Science says a lion’s roar is audible from five miles away, but at the Center for Animal Research and Education in Bridgeport, all that stands between you and two big catcalls is your bedroom window.
For $1,000, you can spend the night in one of CARE's "safari suites," which offer views of the tiger and lion enclosures just 16 feet below. The price also includes intimate interactions with the animals, tours of the facilities, dinner and breakfast.
Upon arriving at CARE, roughly an hour northwest of Dallas, we were greeted by executive director Heidi Krahn. “I can’t let you inside right now,” she shouted from the office window. “I’ve got a tiger in here.” It set the tone for a trip of firsts.
Krahn had invited my boyfriend and me to experience one of the new overnight animal retreats, which help raise funds to care for the 47 exotic animals on site. Our CAREtaker, Rachel, escorted us to one of the two jungle-themed safari suites that overlooked lion, tiger and lemur enclosures.
After settling in, Rachel gave us a private tour of the 20-acre facility and met more than 30 felines, including black panthers, cougars, bobcats, leopards and white tigers. I was blown away by how close we got to the animals and how timid they were.
We learned how to speak in tiger tongue by using the letters “V” and “F” to make a snuffling noise and heard stories about how each tiger got there. Some were accidentally bred in captivity while others were once purchased by people as pets. One tiger was left by an (unnamed) professional athlete after CARE transitioned from a boarding and breeding facility to a nonprofit organization in 2003.
When the tour ended, we headed back to freshen up for dinner, served at our time of choosing. I had picked two pasta dishes and red wine from an online menu before our visit. At 6:30 p.m., there was a knock on our door.
The first course, consisting of salad and bread, was served at a cloth-draped table on the terrace. The bright Texas sun began to set over the countryside, and a serenade of crickets and roaring wild beasts filled the air, momentarily transporting us to the savanna.
At dusk, the animals began to stir, awaiting their turn to eat, and we got to help feed them. We watched as the cats crushed raw chicken wings, bones and all, with their teeth in an instant. While most of them slowly approached the fence in a nonaggressive manner, I still feared for my fingers as they bit from the world’s shortest set of tongs.
The animals at CARE receive a holistic diet of locally sourced, dead or dying animals that are slaughtered on site (a messy job for the team of rotating interns who live on the grounds.) But we had come a day after the scheduled feeding, so to them, this was simply a snack on day one of their four-day fast. Surprisingly, some of the cats weren’t at all interested in leaving their resting places for the tiny treats.
While we were feeding the creatures their snack, the bed had been made, soft music was set on the television and two fresh glasses were waiting next to our unfinished wine from dinner. The rest of the night we spent enjoying all the luxuries of a modern hotel room: robes, slippers, fur throw blankets, bedside chocolates and microwave popcorn. There was also a selection of books by 19th century poets.
We were too tired to take full advantage of the onsite pool and hot tub, but we got a spectacular view of the stars in a light pollution-free sky from the second-story patio of our suite. That night, we fell asleep wondering which was better: being up close and personal with these exotic cats or the hospitality of the CARE staff.
In the morning, breakfast was served just after 9 a.m. at our request. We feasted on fresh fruit, pastries and orange juice as Krahn gave us a rundown of the retreat’s remaining activities. Every visit is different, she said, but most include a more intimate encounter with animals.
When we finished eating, she took us to feed our leftover fruit to a female-dominated troupe of ringtail lemurs. As we walked past the graves of lost furry friends and toured the rest of the facility, Krahn began to open up about her passion for big cats and the fear that they will one day become extinct.
“My thing is to get as many people as possible to submit [tiger] DNA to this bank so maybe someday when the world is worthy of their presence, we will be able to bring them back,” she says. “It’s so sad to think that my great-grandchildren may never see a tiger. They’ll learn about them the way we learn about dinosaurs. I think they are just the most amazing creatures on the face of the earth. They are beautiful and stunning, and my heart is connected to them somehow.”
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Not only is Krahn potentially saving a species, she’s also conducting cancer research by studying malignant melanoma in white tigers, work that she does in collaboration with Dequesne University, National Institutes of Health and Texas A&M University.
“Through the years, I have listened to the big controversial thing that white tigers are genetic flukes and you shouldn’t have them in zoos,” she says. “But what if they are the cure to malignant melanoma in humans?”
Whether you want to support animal science and cancer research or you are simply a fan of felines, CARE’s Wild Animal Retreat is an experience that anyone would thoroughly enjoy (but you have to be at least 18). Spending the night there was one of the most exciting experiences I've ever had.
Can’t foot the $1,000 bill for Texas’ only overnight safari? CARE also offers weekly tours and an annual fall festival featuring tiger tug-o-war. You can also learn about volunteer opportunities and more at carerescuetexas.com.