Declarations of Independents

Forget strip malls, condos, and highways. Loxahatchee Groves is a place of dirt roads, wild pets, and eccentric residents.

The property is as welcoming as a junkyard. It could exist only in the laissez-faire world of Loxahatchee Groves, where neighbors generally adhere to a live-and-let-live philosophy. Iron fences, about 12 feet tall, zigzag across the property, so as to keep the animals at bay. Several pieces of heavy machinery, including a forklift, sit in the yard. Hawkes is in the process of building a garage for his 1959 convertible Cadillac and 1969 Corvette (complete with lion's head hood ornament). Near the swimming pool is a massive statue of a musclebound man holding a globe atop his head.

You'll have to make do with a cage-side view of the animals, because the house (and most of the yard) is off limits. The cats have the run of the granite floors, from the swimming pool to the master bedroom, and they don't take kindly to strangers. Only Hawkes and his girlfriend, LeeAnn Lewis, can enter. At night Bobo, a tiger, cuddles up in bed with the couple.

The 58-year-old, Croatian-born Hawkes is a few inches over six feet tall, with a barrel chest and a shaggy head of salt-and-pepper hair. His eyes are bright blue but bloodshot, and his vine-swinging arms are still ripped with muscles. Lou Ferrigno comes to mind, but with a middle-aged gut.

"I was seven years old when I saw Johnny Weissmuller swinging through the trees, and that was it," says Hawkes, explaining the root of his Tarzan obsession. By Hawkes' fabled account, he escaped communist Croatia at age 17 by hiking through mountains. He fled first to Austria, then Paris, then Canada, finally settling in Miami in 1959. The opportunity to play the lord of the jungle, his boyhood dream, came, according to Hawkes, after he sent pictures of himself to a producer, who then arranged an audition.

"How many people can walk among lions and tigers and survive?" Hawkes asks rhetorically. "Only Tarzan can do that."

The films in which Hawkes appeared usually are not mentioned in the same breath as the Weissmuller classics (or even the later Jock Mahoney films). One Website dedicated to all things Tarzan gives each Hawkes movie a single star, describing one as "an odd, inept movie." It does add, however, that "Hawkes' yell is wonderful!"

Not so wonderful was the filming of Tarzan y el Arco Iris(Tarzan and the Rainbow), during which a stunt went terribly awry. For one scene, in which Tarzan is tortured for information, Hawkes was tied to metal stakes planted in the ground. A fire was also lit for dramatic effect. But, as Hawkes recalls, too much kerosene must have been used, because the set went up in flames. The crew, he claims, fled the fire, but a lion dragged him from the flames, which burned 90 percent of his body.

"People have never mattered anymore ever since," says Hawkes, rolling up a sleeve to show patches of discolored skin. "I became a slave to the animals."

Hawkes did some acting after recovering from the burns (he played a murderous monster in a horror flick called Blood Freaks), but soon moved to Loxahatchee Groves in order to create a sanctuary for exotic cats. It's evidently a full-time job. Hawkes says he can't travel farther than Miami because the animals have to be looked after constantly. Housing nine several-hundred-pound cats is also expensive: Every two weeks or so, 1500 pounds of turkey legs are delivered to the Loxahatchee Groves compound for consumption.

Hawkes does granite and fencing work to pay the bills, and Lewis silk-screens Tshirts (featuring, naturally, images of lions and tigers) to sell at flea markets. The couple is also trying to get a Web-based business going. Billing the Loxahatchee Groves compound as "Jungleworld," the Website features a picture of a loincloth-clad, spear-carrying Hawkes, along with Tony the Tiger. Web browsers are implored to visit Jungleworld in the flesh, where they can have their pictures taken with the animals. Hawkes also wants to set up an exotic-animal Web cam, for which people would pay $1 a month to watch the cats online.

Despite the cyberspace plans, money is a constant pressure. Like Loxahatchee Groves itself, with its dirt roads and eccentric personalities, Hawkes is uncertain how long his sanctuary can survive. One of the few assets he has is the land itself, valued at $75,386 by the Palm Beach County Property Appraiser's Office. But if Hawkes sells the property, it is highly unlikely that he could find another place to live where the animals would have enough room to roam -- and where the presence of an 850-pound tiger would not incite a revolt by local homeowners.

The only alternative, in Hawkes' mind, is a dark one -- and perhaps an apt metaphor with which to close this trip to Loxahatchee Groves. If the money runs out, Hawkes says, he may kill the cats and himself, rather than ship them off to someone else's care.

"I can't afford food next week," Hawkes says. "It scares me that someday I would have to put us all to sleep. They're free here."

Contact Paul Demko at his e-mail address: paul.demko@newtimesbpb.com

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