CRESTVIEW — It's been 30 years since Deborah Vining Mattox got her first exotic animal: a spider monkey named Baby Sarah.
She probably didn't know at the time that the acquisition of the tiny monkey would put her on a path to owning a zoo that, at its zenith, was home to more than 150 animals.
The facility, then known as the Sasquatch Zoo, was sold to the Emerald Coast Wildlife Refuge in 2013. It changed hands again last year when a South Florida family bought it with plans to live on the property and homeschool their children there.
For Mattox, who still lives on property adjoining the zoo, the latest ownership change has been the best. She says Rick and Sara DeRidder, who live at the renamed Emerald Coast Zoo with their children, share her vision. They also let her visit the animals, many of whom she raised by hand, whenever she wants.
"They're wonderful people," she said. "They're just so nice. I hope the community gets behind them."
Her own journey toward zoo ownership began more than 30 years ago after she learned she needed special permits to keep Baby Sarah. At the time, she and her then-husband, Bill, were running a canoe rental business down by the river. After getting the proper permits, her collection of exotic animals grew quickly.
They eventually relocated to the zoo's current home just off U.S. Highway 90 east of Crestview, and when she and Bill got divorced in 2000, she got the zoo and the adjoining house where they had raised many of the zoo's animals by hand.
Her first zoo animal was a tiger named Micah, whom she acquired from a local woman who'd been sharing her home with him. His original owner had a chained link fence in the living room, separating their living quarters from the big cats.
Mattox got him a female tiger, but Micah was too old and portly to have any interest in breeding, she recalls. From there, she acquired an African lion named Moja, who lived in the house with her.
"He was bottle fed and sat on the couch watching TV with me," she recalled.
She even had play dates with other individuals who brought their lions to visit.
She continued to raise some of the zoo's larger animals, and when they passed away she buried them in her backyard. She had lions, tigers, bobcats, llamas and arctic wolves in her house.
Now her life is quieter. She has a cat, the kind you'd expect to find in a house, two little puppies and some goats.
"I've always loved animals," she said, adding that there was something extremely compelling about raising exotic animals. She remained close to all of them until they matured enough to breed.
"Once they got their own mate, I stayed out of it," Mattox said.