On 200 acres, in the heart of Central Florida, you’ll find two lions, more than 20 tigers, a leopard, cougars, and foxes. Did I mention a Russian mink? Or the Watusi cow? This is not Disney’s Animal Kingdom.
This is not a zoo. It’s Mitchel Kalmanson’s backyard.
“It’s my ranch. It’s my facility. It’s my compound,” Kalmanson says.
[UPDATE: Viewers react, Local 6 gets answers]
Kalmanson has been working with animals since he was a kid. Today he sells liability insurance to zoos, circuses, and other animal exhibits. He also hires out animals for those venues, as well as for TV and film.
The animals at Kalmanson’s home in Sorrento, however, are mostly creatures he’s taken in from private owners or facilities who can no longer care for them.
“People lose their licenses, they lose their facilities. They don’t have the proper acreage, care, enclosures. Especially when they (the animals) get big, (the owners) don’t have the proper feed,” he says, explaining that those are some of the reasons behind the problems associated with raising exotic animals, a growing trend in Florida.
“It’s a major problem in Florida,” he tells Local 6. “A lot of people get these animals as babies. They watch ‘Lion King’…They watch these programs and they all want the cute cuddly lion. Then all of a sudden these things grow up and they have the proper diet, vet care, enclosure, and they have to get rid of them.”
He points to a purring, demure black leopard as an example. He got the animal from Florida Fish and Wildlife authorities after they confiscated it from an owner who could no longer care for it.
“People were buying these animals and putting them in apartments and backyards. It’s crazy, but it happens,” he says.
Kalmanson has neighbors. A subdivision sits across the street. An elementary school stands less than a mile away. He insists his animals are securely fenced and that they pose no risk to the community.
“I exceed all minimum federal and state regulations,” Kalmanson tells Local 6. “I have three and four sets of perimeter caging. All the facilities are cabled tension bars. I have redundancies on the gates. I have redundancies on all my interior cages.”
Kalmanson is aware of animal rights activists who oppose the captivity of wildlife, but he says if those activists really understood his facility they would approve.
“These animal live longer in captivity,” he insists. “They have better diets, better veterinarian care.”
But how does Kalmanson better the diet of an animal whose natural instinct is to hunt? Kalmanson invokes the plight of the shrinking wildlife population and the changing planet these animals call home.
“They’re losing forestry. They’re losing habitation,” he says. “They have to hunt longer. They have parasite problems. They have disease problems. They’re likely to be days in the wild before they can catch a kill. Here, they get excellent meat. They get quantity.
State and federal regulators inspect Kalmanson’s facility several times a year. He’s had no major violations with Florida Fish and Wildlife. His relationship with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, however, has been contentious. The U.S.D.A cited Kalmanson when one of his tigers escaped from a show in Maryland. Another tiger escaped in Jacksonville. Both animals were caught without incident, and Kalmanson paid a fine. The U.S.D.A also claimed that two of his lion cubs suffered from a bone disease due to poor nutrition.
“I’ve never had a malnutrition issue ever,” Kalmanson says.
Apparently others have faith in this colorful animal owner with his menagerie. If it has four legs, chances are Kalmanson has insured, transported it, or raised it as his own.
After meeting with Local 6, he was off to Tanzania to transport a specialized breed of rats to a U.S. research facility. The rats, he says, can detect salmonella and tuberculosis in humans. He says they can also be used to detect landmines for the military.
He’s not shy about saying that he’s running a business here.
“It is a business. I am for profit. I am not a sanctuary. I am not a rehab facility. I do take animals in, but it’s a hobby that grew into a business,” Kalmanson says. “It’s a way of life for me.”