BUNNELL — Between growls, purrs and hisses, a large cougar calmly crunches through the bones of what appears to be a whole chicken, easily swallowing chunks of meat the size of a human foot.
“Just imagine, that could be your arm,” Lynn Fenimore says to a wary visitor. He laughs, but his eyes aren’t smiling.
Fenimore respects the potential for fury possessed by the more than three dozen exotic animals that prowl the cages and pens on his 10-acre spread in western Flagler County. Although all the creatures were born and raised in captivity, every guttural growl through a mouthful of dagger-sharp teeth, every claws-extended swipe of a furry paw, is a reminder that these cuddly looking big cats are still, at heart, wild beasts.
It doesn’t stop Fenimore from snuggling with a toothy cougar, though. He gets right into the cages with it, nuzzling its face and letting it bat at his arms. In another cage, Fenimore allows his coatimundis to climb on his back to groom his neck and hair.
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As he walks by, other caged animals spot him. They whine, purr and roll on their backs as if begging for a quick belly rub. Fenimore says he even trusts a few of his critters well enough to allow them to interact with his grandchildren, who live in the area. He says the grandkids were the main reason he relocated to Flagler County.
Raising cougars, tigers, bears and other flesh-eating creatures is not the life one might expect of a guy who spent 23 years working in the medical electronics industry. It certainly isn’t the future the 66-year-old Fenimore envisioned for himself when he was younger.
But a short-term volunteer project in the 1990s changed everything.
Fenimore said he was growing increasingly unhappy with his medical job. His wife, Janice, encouraged him to “get out of the house” during the day, he said. It wasn’t a suggestion.
So Fenimore said he volunteered to work in the “birds of prey” exhibit at Flamingo Gardens, an Everglades native wildlife sanctuary in Davie, just west of Fort Lauderdale. He loved it. Owners of the attraction must’ve been impressed; they offered him a job creating educational programs for the facility.
“It was only about an 80 percent pay cut,” Fenimore said.
But with support from Janice, who died four years ago just before Fenimore moved to Flagler County, he took the job. He said it later led to another job at Native Village, a native wildlife sanctuary in Hollywood, just north of Miami.
It was there that Fenimore said he fell in love with a cougar for the first time.
In 1999, Fenimore said he opened Talons and Tails Inc., a nonprofit animal sanctuary, at his home in Pembroke Pines and moved two cougar cubs that had been rejected by their mother into the living room.
He collected more and more creatures and said he began taking some on the road, doing as many as 200 live shows annually with animals he’d raised and trained. He said most came from owners who thought they could handle an exotic animal but learned they couldn’t.
Over the years, so many animals have called his sanctuary home that Fenimore said it’s hard to remember them all. He said he’s raised everything from black bears, foxes, cougars and other exotic cats, to parrots, anteaters, coatimundis and numerous species of wildlife native to Florida.
“It’s been an interesting 15 years,” Fenimore said.
Some of his animals have even helped earn their keep by starring in feature films, like “Jackass: The Movie,” appearing in magazines, like Vogue, and showing up in TV shows, like National Geographic’s “Animal Planet.”
Fenimore said he misses the days when it was possible for him to attend schools and birthday parties where dozens of kids could get close enough to touch his beloved critters. But now legal restrictions and the skyrocketing cost of liability insurance “took all of the fun out of it for me and the kids both,” he said.
It’s also making it impossible for Fenimore to generate enough money to cover the cost of caring for the animals he raises. Depending on how many of the cages on his property are filled, Fenimore said it costs between $25,000 and $70,000 annually to care for them.
“I would spend my last dime to take care of these creatures — and I have,” Fenimore said.
Fenimore said he gets by with the help of a trust fund left by his late wife. More help comes as chicken and vegetable scraps and leftovers donated by one of his neighbors, Linda Ferguson, who runs a restaurant at Flagler County’s Bull Creek Park and Campground.
Ferguson said she’s not scared or bothered by Fenimore’s wild bunch and points out he has all the proper permits to keep them. Carl Laundrie, county spokesman, said Flagler officials have never received any complaints of any kind about Fenimore and he knows of no complaints against him or his animals.
Fenimore said he feeds his animals twice each day — two periods of peace in his world. With birds providing an early morning soundtrack, it’s just Fenimore and his animals greeting the day.
At night, two of his six dogs make the rounds with him. And as he returns to the comfort of his country home for the evening, each animal seems to give him a vocal salute as he passes.
“Even after all these years, I still thank the good Lord that I was given the privilege of working with these animals,” Fenimore said.
Information from: Daytona Beach News-Journal, http://www.news-journalonline.com