The beasts and burden

Elvira doesn't like men. The 16-year-old black leopard eyes me carefully as she marks her turf along the walls of her studio-apartment-sized cage. Next door is Saber, an 18-year-old Bengal Tiger that doesn't like women. But he apparently likes men: As I turn away, I hear Saber grunting.

"You know what he's doing?" asks Christin Burford, who cares for these and some 60 other exotic creatures on her 8 acres in Christmas. "He's masturbating." Elvira might attack unfamiliar men in her cage, but Saber welcomes it.

Such is life at the C.A.R.E. Foundation, a nonprofit animal sanctuary that has two full-time and 12 part-time volunteers. Burford, the group's director, is a thirty-something in black pants and a leopard-print blouse -- an odd choice for a sweltering morning -- who has an obvious affinity for the tigers, panthers, leopard and jaguar in her charge. She calls them "family" and walks around the various cages reciting in detail the animals' histories. There's a hot tub in the exercise yard that the tigers like, she says. But one panther will only get in when she does.

The trouble Burford now faces is how to keep her family together. She received a letter from her landlord, the family-owned Barber Farms, on March 29 telling her she had less than a month to move her animals. Up until late last year, her four-sentence lease guaranteed her the property through July 11, 2005, for a paltry $260 a month. But the man who signed the lease with her, Danny Barber, died and the rest of the family wasn't willing to allow Burford to continue to use the land.

In the letter, the family declared that the "risks involved compared to the income received is not practical at this time." Burford was told that Danny Barber wanted to turn the land over to developers, though Orange County's zoning laws would likely block any high-density development at the site, which is 10 miles east of the Econlockhatchee River, the county's urban-service boundary.

"She's made that up," says Barber family attorney John Thomas. "There are no development plans."

With so many animals, Burford's options are limited. Her 6-year-old operation costs a slightly more than $3,000 a month to operate. It's not just the big cats. The Foundation also cares for prairie dogs, iguanas, alligators, snakes, a gopher tortoise and a host of domestic dogs and cats, including Cujo, the fearless 4-pound Maltese that follows us around and has previously snuck into a tiger's playpen. But the Foundation doesn't charge for open house every Sunday. Rather, the non-profit asks for donations.

Part of Burford's expenses come from travel. The C.A.R.E. Foundation is an educational group. Several times a week, Burford lugs her critters -- especially her three panthers -- to schools, libraries or a Marriott time-share to teach kids about their role in Florida's natural ecosystem and quickly eroding habitat. Here again, the Foundation doesn't charge. Burford only asks for donations. "We struggle quite a bit from feed bills," she says.

Since receiving the eviction letter, Burford has spent a lot of her time on a different kind of education. First, she sent Thomas, the attorney, a letter informing the Barber family that their timetable was impossible. Then she contacted the media. When a TV reporter asked the family's new landlord, Edward Carpenter, about the 30-day demand, he backed off and gave her at least six months to find new digs, Burford says. If push comes to shove, she thinks she can stay until the end of the lease, since the agreement didn't have a rescission clause.

Thomas says he didn't know of any lease agreement until Burford's letter. He refused to elaborate, but cites liability reasons for the eviction. "To the best of my knowledge, C.A.R.E. doesn't have liability insurance coverage, which is not a good thing for a landowner," he says.

Burford admits she doesn't have insurance, but says the issue hasn't come up until now. "We've talked about that but they never told me I had to go get it," she says. "They never required it."

Still, although Thomas contends that having a tenant is a "burden on the property," he's tight-lipped about the family's plans for it. "They own the land and it's their business," he says. "They don't have any immediate plans for it, [but] land is a valuable commodity."

C.A.R.E.'s startup search for a new facility led to 23 acres in Apopka, which came complete with the proper zoning, enough space and buildings, water, electricity and neighbors who didn't mind panthers next door. Even better, the new property would give more kids access to all the animals -- currently, Burford hosts that open house on Sundays, but otherwise children only see the select creatures she brings to her shows.

The problem is price: The Apopka property would cost at least $500,000, and Burford has neither the cash nor the credit to secure such land. If she comes up with $10,000, the Apopka owner will keep the property off the market for two or three months, she says. And that's why she's hitting up the local media.

"The aggravating thing is there's people out there who wouldn't miss $500,000," she says. "I'm not above paying someone back -- plus, it's a tax write-off." The organization is eligible for grants, but most only come if it has secured property.


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