Real Estate Developer Robert Mantella Discusses His Love of Animals and the Motivation Behind His Florida Wildlife Sanctuary
Businessman and philanthropist Robert Mantella has a connection with nature that few in his position share. The president of real estate development company Mantella Corporation holds a life-long fascination of animals and how evolution has shaped wildlife all over the world. Along with his wife, Sylvia Mantella, Mantella has transformed his 40-acre Florida estate into a private, non-profit animal sanctuary for endangered and abused animals. The compound is home to more than 150 species of exotic creatures, from big cats, such as tigers and white lions, to capuchin monkeys, two-toed sloths, white-faced gibbons, Burmese pythons and more. We reached out to Mantella to learn more about his affinity for animals and how he and Sylvia are providing an environment where the wildlife in their care can live and thrive in peace.
You’ve converted much of your Florida estate into a reserve for endangered and abused animals. Why was this something you were compelled to do?
My business is one that requires deep thought and, quite simply, is mentally exhausting. The creation of our sanctuary in Florida is one that of course puts the needs of the animals first, but the fulfilment and peace I feel when close to these amazing creatures, helping them to live respectful, safe, quality lives, is an escape for both Sylvia and I — a virtual dream come true. Our sanctuary is not for profit. If an animal breeds, we build a new enclosure. Nothing is for sale. We are not open to the public so these animals are not stressed by strange smells and noises. To them, it is home.
Where does your love of animals come from? Do you remember the first moment when you felt that connection?
I have been fascinated by the animal kingdom since a very young age. In fact, I still own animal encyclopedias labelled “Robert Mantella, Grade 2, Princess Margaret School.” So we’re going back 40 years. I would study each animal and its habits, and dream of one day experiencing encounters with each. For example, I would study each species of parrot and was easily able to name the 30 species of Amazon parrots and the over 300 species of parrots in general. My quest for knowledge of the animal kingdom was this obsessive. I also spent my spare time as a child collecting frogs, minnows, turtles, insects — anything that would bring me closer to nature. The fascination has never left me, and I rarely get through a day without researching something in this arena.
Do you have a favourite animal? If so, what is it that draws you to it?
My favourites are the big cats. I have studied and trained with these magnificent evolutionary hunters and have a relationship with each of them. I have raised all of the big cats at our sanctuary from cubs and I spend each day working with all of them in a manner that each personality permits. Their habitats are quickly being destroyed and ancient beliefs that their body parts have mythical powers feed a horrid billion-dollar black market and fuel the rapid extinction of these animals. I will do whatever I can to help stop canned trophy hunting of these cats, and to try and save some so that future generations can cherish their existence on this planet.
Sylvia’s favourites are certainly the two-toed sloths. They are fragile and difficult to care for, but she has had many successes in raising them. They do require a nurturing, caring upbringing, balanced with the fact that as adults they can be quite dangerous. Sylvia is best with these creatures.
You’ve studied the behavioural patterns of these creatures and, as you said, even trained to be licensed to handle big cats. Why was it important to you to take such an academic and hands-on approach?
I believe that understanding these creatures would quickly force any learned person to put their egos aside and understand that only a few should be permitted to house these animals. To answer your question in the shortest and most accurate manner, without knowledge and a deep understanding and respect for these animals and what they have evolved to be the result will be death of the human or an unfortunate incident resulting in an injured human and a destroyed cat. They are wild animals and cannot be tamed. They will simply tolerate you if you treat them with respect and understand their needs and desires.
Caring for these animals is undoubtedly a serious obligation. What are some of the challenges that come with caring for such a diverse group of species?
We have the best team and staff and I have over 200 cameras with live feed, so even when in Toronto I watch all that is going on and give instruction. We have successes and we have failures and both Sylvia and I take each quite personally. We try our best with the best equipment, people and knowledge available to us.
You say many of the animals at your reserve don’t have better options available to them, that there is no safe place in the wild for them. What are the dangers or threats they face in the wild?
Yes, sadly there is little wild left. Deforestation, black market slaughter, even reserves, although set up from a “good” place, only assist criminals to more easily locate the targeted animals. Simply put, as population sprawls, and 7.5 billion people require more space, farmland, etc., the wild is disappearing. Predators such as tigers, lions and hyenas do not make good neighbours, and incidents of course occur. This coupled with hunting, legal and illegal, black market ivory trade and tiger part trade, make even the tiny habitats available to these animals unsafe. Inevitably, extinction is the result. Your children will read about tigers as they do now of dinosaurs, or more recently dodo birds or Tasmanian wolves.
What are some of the goals that you have for these animals?
Our main goal is to give these animals respectful, safe, fulfilling lives, and through controlled breeding and placement in other facilities similar to ours, we hope to create a short-term solution until a long-term one is available. This is a difficult task, but there are good people out there that feel the same. Through teamwork and cooperation, we can only hope to make a difference.
Find more post About Robert Mantella: