Sylvia Fernandez, a woman gored by a deer at the Survival Outreach Sanctuary in Spring Hill, is coming to the owner’s defense. The owner, Judy Watson, is her own sister.
Fernandez is emphatic Watson is not to blame. The 75-year-old lost her eye after a deer named Vinny attacked her inside Watson’s wildlife sanctuary.
"The eye is gone," said Fernandez. “I am getting used to it.”
But she is concerned about her younger sister, Watson, and wanted to set the record straight.
"This is nobody's fault," Fernandez said. "This is no one's fault, especially not hers. This is something that is a nature thing."
But Watson could face legal trouble after the buck attacked her sister. A week before the attack, a 7-year-old old lion named Savannah escaped from her enclosure at the sanctuary. Fortunately, the lion stayed within the 10-acre confine.
Trappers tranquilized her as she lay napping inside another tiger cage. But the negative publicity around the escape left Watson deeply depressed. Fernandez drove from her Sarasota home to help give her younger sister moral support.
The deer attacked her as she left the property.
"I think the deer was playful and it got out of hand. It is a very friendly deer," said Fernandez. "The deer has been around since it was a little baby. She (Watson) raised it. Someone brought it to her because it was abandoned. It has always been sweet and loves Doritos."
But for some reason, the buck came toward her.
"You know they don't know how rough they are when they play. I suppose (that’s) because it has never done anything like that before ever," said Fernandez.
She doesn't remember much after that but volunteer Stretch Sessons does. He heard Fernandez scream.
"She was hollering ‘Help! Help!’ The deer had her down. I got me a stick and hit him and grabbed him by the horns," said Sessons. "She (Fernandez) grabbed the back of my shirt and I got the deer away."
Sessons saved Fernandez's life but the attack made things worse for the sanctuary.
"I am pretty depressed," Watson said. "Very few things get me down. But this had me at a very low point. We are strong, though, and will survive."
She said people are afraid to step inside the 13-year-old sanctuary.
"That is truly what breaks my heart," Watson said. "I love children and educating children about animals and now this."
Watson has moved Savannah to a new enclosure.
'We are also watching her 24 hours a day. I have not been sleeping at night, watching her to make sure she is not showing any abnormal behavior. She is not. But we want to make sure of that," said Fernandez.
ACTION NEWS also asked about the deer. There were allegations that a trapper warned Watson about the deer being aggressive.
"I cannot comment on that specifically because of the case," Watson said. “But it is safe here. It is safe here. We have to take responsibility for our actions but to come at me so hard is something I don't understand."
Watson is hoping opening the sanctuary for a family weekend fundraiser on March 22 and 23 from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. will bring back visitors. Watson is asking for a $10 donation per car. Everyone who comes will be treated to a burger.
"I want people to see what a great place this is. For 13 years I have not had one problem," said Watson.
She refutes reports that the lion cage was not properly secured after a USDA report cited problems with the enclosure.
"I fixed those problems. They were fixed. I even posted the report on the sanctuary's Facebook page so people could see it," said Watson.
Calls to the USDA were not returned. In the meantime, Watson said she will do what it takes to fight any charges against her.
"That is what is so sad. All the money is going towards legal fees and not helping these animals," Watson said.
Fernandez said she will defend her sister at whatever cost.
"It is over and done with and the court should not interfere with this," Fernandez said.
If you are interested in attending the fundraiser, the Survival Outreach Sanctuary is located at 22005 Bowman Road Sprig Hill.