They hauled an exotic herd up I-75 without a hitch
Published: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 6:27 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 11:15 p.m.
OCALA - In a mission like a modern-day Noah's Ark, 138 exotic animals — from bears and big cats to the world's largest bats — have been safely hauled by Forest Animal Rescue from Hardee County to their new home outside Ocala.
The deed to the organization's property in Zolfo Springs changes hands on March 1, which voids its animal-care permit, according to Lisa Stoner, who along with her husband, Kurt Stoner, owns the sanctuary.
The couple needed to get the critters out and into their new homes on 80 acres adjoining the Ocala National Forest — and they needed help doing so.
Joined by a crew of 48 people from seven different animal response organizations, they just spent four consecutive days moving the creatures and critters to the new property.
"Everybody's here," Lisa Stoner said Tuesday, after all the animals had been placed into their new enclosures.
But it was not easy.
Starting at 7 a.m. each day, the crew had to lure the animals into their travel-safe trailers. Some of the bigger animals were tranquilized, Stoner said, and then carried on stretchers.
Smaller animals like bats, including the large bats known as flying foxes, were caught by hand, she said, noting that the big bats were able to tear through her leather gloves.
Startled, the flying foxes sometimes urinated on her too, which Stoner said, "was the running joke of the move."
At around noon each day, the crew hit the road, traveling north on I-75 in a single-file caravan that included two transport trailers and anywhere from five to nine cars.
The trailers each held a different group of animals separated in compartments. The bigger, more dangerous ones were tranquilized for safety reasons, but some animals stayed awake for the length of the journey.
Stoner said the trailers were air-conditioned and equipped with infrared video-monitoring systems that allowed the crew to keep watch over the traveling herd.
Rest stops were an interesting experience, Stoner said. For safety reasons, the crew tried to stay as inconspicuous as possible. But a caravan of exotic animals is tough to keep under wraps, especially when a vet is moving around with a stethoscope trying to check all the animals' vital signs before continuing down the road.
"Try to be incognito when you're clearly not incognito," Stoner said, laughing.
Between 4 and 6 p.m. each day, they made it to Marion County and unloaded the animals into their temporary cages, where they will remain until their larger enclosures are finished. Then the caravan would head back to Zolfo Springs to retrieve another load of animals.
Stoner said the operation played out "flawlessly."
Though they hit a few bumps on the way — one flat tire and two stalled trucks — it didn't affect the animals' journey.
Stoner said there were no injuries — and no escapes.
Still, there is much to do.
The forest service has yet to give them approval to connect to a power line that lies just four inches outside the Stoners' property.
Until then, everything from their well water to their animal heating systems runs on generators.
"The fuel bill is going to kill us," Stoner said.
The Stoners are still trying to work out deals with neighboring grocery stores similar to what they had in Zolfo Springs when store owners donated leftover meat and produce. The animals collectively require almost 500 pounds of food each day, she said.
As the Stoners finish structural work and get the animals settled, they will remain closed for the public. Stoner said Forest Animal Rescue would not resume scheduled, guided tours until the end of summer.
In the meantime, anyone interested in volunteering for or donating to the non-profit organization can go to the group's website, http://peaceriverrefuge.org.
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