Florida Keys News - Islamorada/KL Free Press
Wednesday, April 25, 2012
Menagerie is a pet project

KEY LARGO -- Leah White's place is a menagerie. Literally.

White, 51, keeps more than 100 animals, from chinchillas and Vietnamese pot-bellied pigs to hedge hogs, Australian bearded dragons and bunny rabbits.

What started as a hobby has turned into a business: "Leah's Ark: We Bring the Zoo to You." She hires her menagerie out as a traveling petting zoo for children.

Being "mom" to so many critters is not for everyone. It has moments of sadness and moments of elation.

"My greatest moment over the past two years was delivering Frankie the goat. I had never done that before," White said last week during a stroll through her Key Largo property.

"The year before was the biggest disappointment when the mama goat was delivering and it took the veterinarian 20 minutes to get here," she recalls. "The baby's face was showing -- they should be born hoofs first -- and it was clearly alive until a couple of minutes before the vet arrived.

"I paid close attention and a year later, when she was due again, I knew what to do. I delivered it myself. He came out alive and kicking. I rubbed him down with hay and watched as he took his first steps 15 minutes later. That was a huge happy moment."

White grew up in eastern Massachusetts with parents who raised animals and bred Newfoundland dogs on their 2.5-acre farm.

"I've always had more animals than most people," she said last week as she opened the door to a cage where a small light-colored African fox named Radar sat perched. Out of a black tube crept Fakor the ferret. Hiding under a small block table was Chanel the de-scented skunk. She handles them all as though they are her children.

The huge fenced yard not far from the Murray E. Nelson Government and Cultural Center is obscured from the road, but behind the fence live three pigs, a dozen dogs, three house cats, assorted rabbits, a ferret, an African fox, a mini horse, a mini donkey, a pond full of Koi fish and turtles, three hedgehogs, a cage full of cockatiels and love birds and assorted reptiles.

That's not to mention the dozen dogs, some rescue dogs.

"Horses have always been my first love," she said. "I got my first horse when I was 9."

But when she moved to the Florida Keys in 1999, she only brought with her a dog and cat. That didn't last long as she began to care for more animals.

White said her life changed when she attended a birthday party at the Key Largo Community Park where a petting zoo entertained children.

"The man had strapped the children to the backs of two horses with no helmets," she recalled. "He was walking one horse on each side when the saddle with a chubby little boy began to slip. The child's head was almost dragging on the ground when I jumped in to hold him up. I decided there and then that I could do better than that."

That's when Leah's Ark was born.

"I already had a yard full of pets, so this was a natural," she said. "I thought if I turned my animals into a business I wouldn't just be that crazy lady with all the pets."

White is not just a one-note talent. She has won awards for riding English saddle horses and is a sailing champion. In fact, when she moved to Key Largo, she bought a 26-foot Coronado sloop and kept it across the canal from her home.

"I hardly knew how to sail until I met David White," she said of her husband, a catamaran sailing champion who once sailed the grueling Worrell 1000 race from Fort Lauderdale to Virginia Beach.

But her heart is with the animals she cares for daily and refers to as her children.

Though most are kept at her home, White houses her goats on a small farm in Homestead and brings them to the Keys for shows.

"They are Nigerian dwarf goats that I named Wellington, Gremlin (after a goat I had as a child), Gandalf and Frankie -- he has blue eyes," she explained. "My pigs are Priscilla, Hamlet and Trooper."

She is also quite fond of "Dozer," her African sulcata tortoise, the third largest tortoise on the planet.

White says she spends from 45 minutes to an hour and a half each morning feeding her menagerie at a cost of about $300 a month.

She chuckles when recalling the story of Trooper's the pig's origin.

"Priscilla was getting too fat, so I put her on a diet. The less I fed her, the fatter she got. Two days after I reduced her feed, I came out to feed the animals and found nine new baby piglets. Hamlet must have impregnated her when he was just over five months old."

"There's never a dull moment when you have this many critters." White says she strives to do more than just entertain local children with her menagerie.

"With this I get a chance to work with animals and children, my two favorite things, and hopefully educate children about animals as well as teach them respect for animals and the environment," she said.

sgibbs@keysnews.com

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