Christin Burford takes in exotic and dangerous animals so they can live out their natural lives.
The 10-acre property in Apopka where Christin Burford lives is a bit of wilderness surrounded by private homes and orchid farms. It’s unlikely that folks who attend the nearby Zellwood Corn Festival know that they’re within roaring distance of a 600-pound Siberian tiger.
This is the CARE (Creating Animal Respect Education)Foundation, a state-licensed sanctuary for non-domestic, non-releasable wildlife rescued from private homes and roadside zoos. On the right of the well-rutted driveway is a pen of goats; on the left, a giant African tortoise. Farther on, a 450-pound bear, a 40-year-old crow named Louie who loves pasta, and the shadowy movements of a black leopard.
Burford, 46, is a powerful, confident woman who tends to wear sleeveless shirts and tough jeans, better to avoid the teeth, claws and paws that surround her at the facility. A tiger tattoo stretches up her spine, representing the three real tigers romping in large enclosures behind her house. She’s had Bahl-Shoy, the eldest male, for 17 years. “His paw,” she says, “is the size of my face. I know this from experience.” Burford has a respectful relationship with the big cats, and she regularly goes into their enclosures for hands-on bonding. They have never harmed her, she says.
Her home is as much a refuge for exotic animals as the grounds that encircle it, with a mass of caged birds in the living room and gila monsters, rattlers, mambas and a cobra in the venomous reptile room. Amos the spider monkey (who has his own Facebook page) comes and goes, joining Burford for television nights.
Amos and three capuchin monkeys were rescued from a home in College Park in 2009. They were discovered by police after their elderly owners passed away in the house. Two black bears rescued from small zoos live in sturdy enclosures, which, like most of the pens, were erected by local Eagle Scouts and Home Depot volunteers. The black leopard, Toshi, her son, Makoto, and two tigers came from a closed movie studio.
“As a kid,” Burford says, “I was interested in wild animals, like any kid. It just never went away.” She worked with a big cat trainer in the late 1980s, and managed Gator Jungle (now called Jungle Adventures Nature Park) in Christmas for three years, starting the nonprofit CARE in 1996, which she now runs with help from an assistant, Travis DeVita. The foundation provides a permanent home for animals that could never be returned to the wild. Funding comes from private donations, tours of the facility by appointment and educational programs.
“You have to keep this in mind,” Burford says while looking into the cold eyes of a Nile crocodile taken from an animal wholesaler. “They’re all very intelligent, and very dangerous. That’s the part I like.”