Florida Couple Begins Rebuilding Home For Big Cats After Hurricane Irma

Credit: Cassi Alexandra for NPR

The sprawling 5-acre Kowiachobee Animal Preserve in Naples, Florida, is facing its biggest challenge yet. Home to about 100 animals, last month the preserve was caught in the eye of Hurricane Irma, a Category 3 storm that ripped through the Caribbean and Atlantic coast.

John, 50, and Grace, 63, met almost 20 years ago on an animal preserve and likely bonded over their love of dangerous, exotic creatures. In 2000, they officially opened Kowiachobee, a 501(C)3 non-profit educational facility. John told NPR they’ve faced many storms over the years, but Irma was by far the worst.

Although almost 30 volunteers have pitched in to help the beloved preserve recover, Kowiachobee is far from being back to normal. The preserve is home to a exotic, domestic and farm animals, including twin white bengal tigers, Mali and Tanju. So far, the couple has received more than $6,000 of their $20,500 GoFundMe goal for building the twins a new habitat.

John Salby prepares food for the big cats. Credit: Cassi Alexandra for NPR

For a week following the storm, the preserve had no electricity and had to use generators to power the refrigerators that keep the animal’s food. John said the property was drowned in more than a foot of water, which severely compromised animal and worker safety. The couple understands too well the hard work that goes into creating and maintaining appropriate living conditions for so many animals.

“You have a hard time bouncing back,” John told NPR. “It pushes to the verge where you’re just like, ‘I give up.’ You don’t want to give up. You really have to dig down deep and say, ‘You know what, I’m not gonna let this beat me. We’re gonna come back, and we’re gonna come back stronger.’ “

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