Saturday, June 15, 2024

Rockwell-based Tiger World serves as wildlife sanctuary

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.”


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