Wild@Heart sanctuary may reopen

GLADES COUNTY — The couple who took over the former Animal Adventures wild animal park in northern Glades County and renamed it the Wild@Heart Animal Sanctuary almost 15 months ago still are laboring to get it open to the public on a regular schedule.

Jeremy and Jamie Hargett, with their 1-year-old adopted son, Dalton, in a stroller, stand near the Wild@Heart tortoise exhibit. Photo by Chris Felker.

“We are open now, but we’re open for private tours only,” said Jeremy Hargett, owner/operator of Wild@Heart along with his wife, Jamie. He explained that it’s been a huge project trying to engineer the rebirth of the dilapidated facility off Rucks Dairy Road that was cited in September 2016 for unsafe and unsanitary conditions as well as recordkeeping violations by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC).

Former Animal Adventures owner Mary Sue Pearce surrendered her wildlife permits and transferred all animals at the park to the Hargetts when she signed a deferred prosecution agreement after a Glades County court hearing Nov. 28, 2016.

The Hargetts’ lease with Myrtle Island Ranch, owner of the 1,100-acre former dairy ranch surrounding the 10 acres they leased, started the following week. The tract is owned by Ms. Pearce’s estranged husband.

Couple has spent more than $90K

“When we took the place over, we got a 99-year lease on the property and everything in it. We haven’t reopened to the public yet, but we are in the process,” Mr. Hargett stated, adding that he’d like to have the park open March 1. He finally sees light at the end of the tunnel of pressing matters the couple had to deal with immediately after taking control, though, saying they’ve spent more than $90,000 rehabilitating the property so far, including $10,000 just to get rid of the flea infestation, and that the refuge still needs more work. The couple rehabbed the facility enough to pass two interim FWC inspections in 2016 and then the regular semiannual inspections, and passed a routine U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection on Jan. 31, 2018.

“The amount of labor was just ridiculous. They had a lot of issues with the caging. It had been so dilapidated that they were worried if there were a strong storm, it would come down. A lot of issues with sanitation and things like that,” Mr. Hargett said. He says they’ve even also had issues with Ms. Pearce, who harassed them to the point where they had to spend $5,000 on a lawyer to keep her at bay.

One of the tigers housed at the refuge; this one, a male, eats 30 pounds of meat daily. Photo by Chris Felker.

When they took over, he said, “I think one of her bigger issues at that point – and it happens a lot with people like that … you know how people start out with good intentions and it goes awry, and they become kind of numb to it, and then they look at it and they say, ‘Oh, it’s not that bad,’ and somebody else looks at it and goes, ‘Oh my god, this is horrible.’” Mr. Hargett says they even had two coatimundis (Central/South American raccoons) die from emaciation due to the flea infestation.

Second company helps support refuge

The Hargetts are originally from northern Indiana, where Jeremy, 44, worked beginning in his teens at private zoos and refuges in that region.

He doesn’t have a degree – “I got six credits away from a bachelor’s in biology,” he says – but is self-trained in working with animals, especially reptiles, and started out as an animal broker. “I’ve been doing this for decades. I’m licensed with state and federal regulators. I’m licensed with so many animals, my license used to say ‘all,’ and then they switched the law and started specifying. So it’s much easier to tell you what I’m not licensed for. I can’t have a cheetah, believe it or not, but I can have tigers, lions, bears, gorillas, chimpanzees, orangutans, wolves and coyotes.”

An African lioness at the refuge; she can eat up to 18 pounds of meat every day. Photo by Chris Felker.

Mr. Hargett has another business called Cold Blooded Industries, CBI for short, that is a reptile breeder and wholesaler and, although it’s a separate company – Wild@Heart is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit – he’s been using its profits to support the refuge. He sells the reptiles, including venomous snakes, to pet outlets as well as to venom laboratories and other companies. His expertise with animals is such that he gets calls from veterinarians for advice and even conducts classes for nurses and doctors about treating snake and animal bites. One source of revenue for the refuge is that he takes some of the animals to locations on occasion for paid showings or demonstrations; one of their big cats soon will be taken to a film location for production of a new Disney movie.

As for the animals at Wild@Heart, from the more than 60 that lived there previously, the Hargettts have reduced the number by half or more.

“What we’ve done is we’ve gotten rid of about 11 tigers. We found sanctuaries and places that had old stock that was dying or dead, and other places to live for them; we didn’t actually ‘get rid’ of them. There are so many here, and Okeechobee’s such a small place,” he said.

Louisiana State University recently took one from Wild@Heart to use as its new mascot, replacing the LSU Tiger Mike VI who died in 2016 from cancer. LSU’s new one, known as Harvey to the Hargetts, is a rescue tiger under 2 years old and became LSU Tiger Mike VII last August.

Bills for feeding, care a heavy lift

“We’ve really tried to thin the stock down. In order for us to survive, we need to be able to get donations, we need to be able to make money, through admission donations and things like that. It costs a lot to feed these guys. Medical bills are not a joke, here,” Mr. Hargett said, noting that most of the animals are geriatric. Still, though, a male tiger will eat 30 pounds of meat a day and a female, 18, about the same as a lion or lioness. He makes two trips a week to a Walmart in Port St. Lucie that donates its unsaleable meat, where he might glean 500 usable pounds out of a ton, and buys the rest at a discount from an Okeechobee supplier.

Right now, he said, “we have at least 30 animals.” They include 11 tigers, three lions, two kinkajous (also called honey bears, from South America), one panther, one leopard, three baboons, two ring-tailed lemurs, one brown-tailed lemur, two black bears, one bobcat that’s a permanent resident and another that he loaned to a Clewiston facility for breeding, four crocodiles and about 20 alligators or caimans.

Although all the caging on the 5-acre fenced refuge property is up to regulatory snuff, Mr. Hargett’s not satisfied. “I’d like to expand it. The park right now is only 5 acres, but I have another 5 acres that I think we can go further out with. I want to change the caging drastically. I’ve rebuilt a lot of it, but the new style of cages are round … And I’d like to make them open-top, taller cages, maybe more like three-quarters of an acre each, just to give (the animals) a little bit more room.” He also wants to diversify the stock by bringing in a wolf pack and hyenas.

But he and his wife are going to need more help. He has no employees at Wild@Heart; the couple take care of the refuge alone, with help from one of their 10 children, 17-year-old Dallas. They did do some fundraising but have received only $4,700 in donations thus far. So he’s supported it through CBI’s profits.

“Wild at Heart is a nonprofit, and we’ve just been trying really hard to get it to live on its own as opposed to being supported. It’s a real job to do.

Everywhere we’ve gone here in Okeechobee, we’ve had people really interested in coming out and volunteering and stuff,” he said, but once they find out it’s the former Animal Adventures, they’re reluctant because of Ms. Pearce and her park’s bad reputation. She has even harassed visitors, said Mrs. Hargett, and they had to get their lawyer to enjoin her.

Mr. Hargett said Wild@Heart does have two regular volunteers who come at least twice a week.

‘We have to get it open’

His goal is to open the park as soon as possible, “to start doing field trips and stuff.” The way is clear to do that because he has current FWC and USDA licenses, plus refuge and 501(c)(3) status, so he doesn’t need any special permission from Glades County or anyone else. The Hargetts also believe in transparency, even hiring a programmer to put all their records online and give access to veterinarians and regulators.

But Mr. Hargett has to get comfortable showing the refuge in the condition it’s in now, more or less, because it will take revenue to make more improvements.

“I’m at the point where I’m always saying, ‘Oh, wait, this isn’t right. I need to … ’ but it’s going to cost me another $5,000 or $10,000. If we were to do that forever, we’d never open up. And if we never open up, we’re done. We have to survive. We have to get it open, you know, to be able to thrive in some way. And it’s hard to thrive if you’re not open. People don’t want to help out somewhere they can’t even see.”

The Hargetts have a Facebook page; search for “Wild at Heart wildlife center.”

The park is located at 5001 S.W. Rucks Dairy Road, in Glades County (off State Road 70, west of the Kissimmee River), and Mr. Hargett can be reached at 239-850-0839 for information about either the refuge or CBI.

This specimen is among several baboons at Wild@Heart. “I love baboons,” says refuge owner Jeremy Hargett. Photo by Chris Felker.

This ring-tailed lemur is one of a trio of lemurs at Wild@Heart. Photo by Chris Felker.


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