Photos by Mike Belleme
The town of Rockwell in Rowan County is a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting, with one-lane roads winding through an idyllic rural landscape, complete with farms and a sprinkling of old houses and rustic churches. The only sound on a weekday morning is birds chirping, with an occasional hum of a lawn mower or tractor.
That is, until you pull up to the gravel parking lot of Tiger World.
A loud roar pierces the air. Guinea fowl screech while scampering around the grounds. A variety of unidentifiable animal calls ring out periodically.
Tiger World is a misnomer, as the facility houses at least 54 different species, with more than 110 animals including lions, bears, jaguars, kangaroos, monkeys, wolves and more. The nonprofit public charity that serves as an endangered wildlife preserve was founded in 2007 by President Lea Jaunakais and officially opened to the public a year later.
“[Jaunakais] really had a dream when she was a kiddo to help tigers,” says Erin Carey, Tiger World’s director of wildlife. “When she was 3, she was watching National Geographic, and that’s when she told her mom, ‘I’m going to save the tigers.’”
Jaunakais didn’t start off in the monkey business, so to speak. After high school, she left her Rock Hill, S.C., hometown for Arizona State University, where she studied animal behavior and biology. Jaunakais spent her free time volunteering at Phoenix-area zoos before moving back to Rock Hill to join her family’s business, water-quality testing company Industrial Test Systems Inc.
Jaunakais, now president of ITS, found the perfect opportunity to keep her promise to “save the tigers” when the U.S. Department of Agriculture closed Rockwell-based Metrolina Wildlife Park, formerly known as Charlotte Metro Zoo, for failing to provide adequate animal care. She bought the 30-acre property, which has since been expanded to 54 acres, and gave the animals living there a new lease on life.
“When a zoo shuts down, those animals are either up for euthanasia or they have to find a new home,” Carey says. “Lea was able to get Tiger World started as a public charity. She was able to move forward with helping tigers in her own way.”
Tiger World, now in its 10th year of operation, has about 15 employees and relies heavily on the community, volunteers and donations. Its annual revenue has more than doubled in the last five years to $812,000. The budget is about $720,000, aided by partnerships with corporations including Walmart Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. The facility uses about 600 pounds of donated meat every day. “Without that, it would be insane,” Carey says.
The zoo welcomes more than 100,000 visitors annually, about a third of them schoolchildren on field trips. One of the most popular residents is Michael, a 650-pound rare male Timbavati white lion who came to Tiger World from a conservation center in Africa. He is one of 500 white lions in captivity; only 11 remain in the wild.
Many of the animals at Tiger World come from zoos around the country that lose funding or shut down, with others coming from the exotic-pet industry.
“Everyone sees the little lions and goes, ‘Oh my gosh, I want one!’ And then you realize, ‘Holy bananas, that’s a lion. What was I thinking?’ We have both confiscated and surrendered pets. We even have a baboon that was from animal testing. Every animal has their own unique backstory. We are providing a home for those who are not wanted.”
A first-time visit to Tiger World hooks many, Carey says. “We give such an intimate experience. You are right next to the animals. You are learning their backstories. … It gives you a personal connection to the individual animals. We strive to do conservation through education.”
Rowan county-based Tiger World is a wildlife sanctuary for more than 110 animals, including otters, bears, wallabies, parrots and, of course, big cats. Photo by Mike Belleme
Aztec, a male black jaguar, stretches and yawns in the summer heat. Aztec was rehomed from the Montgomery Zoo in Alabama due to space constraints. Photo by Mike Belleme
A free-roaming peacock takes a look inside the emu enclosure. Tiger World houses dozens of different species, adding up to more than 110 animals including lions, bears, jaguars, kangaroos, monkeys, wolves and more. Photo by Mike Belleme
Erin Carey, director of wildlife, and Patty Calvin, animal care specialist, feed 3-month-old Timbavati white lion cubs during a public education demonstration. Photo by Mike Belleme
One of the most popular residents is Michael, a massive rare male Timbavati white lion. Michael is one of only 500 white lions in captivity; only 11 remain in the wild. About a dozen of Tiger World’s animals are endangered or extinct species. Photo by Mike Belleme
Xavier, a 3-year-old male spotted leopard that came to Tiger World from a traveling show, plays with a piñata. After being confined in a truck for six months, he developed several health conditions that the staff is working to correct, including anemia and cross-eye. Photo by Mike Belleme
Luna, pictured, is an Arctic wolf that came to Tiger World as a pup and now lives with Snowball, a wolf-dog hybrid who was rescued from an exotic-pet owner. Photo by Mike Belleme
Now in its 10th year, Tiger World welcomes more than 100,000 visitors annually. Daily admission for adults costs $15. The preserve offers a variety of public events, including camps, daily tours and holiday celebrations. Photo by Mike Belleme