A nonprofit Jacksonville wildlife sanctuary is planning an estimated $8 million renovation project to enhance the 225-acre refuge for rescued big cats and other animals.
Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary, 1860 Starratt Road, is improving its animal enclosures by building more natural habitats with enrichment features. It also is putting in an educational building, veterinary medical facility, improved parking and a stormwater management system.
“It’s going to be a huge impact for more animals, for the animals we have, for the caretakers, folks who come and do internships, and of course for the folks who fund it all (via admission), the folks who come out and enjoy,” said Curt LoGiudice, executive director and curator.
The sanctuary received a permit from the St. Johns River Water Management District for a key component — a stormwater management system serving the nearly 11-acre project.
Stormwater runoff from the sanctuary will flow into Caney Branch creek, the Nov. 14 permit shows.
Catty Shack Ranch’s primary focus is rescuing exotic animals from potentially life-threatening situations. It currently has 40 big cats, LoGiudice said.
The sanctuary provides a safe, loving and forever home to endangered big cats including tigers, leopards, lions, bobcats, and a lynx along with other rescued wildlife such as coatimundis and foxes. The organization doesn’t breed, trade, sell, or buy any of its residents.
Catty Shack Ranch also raises awareness and educates the public about the plight of the cats in the wild as well as in captivity.
The organization serves Duval, St. Johns, Clay, Nassau, and Baker counties.
LoGiudice said plans for the project have been in the works about two years.
“We actually have more than 16 habitats to put together and create to make it an environmentally friendly atmosphere, and an enriching atmosphere for the animals,” he said.
He said mostly they are looking a improved housing, and more enrichment activities such as swimming pools or other fun activities that they can create. Trees, boulders, maybe caves and some types of bushes are among the enhancements they’re planning, LoGiudice said.
LoGiudice also said they already have purchased their first new building, and are working on their second, which is a 5,000-square foot education building. In addition, a new veterinary medical facility is in progress. New walkways for the visitors and caretakers also are being installed, he said.
About 35 years ago, LoGiudice got his state license, then his federal license to work with exotic animals. That led him to begin rescuing big cats.
On Earth Day in April, the sanctuary celebrated the joint birthday of Rocky and Adrian — brother and sister Siberian tigers — with the unveiling of a pool along with a custom-built waterfall in the enclosure the siblings share with best friend Haley, also a Siberian tiger.
It was among the first of the habitat renovation projects at the sanctuary.
The goal, LoGiudice said, is to have similar pools and water features along with other enrichment elements in each of the big cat enclosures. Such enrichment is priceless to the physical and mental health of the tigers, he said.
Catty Shack Ranch relies on admission fees from its public tours. special events and donations. It doesn’t get any federal grants or city funding, said LoGiudice, noting the sanctuary consistently is ranked a top Jacksonville attraction by travel and tourism websites.
He said corporate, business and private sponsors, along with other donations would be welcomed not only for the ongoing project, but also to help offset other sanctuary expenses.
LoGiudice said the ongoing renovation and expansion project should be completed in about two to three years.
The environmental resource permit issued by the St. Johns River Water Management District water district allows construction of a stormwater management system to accommodate the sanctuary renovation and expansion project.
The stormwater management system will consist of a single wet detention pond with outfall to the wetlands of Caney Branch, said Teresa Holifield Monson, public communications coordinator for the water district.
Caney Branch flows into Dunn Creek, maps show.
Monson said to compensate for impacts to wetlands, Catty Shack Ranch has purchased credits from the Loblolly Mitigation Bank, which fully offsets the proposed impacts and is located within the same drainage basin as the impacted wetlands.