals. It's not over. ... It's only a delay. It's not going to end your dream.'"
Saving the tigers
Jaunakais' passion for tigers began at age 3 when she watched a National Geographic television program about humans destroying the tiger population.
Crying, she told her mother, "I'm going to save the tiger."
She went to Arizona State University and studied animal behavior. She trained, worked or volunteered at zoos and wildlife parks in Arizona, North Carolina and Florida. The idea of Tiger World came when she was a college student in the late 1990s. She wanted to work somewhere different from a conventional zoo. That idea developed into Tiger World, and about two years ago, she started looking for a place to fulfill her striped dream.
After the Chester debacle, Jaunakais spent months fruitlessly searching for property. Then Macaluso told her he was ready to get out of the zoo business.
"I've been in it for 12 years, made lots of money, just getting tired of it now," Macaluso said. "I'm looking to go retire somewhere else. ... The animals were great. I love making people happy. It was just kind of getting to me. I'm getting up there in age. I'm 50 years old."
The benefit of selling the zoo, Macaluso said, is that he can come back and visit: "My friends say, 'Steve, you've got the best thing here. You don't worry about all the headaches. And you can come play with the animals any time you want.' "
Jaunakais pounced on the opportunity.
"Initially, I was really crushed about not winning Chester," she said. "But what really happened was -- it was just a redirection. I was just being guided, guided by the Lord to show me the real path. And the real path was take over the zoo of the animals that I've cared for all these years."
Perhaps the biggest advantage this time around, other than no zoning concerns, is that she's buying a zoo rather than building one.
"The zoo was here first," she said. "The people built all their homes around the zoo. ... I was around a community that grew around the zoo instead of me trying to come into a community where, 'Oh, is that a zoo? With tigers? What?' "
Another benefit of purchasing the zoo is that she'll be able to feature more animals than she would have had she built a sanctuary. Although Tiger World will emphasize education about large cats -- the park will house almost 30 tigers, 10 lions, two leopards and a jaguar -- she'll also show about 10 primates and reptiles, including lizards and an anaconda.
Federal guidelines limit the number of animals Jaunakais can keep on her property, but she hopes her facility will serve as a rescue center for unwanted or abandoned creatures. Many people buy exotic animals, including tigers, for pets, but later realize they can't handle them.
Jaunakais said she recently adopted a young lion that a family didn't want because he was destroying their furniture. In the past six months, she's also adopted two tiger cubs.
"They were homeless, basically," she said of those animals. "Otherwise, they'd be euthanized."
Her goal here is in many ways the same as it was in Chester County. She remains focused on large cats, animal education and guided tours.
"I'm happy now that I lost in Chester," she said.
Turning it around
But Jaunakais knows about the zoo's troubled history. A complaint filed by the USDA last year states that for at least seven years the agency has notified Macaluso about deficiencies with the park and gave him opportunities to comply with federal regulations.
"Nevertheless, respondents' failure to comport the Act's minimal standards for animals ... persists and has resulted in, among other things, animal suffering, injury and death."
Some Chester County residents visited the park during the Tiger World controversy last year and claimed they found underfed animals living in poor conditions, the same problems noted in the 14-page USDA complaint.
"I would just hope that ... she would help to change the conditions up there," said Ginny Sloan, a Chester woman who visited the park. "Because what I saw was not good. And that's what scared me about what the thing in Chester would become."
Macaluso maintains the USDA filing contains old information. He said he has since complied with every federal recommendation.
"You fix something, they don't really acknowledge it," he said. "They just let everybody know what happened eight years ago. It's a never-ending, running thing."
Other zoos also receive lengthy write-ups, Macaluso said.
"What they did to me, they do to everybody," he said.
When his zoo was last inspected about two weeks ago, Macaluso said he was cited for three minor violations, including one for a broken fence containing a camel that was leaving in a few days.
"What it came down to is, they wrote all these terrible things six months ago, now all of a sudden, I'm ready to get out of the business," he said. "So she (a USDA inspector) had to find something to write me up for."
Apart from the zoo's rough past, another problem some exotic animal experts have with facilities such as Tiger World is that they take in neglected animals that, some say, should be euthanized.
"What would be wrong with euthanizing these ex-pets that have no conservation value (and) no interest by mainstream zoos?" asked Alan Shoemaker, who retired from Riverbanks Zoo five years ago after serving as the curator of mammals. "Think about that. The dog pounds, unfortunately, do thousands per year."
Not everyone agrees with that line of thinking.
"As far as euthanasia, financially, that would be the best alternative," said Dr. Eric Setzer of Lesslie Animal Hospital in Rock Hill. "But as a veterinarian, if you look at it from the animals' standpoint, then it wouldn't be."
Setzer has agreed to serve on the Tiger World board if the facility obtains nonprofit status.
Jaunakais sees her project as an effort that will benefit both the animals and the community. "A place like Tiger World needs to exist," she said.
She stressed that she has talked to the USDA about the complaint against Macaluso, who said he voluntarily gave up his exhibitor's license Dec. 31.
Jaunakais plans to take the money she was going to use to build Tiger World in Chester and invest it in the North Carolina zoo.
"I'm not able to bulldoze everything and rebuild," she said. "But I am changing it."
Even past Chester opponents such as Sloan hope Jaunakais will turn the park around.
"Maybe that'll be a good thing for her, going up there," Sloan said. "I'm just glad they're up there."