Jacksonville: An animal’s kingdom

By Alex Lassen and Cassidy Alexander


While Jacksonville isn’t known for its robust wildlife, just a short drive from home can take residents to see some of the biggest predators in the animal kingdom.

A lion’s roar is a normal thing to hear at Catty Shack Ranch, where people can visit large rehabilitated cats right in Jacksonville. Lions, tigers and panthers all have a home at the ranch. Visitors can just go to see the animals, or they can adopt a cat to get updates on how it’s doing when they leave.

The Catty Shack Ranch may have been around for 30 years, but it just opened to the public 12 years ago. The most popular exhibit here? This enclosure behind me with five tigers, all born about five years ago.

While the cats aren’t always active, they’re usually just as interested in visitors as visitors are in them.

“Usually when you get a group of kids coming through, that will get some of the cat’s’ interest,” said Kurt Lessenthien, the adoption coordinator and a senior caretaker at Catty Shack Ranch.

“So they get up, they get moving around. They want to see the people that are out here to see them.

“And of course if the cats are moving around or they’re playing in their pool for the tigers, that gets everyone’s attention,” he said. “One thing that always gets everyone’s attention is if the lion starts to roar.”


While some people may be afraid of the lions and tigers, just a few miles south, fear doesn’t keep families from checking out another type of predator — reptiles at the St. Augustine Alligator Farm.

John Brugen, director of the farm, said children are very interested in the reptiles because they haven’t yet learned to be afraid of them.

“We’re not born with fear,” he said. “And so the fear of a reptile or even other animals or dogs or whatever is learned behavior. It’s something that we’re taught, usually by our parents. And so most kids if they’re young are very interested and excited.”

At the Alligator Farm, people can watch alligators in their natural habitats, see them get fed, and learn about the different species, much like at Catty Shack. The 120-year-old attraction also has play areas for kids exhibits for other animals, like birds, turtles, and lemurs.

As a tumultuous year draws to a close, visiting locations like this can be a great way for people to get out of their homes and relieve stress.

Lessenthian considers visiting places like these more important now as the year draws to a close.

“You can get wrapped up in so much of the day to day, the bad things that have happened, you can overcompensate for it and not do anything. You need to still go out, you need to learn stuff, need to experience new things,” he said.

Whether it’s Catty Shack Ranch, the Alligator Farm, the Jacksonville Zoo or something else, it’s clear there’s a lot to see in the animal kingdom of this city.