Last month, sign-waving demonstrators massed in front of Tropical Park to try to dissuade customers from buying tickets to Christmas mainstay Santa’s Enchanted Forest. Their complaint: The live tigers and other animals used in shows at the theme park are mistreated.
"These animals are forced to live in small cages and travel long distances to perform at attractions like Santa’s Enchanted Forest," Wendy King, the organizer of the protests, told New Times. "The stress of captivity, public display, and travel is harmful to them."
But Felicia Frisco says that claim couldn't be further from the truth. In fact, Frisco says her show — Tiger Encounter — will teach Santa's Enchanted Forest visitors about the species facing numerous threats to its existence.
“Our show is a 15-to-20-minute presentation that educates the public on the plight tigers face in the wild, like the fact there are less than 5,000 of them left in the wild,” Frisco says. “We also show the tigers do a series of natural behaviors, like sit, jump, and roll over. We do not do behaviors in the show if the cats don't wish to or if it is too wet or rainy."
Growing up in a family of circus performers, 22-year-old Frisco has lived alongside exotic animals her whole life. The Tampa native made headlines in 2011 when ABC News featured her in a story titled "Tiger Mom," which focused on her sleeping with her pet Bengal tiger Will.
"I was with that tiger since the day he was born. His mother didn't produce enough milk, so I had to step in and raise him with her," she tells New Times. I slept with him every day from day one because I had to check on him every two hours to feed him and make sure he was OK. It's one of the best ways to create a bond."
In the ABC piece, Frisco also took pride in the fact that her friends thought her less-than-typical pets were “really cool.”
Since then, she has become the primary performer in her family’s business venture, Tiger Encounter, an animal-handling show that Frisco says raises awareness about the challenges tigers face outside of captivity.
She and her feline troupe tour Florida and perform their show at various venues across the state. This winter she's showcasing at Santa’s Enchanted Forest.
Set within a canopy of towering pine trees bejeweled with millions of twinkling lights, the holiday theme park, which bills itself as the “largest Christmas theme park in the world," attracts thousands of people each year with its impressive light displays, carnival rides, and circus-like performances.
“We only travel ten to 12 nonconsecutive weeks a year, meaning we don't travel or perform every day. We have many weeks and even months in between venues,” she says. “After Santa’s, our cats go on at least a five-to-six-month vacation. The tigers live with me when they are not at a show, at one of our two facilities. When they are at home, it is their off time to do what they want.”
Frisco says that during the summer, the big cats live at her facility in Illinois, because during that season, “Florida is too hot for the tigers,” and during the winter, the cats live in Tampa, where they have access to pools instead of being stuck inside a barn due to snowstorms.
She also explains that besides performing at venues such as Santa's Enchanted Forest, Tiger Encounter has also done shows at schools across the state to teach kids about the importance of conservation.
"We have done many outreach programs in schools all over to educate kids about tigers — something I volunteered to do several years in a row," she says. "When kids see me interacting with my tigers, they see that the animals are more then just large carnivores that can fend for themselves. They see a different side to the animals. When a child sees a tiger up close, they fall in love with it, it becomes their favorite animal, and they grow up loving the animals and want to do something to save wildlife."
Australian Jasmine Straga, a former circus performer who is an avid fan of Frisco's show, tells New Times that the presence of the tigers also enhances Santa’s Enchanted Forest’s ambiance for kids.
“Children really love being able to see the exotic animals that they only hear about in storybooks. They get very excited when they see them,” Straga says, relating Frisco's tiger show to animals that perform in circuses around the world. "Children enter a big top, and it seems larger than life for them; it's as if all their fairy tales and storybooks come alive in front of their very eyes.”
Straga says that after she took her own 7-year-old daughter, who did not grow up in the circus, to a traditional circus last year, the child became interested in visiting Africa to see exotic animals.
"My daughter asked to donate to a charity for Christmas instead of receiving presents," Straga says. "I think that this really speaks for itself."
However, not everyone is happy that Frisco is exhibiting her family’s tigers. Animal rights activists with the group United for Animals say it is cruel for exotic animal like tigers, sea lions, and elephants to perform in shows.
Susan Bass, the director of public relations for Tampa's Big Cat Rescue, has also publicly chastised the tiger show.
"There is no peace or joy for tigers being forced to perform in circus acts and live and travel in tiny transport cages," she says. "It's cruel and completely unnecessary. Big Cat Rescue implores Santa's Enchanted Forest to immediately end the exploitation of big cats at their event."
But Frisco questions the credibility of the activists.
"My animals are trained with positive reinforcement and are never put in a position where they can become hurt or in danger," she says. “My view is everyone has a right to their opinion on what they believe in, but the fact of the matter is many of these protesters have never seen our tigers or our show and have no idea what our show is about."
Activists are not convinced Tiger Encounter or the other animal acts happening at Santa's Enchanted Forest are geared toward promoting conservation, and they plan to hold another protest in front of Tropical Park on December 12.
"I want to see these exotic animals in their natural habitats, not in a cage or a tiny pool!" King says. "Animals are not born to entertain us, and there is nothing educational about watching tigers jump up and down and from one stool to another."
But Frisco says she believes her show has helped people learn more about the big cats.
"When people see our show, they learn a lot," she says. "I always get people coming up to me after the show telling me they had no idea how... [close the tigers are] to becoming extinct."