ORLANDO, Fla. — The two young boys run in their living room, unfazed that a baby Florida panther is there, batting around her favorite stuffed animal.
It’s just Nala, a purring 40-pound cat born in captivity.
For the boys’ father, animal trainer Andrew Biddle, Nala has been his constant companion since this summer.
Nala’s days are spent at Wild Florida, an Osceola County attraction where tourists fawn over her and take photographs. They admire her paws that seem too big for her body, her flashing eyes and how she purrs when she’s happy. The cat relishes the attention, her trainer says.
Too young to stay overnight in the park, Nala, who is under 6 months old, sleeps at Biddle’s home in rural Pasco County as allowed under a Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission permit.
“We’re going for a ride,” Biddle tells her softly one evening as he puts on her harness.
Nala is quiet in her crate for the ride, except when she hacks up a hairball. Biddle keeps driving, unperturbed by the mess he must clean up later.
There are only an estimated 100 to 160 Florida panthers left in the wild, according to the FWC. The animals were hunted to the brink of extinction in the late 1800s and early 1900s and are now considered a federally protected endangered species.
Strangers may find Biddle’s life exotic. At Wild Florida, the trainer persuades an 1,000-pound alligator named Bonecrusher to do tricks while children gather outside the pen to watch.
Off the clock, Biddle, 30, lives with his family on their private wildlife sanctuary with more than 50 animals, many of them exotic and dangerous, on 5 acres in Pasco County’s Dade City.
“We don’t ever have a day off,” Biddle says. “Most of the time, it’s just cleaning and feeding and getting dirty and fixing stuff.”
He laughs when asked why he does it.
“I don’t know. I can’t get away from it,” Biddle says. “It’s kind of the only thing I know.”
The former curator at Sarasota Jungle Gardens has no “fancy degree.” Born and raised in Florida, he got his first job at age 12 cleaning bear cages and feeding animals at a nature center. By 18, Biddle received his state permit to own large snakes. He later married the daughter of a wildlife rehabilitator who shares his passion.
Biddle has a gift, his boss says.
“He can read each animal and understand their limits,” said Sam Haught, co-owner at Wild Florida, which opened in 2010 in Kenansville. “That’s why he’s so successful at what he does.”
Nala acts like an oversized house cat now but will grow up to be 200 pounds.
“It can be tough to make predictions about behaviors as an adult animal. Just as in humans, puberty can influence changes in behaviors,” said Brian Ogle, an assistant professor at Leesburg’s Beacon College who studies the relationship between humans and animals.
Her training should have consistent expectations and a reward system for positive interactions, according to Ogle. He noted many factors, like how Nala handles stress and reacts to noise or movements, could influence how she interacts with humans as an adult.
Biddle and Nala travel up the dirt road leading to the house that’s surprisingly normal inside, except for the aquarium of small alligators and a snake in the dining room. Photographs hang on the wall of Biddle and his wife, Jessica, a nurse, and their 4- and 5-year-old sons.
Outside, their animal collection lives in fenced enclosures on the gated property surrounded by pasture.
Biddle tries his best to count the animals: A Syrian brown bear, four alligators, four crocodiles, six caiman, five tortoises, an Argus monitor lizard, two owls, two lemurs, a serval, two bobcats, one cougar, two pigs, two horses, five dogs, several cats, three ducks, a handful of chickens, geckos and snakes.
His wife raises some eyebrows in the grocery store when she buys unusually large amounts of chicken and bananas to feed the menagerie.
Among all the animals — and there are many — Nala is special, Biddle says.
Nala acts like a kitten still, licking Biddle with her rough tongue. The panther is clumsy enough to knock over a lamp by the front door.
Biddle plops down on the living-room floor and Nala snuggles up to his chest, purring.
Nearby, Biddle’s Catahoula Leopard dog lies in his bed, submissively ignoring the oversized house cat — not an easy task when Nala bats his ear.
“She doesn’t care for dogs at all,” Biddle says, “which is funny because they’re around the same size.”
Biddle keeps Nala on her leash when his sons are awake and the cat, born in captivity in Texas, sleeps in her crate. Biddle says he takes extra precautions to make sure his children are safe from his other animals by locked cages, 8-foot tall fences and the locked snake house.
These nights with Nala are lingering and soon she will stay permanently in her new enclosure at Wild Florida. Biddle reminds himself it’s not a forever goodbye since he will still see her at work.
“I know she’s not my cat,” Biddle says. “I try not to get too attached, but it’s tough.”
Information from: Orlando Sentinel, http://www.orlandosentinel.com/