When Deborah Warrick broke her back skydiving in 1981, her instructor sent her a wolf puppy as a get well present. She recovered physically but lost her heart to wolves, and got involved in wolf rescue.
To this day she still rescues wolves by caring for them at her animal sanctuary, St. Augustine Wild Reserve. But she also rescues many other types of animals, providing homes for them at the large fenced compound five miles west of World Golf Village. About 100 animals currently live there, including four African lions, nine tigers, five servals, three leopards, three cougars, two hyenas, two lynxes, two coatimundis, a deer, a goat and about 50 birds of many different species.
Growing up in California, Warrick says she was always “animal crazy.”
“I never played with dolls,” she said one recent day as a macaw, cockatoo and several parrots vied for her attention by seeing who could screech the loudest in her presence. “I always had spiders and snakes, and found hawks and owls I could feed and care for,” she said as she went from cage to cage, greeting each animal by name. “I always knew I’d have my own zoo.”
The reserve’s residents live in spacious cages that are double, triple and in some cases quadruple the requirements of Florida Fish and Wildlife, through which Warrick has permits. She takes in unwanted animals from all around the country and opens the reserve to group tours several days a week to help raise money for their care.
It takes a lot of funds to keep the place going, as the large animals eat about $3,000 worth of vitamin fortified beef, chicken, pork and lamb a month. The bird seed also costs nearly that much, so Warrick also holds a major fundraiser every November.
She lives on the property, but has no employees – all of her approximately 30 helpers are volunteers. They help prepare, clean and repair cages and serve as tour guides.
Most of the animals are amazingly affectionate towards Warrick, nuzzling her face as she presses against their bars, rubbing their heads against her hands and even rolling over for a tummy pat.
Even the lions and tigers do that. And “all of them are my favorites,” Warrick says.
Visitors are not permitted to touch the animals, but can get close to their cages as they walk through with a guide. People like getting close to them, says Warrick, who opened the reserve in 2000 after moving there from California.
She wants to open a zoo one day in St. Augustine that would be open daily, and is raising money for that as well.
She says she loves rescuing animals – even really large ones – and giving them a good home.
“I crave it,” she says. “I never had kids, and these are my kids.”
Tours are available Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 2 p.m. on an appointment only basis. For information call 904-990-0664 or visit staugustinewildreserve.org.