As I took to the road with boss-man — what I call the publisher of qnotes — we were both excited to see what Tiger World had in store. On the short 40-minute drive to Rockwell, N.C. from Charlotte, N.C., we chatted enthusiastically about our admiration for big cats and our hope that this facility so close to home would treat the magnificent creatures it housed as well as they deserve.
We turned onto a country road in Rockwell and passed residential houses, twisting and turning and admiring the wide-open plots of land for sale near the park. Then we came upon Tiger World, our first sight of it a large graveled parking lot. It looked ordinary, with nothing exotic in sight, until we set eyes upon the peacocks.
The radiant, colorful birds wander the entire park with utter freedom. If you’re lucky, as we were, you get to catch a dancing display of outstretched feathers as the peacocks show off for their more muted-colored, but still gracefully lovely peahens.
As it turns out, Tiger World is a bit of a misnomer. There aren’t only tigers there, or even only big cats. Instead, the facility houses countless exotic animals: Syrian brown bears, primates like macaques and gibbons, New Guinea singing dogs, two species of wolves, cranes and kingfishers — the list goes on and on.
One thing I loved about the guided tours — only $15 per adult and $12 for seniors and children — was the personal history shared about each animal. Because most of the creatures are rescues from abusive or illegal homes, each had a story. Two, an elderly tiger couple housed together, were declawed by their drug-lord former owners and have serious arthritis as a result. Saddest to me was Wayne, the 800-pound liger, whose artificial hybridity causes cats like him to grow too big for their organs to support, resulting in a lifespan of only nine years.
The tours were also educational, and our (breathtakingly beautiful) tour guide, Rachel, showed great patience and humor when dealing with the children’s constant and often repetitive questions. Rachel, though only hired months ago, knew not only the history of every individual animal, but fascinating and little-known facts about the species themselves. She seemed to have a personal relationship with each creature, and some even greeted her at the front of the enclosures with friendly “chucking” sounds, rubbing against the glass or metal.
The one drawback of Tiger World as I see it is its rather small enclosures for some animals. However, the history of the facility itself explains this; it was seized from an irresponsible owner in the mid-2000s and the new owner, Lea Jaunakais, has been working tirelessly to develop and expand the facility and its habitats. Walking around the grounds, we saw several areas under construction and countless signs indicating that the big cats’ current homes were only temporary.
To compensate for some enclosures being small, Rachel explained, that the staff routinely rotates the animals among different locations so that the creatures get as much variety of setting as possible. We also saw a number of toys and treats for the playful babies; some were as simple as fruit hung from bamboo, but the White-handed gibbons even had Asian small-clawed otters as pets (apparently the two species frequently cohabitate in the wild).
Overall, visiting Tiger World was an absolute pleasure. Though the place is not perfect, it was obvious that the staff works tirelessly to keep these beautiful creatures happy and safe. I never knew that such a place was so close and so affordable to visit — I will definitely be going back.