Florida animal refuge caters to agents

UMATILLA, Fla. -- Amazing Exotic Encounters, an animal refuge here that offers visitors the chance to mingle with chimpanzees, tigers and lemurs, is now working with travel agents.

Chet Rothberg, administrator of the 20-year-old, family-run refuge for more than 200 species of animals, said that before January, Amazing Exotic Encounters had confined itself to educational programs for which visitors paid up to $4,000 for a nine-week class in caring for endangered species.

But in recent months, it has welcomed individual visitors and small groups, allowing them to mingle with the animals under the supervision of guides.

"These animals weren't raised in zoos, so they're not prone to psychological problems, so interaction is safe," Rothberg said.

Visitors pay for plans of either $29 or $119. The $29 price includes a behind-the-scenes tour of up to two hours with no hands-on activity. The $119 plan calls for up to a six-hour tour and contact with the animals.

Rothberg, who mainly works with concierges at local hotels, offers agents 20% to 30% commissions based on volume. But at certain times of the year, such as fall, they can earn $30 on each $119 admission referral, he said.

He emphasized the attraction is not like a zoo. Visitors or their agents must book ahead.

Rothberg said the entrance fee will be waived for travel agents, who also should call ahead for reservations.

Meanwhile, more animals are being added as 46 additional acres are being developed at the nonprofit refuge.

The $10.5 million renovation, partially funded by grants and donations, should be completed by the end of 2001.

The expansion will allow the facility to handle up to 2,000 guests per day, Rothberg said, vs. 100 at present. Thus, he also expects group business to increase.

A local family started the shelter two decades ago to protect primates and other exotic animals, Rothberg said. The family still owns the refuge.

The refuge has received media attention from The New York Times as well as ABC, NBC and BBC broadcasts.

Among the animals here are black lemurs and a 700-pound tabby tiger.

"There are only about 30 of [the tigers] left in the world," Rothberg said.

The refuge is on Highway 452 near Leesburg and U.S. 27, about a 50-minute drive from Walt Disney World.

For information, call (352) 821-1234.

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