ROCKWELL, N.C. -- More than a year after Chester County officials shunned Tiger World, the big cat park is set to open in North Carolina.
Rock Hill's Lea Jaunakais will unlock the gates of her small zoo near Rockwell, N.C., on Tuesday.
The 32-year-old vice president of Rock Hill's Industrial Test Systems couldn't be more elated. She got the idea for Tiger World when she was a student at Arizona State University in the late 1990s. She studied animal behavior and wanted to work at a place unlike conventional zoos. More than two years ago, she started looking for the site to fulfill that dream.
She bought land for the project in Chester County, but local leaders shot down Tiger World in March 2007.
Many residents there were fearful of tigers mauling their livestock and families. They 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.
Jaunakais (pronounced YAWN-ah-KICE) clawed her way back. Earlier this year, she purchased the former Metrolina Wildlife Park, a zoo with a troubled history, including allegations of animal neglect.
Jaunakais spent the last few months making improvements to the 21-acre park, improving security features and building better homes for the animals. She plans to spend more than $1 million developing the park.
Jaunakais spoke to The Herald last week about her plans, how her neighbors have reacted and about the changes she's made to the zoo.
Comments have been edited for brevity.
Q. What's it like to finally to open this place?
A. "It's really hard for me to express. Sometimes, I even shock myself. Like the other night, I was just thinking, 'Oh, my gosh! My zoo is opening on Tuesday.' I'm just, I'm kind of on cloud nine. Reality hasn't sunken in yet."
Q. How do you convince people, especially in light of the Christmas Day tiger attack at the San Francisco Zoo, that this is a safe place?
A. "You can't really convince anybody. They have to see it for themselves. When people come here and they can see that the animals are safely contained ... the lockdown shelters, the security cameras, the educated staff, the people (who) have been trained so well, it puts people at ease."
Q. How have the neighbors received you?
A. "Honestly, every single neighbor that has come by here has (said), 'We can't wait till it opens. We're gonna bring our kids on tours. I wake up every morning and sit on my porch and listen to the animals.' ... When the people were able to see the different safety features, the education of the staff, the training, the animals, their demeanor and how they're relaxed, (neighbors) became at ease immediately and have even brought their kids over."
Q. If you come to Tiger World, what can you expect?
A. "You can definitely expect to have an up-close, personal encounter with exotic animals, including several endangered species. Some of the animals that you will see here are actually extinct from the wild. ... You're also going to get a wonderful education, be taught about the animals. And one of the most important things, you're actually going to see natural behaviors from these animals."
Q. How will you see natural behaviors when they're living in captivity?
A. "We have specialized carnivore feedings, so you're going to actually be able to observe them feeding, observe them playing and interacting with each other, which is exactly what they do in the wild."
Q. What are some changes you've made to the park since you bought it?
A. "We've definitely integrated a lot more safety features. ... We've integrated a lot more enrichment for the animals, taking out a lot of the fake stuff and put in natural trees and planted grass. So we've really enriched the lives of the animals by changing a lot of the habitats and moving the animals around to eliminate breeding."