BIG CAT RESCUE: Kitty lovers’ paradise – if you can find it
As lovers of cats both big and small, my husband and I had this at the top of our list of places to visit during a long weekend in Tampa (a city we’d never been to before). The first challenge was finding the place, as our GPS app (Waze) apparently wasn’t aware of some construction that made her instructions impossible to follow.
However, luckily the Cat Rescue folks must have anticipated this problem because we happened upon a series of signs that guided us in – through a dusty construction site down a back road and into a whole other world, sitting right there in the middle of this busy area of the city.
A few caveats for those who are considering visiting: This isn’t a place where you can just go through at your own pace; it’s by scheduled guided tour only, and not all tours are open to children. When we arrived at noon on a Saturday, they were beginning a “kids’ tour” and the next regular tour wasn’t until 3 pm. We went inside the gift shop and bought tickets for it, then drove to Ybor City and walked around a bit, got a bite to eat, and went back for our tour.
You get a wristband identifying your group by color, and when your color is called, you gather in an area in back of the gift shop. There were probably around twenty-something people in our group.
The information and stories about each cat are presented as a combination of tour guide talk and recorded stories (you get portable radios and ear buds). There’s a safety briefing at the beginning that’s not too long, and then you follow the guide around the compound, which is surprisingly large and “rural” to be situated in the middle of the bustling city area not far from a major mall.
The overarching theme of this rescue is that the cats come first and this is their home, NOT a zoo where their “job” is to be on display and entertain people. Thus as you walk through, you may see more or fewer cats depending on who’s “out” and who’s hidden away in a den.
We saw a number of servals, lionesses, bobcats, leopards, tigers and an ocelot, of various ages and sizes, and heard the stories of how each came to be at the rescue, tidbits about their personalities and habits, and a bit of interspersed “political campaigning” regarding legislation governing keeping of big cats (which I could have done without).
Overall, though, it was a fun and fascinating experience and I enjoyed it very much. The guide, Meghan (unsure of spelling) was an intern who obviously cares about the cats and shared her personal knowledge of the individual animals.
Some of the cats were shy and quickly moved away to shelter when they saw the group coming. Others seemed more social, and came up to the fences where we could get a better look at them. And still others seemed to be completely unaffected by our presence, continuing what they were doing without so much as a glance in our direction. In some cases you could get pretty close to them (depending on whether they wanted to come close) and get some very nice photos, although always through two layers of fencing.
The tour takes about an hour and a half and involves walking (and standing) for all that time so those with mobility issues should be aware. They did have a golf cart that could be used for folks who weren’t able to do the walk. It’s very dusty so don’t wear your best shoes – I had to wash mine down afterward. There are no children under 10 allowed on the “adult” tour, and no pets allowed including in the parking lot.
The gift shop had a surprising number of great cat-related items to buy and the prices for tee shirts and such were very reasonable. Rhinestone studded shirts that typically would cost $40 at tourist spots were only $20 (I bought two). For collectors, there are fridge magnets and shot glasses and beautiful 3D pictures of big cats available.
The tickets were $38 per person, and you can buy tickets on site or book online. The organization also operates web cams you can visit to watch the cats in their habitat when (they think) no one is looking. The rescue’s web site is at https://bigcatrescue.org/
I recommend this to anyone who’s fascinated by big cats.I would definitely do it again.
Walkin’ in Ybor
Since we had three hours between the time we bought the tickets and the start of our tour at the Big Cat rescue, we decided to go check out Ybor City, which was about a half hour drive away. Tom wanted to tour a cigar factory, and we wanted to locate the Columbia Cuban restaurant where we were planning to have dinner on Sunday (which didn’t work out, but I’ll get to that in a later post).
Finding the Columbia wasn’t a problem; it’s sort of everywhere – at least in the area we ended up in. This restaurant is huge; it fills several buildings, has a number of dining rooms totaling 52,000 square feet of space over a whole city block and seats 1700 people.
The Columbia was founded in 1905 as a 60-seat corner cafe and is billed as Florida’s oldest restaurant; it has been owned and operated by the same family for the entire 110+ years. You can read the full fascinating history of this business that was founded by Cuban immigrant Casimiro Hernandez, Sr. on the restaurant’s web site: http://www.columbiarestaurant.com/
The restaurant’s location is also the site of some historical moments, which are commemorated by signs on the street in front of it. We visited the gift shop, where you can buy hand-made tiles and other souvenirs, as well as both brand name and house-made cigars. In hindsight, we should have made reservations for Sunday while we were there – but who would have guessed that would be needed for a place with 1700 seats? You live and learn.
From the Columbia, we set out in search of a cigar factory. Although we found numerous cigar bars and lounges, the only factory tour was charging a whopping $50, so we decided to just walk down the main streets and get something to eat. When we got to the street where all the restaurants were, however, we found police blocking off the streets from traffic and throngs of people in rather colorful dress.
What we hadn’t known was that there was a Pride parade taking place there that day, led by the police chief’s car. This had the restaurants all packed. We stopped and watched for a while and then headed back to the car, as it was nearing time to be back at the Big Cat Rescue. We did pass some interesting shops and saw a man hand-rolling cigars in one of them, which was interesting.
Desperately Seeking Dinner
After our tour at the Cat Rescue, we were hungry but also dusty, so we went back to the hotel to clean up and change clothes. We’d had a wonderful dinner the night before at Luna (at the Hilton across the street) but finding another nice restaurant close by proved to be more of a challenge than we expected, and we really wanted to go somewhere that didn’t require driving in heavy traffic.
There was one steak house on Ulmerton but its parking lot was packed and neither of us was really interested in that. A web search found both a Greek restaurant and a Mediterranean Cafe but both turned out to be counter-order places and Tom wanted a “sit down with waiter” experience. We drove and drove but weren’t finding anything that fit the bill.
By this time, it was after 6 p.m. on a Saturday and we were about ready to give up. Finally we happened upon the Courtside Grill behind the Publix across the street from our hotel. It was a sports bar, which means it was very, very loud, with about a million TVs blaring, and a lot of loud fans shouting over them. That was the bad news. The good news was that we were seated at a booth along the wall that wasn’t right in the middle of the noise, and our waiter was very attentive and friendly. Plus the food was very good for this type of place.
I ordered a soft pretzel as my appetizer and was surprised to get two; they were huge and I could only finish one. It was hot and good and chewy, and came with mustard, ranch dressing and cheese sauce for dipping.
As my entree, I got mahi mahi with brown rice and veggies (carrots and broccoli). The fish was seasoned well and cooked properly so it was moist but done. The veggies were what some would call overcooked, so that meant they were soft, which is they way I prefer them. The rice was very tasty, seasoned with peppers and onions.
Tom ordered lobster mac and cheese, which came out as a very large portion, and he finished it all off. I had a taste and it was good, too. If not for the noise, I’d have given the place five stars in my TripAdvisor review – but it was the typical sports bar atmosphere so I can’t fault them too much for that.
After a very full second day, we were ready to get back to the hotel and get some rest, especially as we each had our own separate exciting plans for Sunday, which you can read about in Part 3.