Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary
WIMAUMA, Florida – Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary is an absolute treasure in our area. It’s much more than just a sanctuary. It’s an impressive haven for 42 exotic animals including lions, tigers, bears, wolves, lemurs, birds, a tortoise, coatamundis, panthers, sugar gliders and more – all cared for by a team of dedicated volunteers.
Visitors are welcome. It’s open to the public on Saturdays with tours at 11:00AM and 12:30PM (a 2:00PM Saturday tour is added in fall). Also, on the first Sunday of each month, there are tours at 12:30PM and 2:00PM). Tour details here.
About the Sanctuary
Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary was founded by Robin Greenwood, the sanctuary’s President, Tour Director and Volunteer Coordinator (among many other jobs), and her business partner, Darlene Williamson, in 2008. It’s a non-profit 501c3 and is licensed by Florida Fish and Wildlife (FWC) and the USDA.
The sanctuary is named for Elmira, a black bear, who currently lives at the sanctuary. She was one of the first large animals that Robin and her husband, now deceased, took in because she needed a home. “She’s a diva bear,” according to Robin. “Elmira is about 14 now, but can live to 25 – 30 years old.”
Where Do the Wild Animals Come From?
All of the animals have come to Elmira’s from different sources. With the exception of one animal, Ollie the bobcat, none of the animals came from the wild. Sometimes they come through owner-surrender. Other times they come from another facility that was closed down, or simply did not have the space.
Robin and her team participate in networks, such as a big cat alert network, that notifies Elmira’s if a large animal needs a home.
When an animal arrives at Elmira’s they’ve come to their forever home.
‘Fortunately, we’re receiving fewer and fewer animals,’ Robin says. ‘Laws are stricter now about owning wild animals and authorities have been able to crack down on improperly run sanctuaries and illegally kept pets.”
Incredibly, Elmira’s is entirely volunteer-driven. Once you understand the tremendous responsibility it is to care for these wild animals and the unending hard work required, you understand it’s a true labor of love.
Several volunteers have been with Elmira’s for 10+ years, while others have been there 4 and 5 years. Some volunteers are brand new to the sanctuary. “We get a lot of health care workers as volunteers,” Robin says, “for obvious reasons. They like to care for things.”
Volunteers must go through extensive training before they are able to be in charge of animal feeding. There are extensive processes and procedures in place to ensure a safe environment for everyone and there is never direct contact with the animals. Volunteers also maintain the grounds and facility.
Hard Work – Feeding and Maintenance
The day starts early at Elmira’s and caring for the animals is a never-ending job, 365 days a year, rain or shine or blistering heat. ‘Priority #1 is always the animals,’ says Robin. ‘Each animal has their own likes and dislikes and each requires a unique diet.’
Each day volunteers spend about 2 ½ hours measuring and preparing the animals’ meals and feeding them. A few animals, like Stanley the 4 ½ year old 400 lb. grizzly bear, eat twice a day. “He’s a growing boy,” Robin explains.
Then, of course, there’s always more to do at the sanctuary. Volunteers may spend another 2-4 hours cleaning animal enclosures, adding fresh water to the animals’ pools, and providing general maintenance to the extensive 7-acre property. Mowing alone is a big job.
Volunteers also make a weekly trip to the Sun City Center Wal-Mart to pick up food that’s part of a special program. “We pay a recycling company that identifies sources of fresh food and produce that’s near expiring and cannot be sold or donated to people,’ Robin says. ‘We get ours from Wal-Mart.” Back at Elmira’s the food, which is all put into large plastic cans, has to be sorted. Meat goes in the freezer and produce, depending on what they get each week, is organized by animals’ likes and needs.
Plans for the Future
Robin and Darlene have several bigger projects on the sanctuary’s To-Do list, like enlarging Stanley’s enclosure and creating a special habitat for Ranger, the African Sulcata Tortoise. They also hope to build a ‘Welcome Center’ one day.
Just two years ago they completed a large space for the tigers to hang out – the ‘Tiger Turnout.’ Today, each of the large cats get to take turns exploring the large habitat and pond, sometimes in pairs, sometimes solo – depending on which cats play best together.
Animal Enrichment and Care
A lot of attention is given to animal enrichment, whether it’s giving the animals more space or providing them with stimulating activities. Elmira’s team is continually researching and learning ways to give the animals a quality life. When Stanley, the grizzly bear, arrived in 2013 Robin worked closely with the Montana Grizzly Encounter to understand how to keep a young grizzly bear happy and occupied.
“Stanley loves to play,’ Robin says. “He’s been playing with that burlap sack for weeks now and he loves his pool and boomer ball [a ball made especially for wild animals]. Some of the cats have boomer balls, too.” Volunteers will often make items for the animals, or make a game out of feeding time.
Veterinary care is provided, usually on-site, by Dr. Catherine Stanton, DVM, and her Veterinary Technician, John Lebron, from Santa Cruz Animal Clinic in Brandon. “Dr. Stanton has been able to neuter and perform smaller procedures on many of the animals right here,” Robin says. “But if an animal is very sick we have to transport it to the clinic. We had a tiger, Bulba, with an intestinal blockage. We had to take him to the hospital. It’s not easy and it’s stressful for the animal.”
Funding and Support
‘It only takes time and money and people,’ says Robin, “to run the sanctuary and care for the animals.” Fundraising is challenging, but an absolute necessity. Elmira’s receives no external funding. Everything is supported with donations, money made from weekly tours, and fundraising events they are able to plan. Many volunteers have been known to pay for things out of their own pockets.
Some of you may have already visited, so you know Elmira’s is a real treasure in our area. It’s an incredible place for both the animals and visitors. If you haven’t been, it’s a great way to spend time with family and friends. You’re sure to see amazing animals and meet some incredible volunteers.
A final thank you to Robin Greenwood for all of your time in helping me assemble this article. You are doing something really incredible for these animals.
All photo credits belong to Paty Valdez, another tireless volunteer who helps care for the animals and administers Elmira’s Facebook page, which I highly recommend you ‘Like’ and follow. It will put a smile on your face.
Have you visited Elmira’s Wildlife Sanctuary? Let us know in the comments.