Born into a circus family, the two share a love for performance and entertainment. These days, they no longer go out on the road with their shows, but instead, devote their time to providing a loving environment to animals in need at Big Cat Habitat & Gulf Coast Sanctuary, a nonprofit home for rescued animals located on Palmer Boulevard in Sarasota. Kay and Ellian recently met with SRQ Magazine’s Wes Roberts to share their experiences from the past and present.

SRQ: When did you know that your family was a circus family with all these generations of circus legacy? Kay Rosaire: Pretty early on, really for me, because as a kid, my mom had a comedy dog act and my dad had a comedy bear that he worked with on stage. We’ve done a lot of comedy in our family and we worked with lots of stars. I remember we worked with Laurel and Hardy and I sat on Oliver Hardy’s lap. He was drinking Wild Turkey and laughing with his big old belly which made me start to fall off his lap. His wife was there and she put me back on. So, we knew we were different from the very get go. We are fortunate that we’re able to take our circus careers, which were pretty much worldwide, and bring it home to Sarasota.  Ellian Rosaire : I started performing as a toddler at around age two. That was the beginning of my career. I used to come in dressed as a ballerina and dance with the chimp and then, I would get up on his shoulders and stand up. I did acrobatics with the chimp and I was a little superstar. I used to be cute. 

Do all of the Rosaire children work with all types of animals, or do you each have a specialty? Ellian: We all work all kinds of animals and we all help each other with whatever needs to be done. But each one of us leaned toward a different animal. With me, it’s hoof stock .horses, camels, etc. And with Kay, it’s the big cats. Big, big cats were our sister Pam’s area, and our brother, who has passed, was the bear guy. It’s basically the animal that you’re attracted to and that you’re interested in. That’s what makes us good at what we do because we pick the right animals.

Was there something special you learned when you were growing up about the understanding of animals? Kay: My father, from back when he was a young man, was phenomenal. He just had this thing for animals anywhere. It sounds silly, but he went into the forest and the birds landed on him. He even trained wild deer. It’s like Ellian with the horses. She turns bad ones around in a week. Ellian: Our dad would get problem animals and they would no longer be a problem.

Are there universal truths about being an animal person? Kay: Absolutely. Animals are good judges of people. I had a Doberman and I would take her to the beach and she’d be playing and having a fun time. And then some guy walked by and after dozens of people had passed, she would just turn around and look at him and just kind of keep her eyes on him and follow him down the beach until he was gone. They know bad people. And vice versa. You have to be the right person to be doing whatever you’re doing with the animals. And you have to pick the right animal for the thing that you’re doing.  Ellian: And it’s understanding the animal that you’re dealing with–being able to read them. I know what the horse is going to do before it does it. We all have a connection. 

When you guys were kids growing up, was there rivalry between the kids? Did you argue over which animals you would each care for? Ellian: Rivalry? It was more like who was going to be better in dad’s eyes. Kay: I’ve been around lion cubs my whole life on TV shows and movies. But the lion from the movie The Cross Eyed Lion had passed and they needed a new young lion. He was at our place for a couple of months and right away, I said “I’ll take care of the lion.” So I fed him and I cleaned him and I got really close to this lion and that’s when I thought I could work with lions. And then from there to tigers and it just kind of evolves. I think that’s how it evolved with all of us. Dad was a horse trainer, he had lions, he had chimps. Our sister Pam was around the chimps. She connected with the chimps.

Tell us about the Rosaire family. Ellian: Our parents came from two different circus families in England and they were Irish too. Our mother’s family actually went back farther than our dad’s generationally in the business. But it was pretty cool because they both had shows and they ended up together and had eight children. All the kids were the performers in the shows too, and also played the music in the band, all multi talented. Our mother, Betty Kays, was an amazing woman. She had been in the riding act, vaulting with her brothers and she did a lot of things prior to getting with my father. And when they married, she put together a hilarious dog act with like 20 dogs. She worked that for years and years and years. And our father was an all around performer. He’d also been an aerialist, an acrobat, an animal trainer–he did it all.  Kay: He performed on the rings. That’s actually how our dad ended up being totally animal because he was doing rings. He had a dislocation, and broke his back. And he was in the hospital for two years because back then, it was fatal when you broke your back. They said he would never walk again and within no time at all, he was performing again. He took what he always had, the love for animals, and he made a little zoo. He was always getting animals like chimps and bears. We lived in wagons that were pulled by horses when we were little kids because we were born in the forties. Ellian was a one-year old in Switzerland when they were on tour with the circus there years later, she’s our youngest sister. My dad built a truck into a motorhome. He did it twice. The first one he did with a double decker bus and we lived upstairs. And then they had a little bedroom downstairs and a full kitchen, bathroom, everything. Later, he actually got a bigger van and raised the roof and made this huge mobile home by hand and we lived in it when we were little kids. They had a partition in the back so that the horse stood in the middle and then the dogs were on the side, in the back of where we lived in the front. At one point we were in Spain and he bought another horse because the one was getting unhealthy and had problems. So he found a beautiful Andalusian Pino in Spain. And my mom was actually pregnant with Ellian and he couldn’t fit where the other horse was. There was a door between us and the animals. So they opened the door and cut the floor out and they made a door out of the floor so that when we wanted to travel, they lifted that door up. And the other horse came right in the front and was in the living room of the bus. So as we drove, the horse stood in the living room. So this little horse was in front of the old horse and the old horse was jealous because he was in the living room getting treats and the old horse bit him and ended up on the living room couch, on my mom. My dad said “Stay calm. I’ll get him down, just stay.” And that is a true story. Bizarre, but true. 

Tell us about the work that you’re doing now. Ellian: Kay and I are both promoting the human-animal connection. My new, not-for-profit, is called the Horse Connection. We’re trying to connect people with horses and we are pulling from our history, from our family history. Just like here at the Big Cat Habitat, we have the bird show with Linda and Dallas. My niece does the dog act. She’s got a whole bunch of little dogs–all rescued. They’re really adorable. We’re here for each other. Kay: Big Cat Habitat is where we’re doing some conservation work. We are starting with some other conservation groups, mostly in Florida, because there’s less red tape. And these animals that we have here are potentially going to be future breeders. We’re actually buying them with the endowment we had from a lady. And we’re going to try to breed some lemurs and clouded leopards. Ellian: These animals are in danger of being extinct so this is conservation. People need to see animals. Otherwise, what interest do they have in saving anything? When they see them in person, it hits their heart.

What are the origins of the Big Cat Habitat? Kay: We started it because we could. The first step of the Big Cat Habitat was that I built my own place for my own training and to take care of my animals in the winter, keep them busy and active. And then one day my dad called me and he said, there’s some guys here and they’ve just bought a tiger and they’re gonna take it to South America or somewhere and can they leave it with us for a couple of weeks while they do all the paperwork? And I said, sure, why not? We never heard from them ever again, they just dumped it basically. So I said, well, we’ll take care of it. We had that tiger for years. His name was Nadu and we had him till he died. The word got out and we became a nonprofit. 

Photography by Wes Roberts


What does it cost to feed the big cats? Kay: We just spent $38,000 on a truck load of meat. That’ll last us, hopefully about eight months. And Ellian’s penchant for saving horses, when did that start?  Kay: The horses first came in 2007 or 2008. That same time we got all the animals because people were going broke. The stock market crashed. There were people that had wild animals, exotics and were feeding them, and suddenly lost their property, and had no money to feed them. It was the same with the horses.  Ellian: They were tying them on fences and leaving. They were dumping them in state parks. But the origin of my experience with horses comes from our riding academy in Pennsylvania. There was a time when the whole family came off the road. Our father had gotten hurt and couldn’t drive to go on the road so he became the curator of the Erie zoo, which was appropriate because he’d already had experience with different species of animals. We actually put a show together in the zoo that had a nice amphitheater and he trained the zoo animals and we all performed with the animals that belonged to the zoo. It was awesome. Different animals, even deer and elephants. As my sisters got older they needed more stuff to keep busy. So Dad started a riding school and they were the instructors. I grew up at the riding academy. I just figured the other day that I started doing riding lessons for adults approximately 50 years ago. I don’t tell people that because then I sound old. I’ve always done riding lessons. Later, when I was married and my boys were in school, it was getting harder to pull kids in and out of school so we made the decision that we would benefit our children the most by coming off the road completely. That’s when I decided to open the riding academy of my own and horses came to me from different people from different situations. I had an awesome man who was getting out of polo, who gave me his horses and helped me a big way starting with that. And people that had horses that they couldn’t deal with, misbehaving, people that couldn’t afford to keep their horses and so on. 

And so now you’ve built this place that you’re expanding? Ellian: Broadening it, yes. One of my problems has always been that I don’t have a covered arena. So I’m weather restricted. If it rains today, I won’t have any riders after school. Kids with social and behavioral disorders, if they can’t ride, it can be a real emotional upheaval. And that’s the reason that I really need to get this not-for-profit thing rolling so that I can get enough funding to put up an arena so that I’ll be able to accommodate everybody properly.

Tell us about your dreams for the future? Kay: Well, one of the things that we’ve been talking about has always been to make this whole area, like the Central Park of Sarasota. That’s what it should be. We’re only open four hours a day. We feed the animals after the people leave so they’re alert and waiting in the morning. Zoos typically feed animals early and then they’re asleep for visitors. We make it more interesting, more personal than the zoo. When folks come here, they can pet the goat. They can feed a bear. They can feed a tiger on a stick. They can come and do yoga with the tigers and lemurs. We’ve been doing this stuff for years. 

Will your family be involved in the Big Cat Habitat in the future? Kay: We all have children. Our succession is that my son and my grandchildren will take over this and do the same mission that I’ve always been on, which is now the human-animal bond. And we will still rescue any animal that needs help. And we’ve had to adapt. COVID has had an impact on us. Obviously we were closed for three months. We just didn’t let anybody in. So we started doing the encounters where people came just with their family and they’d have a special room. They can hang out with the lemurs, feed them and play with them. It’s helped save us–we do it with the lemurs, the fox, the female wolf. We have the wallabies and one of the most popular is the sloth. We actually are a destination. We get emails from people planning their trips from France and all over Europe. They come and they love it. When people are leaving, I bring my golf cart over and thank them for coming. People hug me and get teary eyed, because they’ll never in their life ever get this close to a predator because it just doesn’t happen. Ellian: You wouldn’t believe how many people tell me that our place is their happy place.You don’t have to ride a horse to enjoy it. It’s just being in an area with a loose horse and allowing him to do whatever he is driven to do, whether he comes up to you or he turns his back on you, just learning to be there and read the animal. And you’ll see it as riders evolve. At the beginning they know nothing and eventually they’re out there doing a lot of really cool stuff. It’s magical. 

About Big Cat Habitat and Gulf Coast Sanctuary, an ever-growing large-animal rescue in eastern Sarasota County. Founded in 1987 by Kay Rosaire, the non-profit sanctuary is a permanent home for dozens of exotic animals, offers placement for animals in need, and works to educate the public about animal care and conservation. 7101 Palmer Blvd., Sarasota, About Rosaire’s Riding Academy  Rosaire’s Riding Academy & Pony Rides LLC is a family owned and operated equestrian farm that provides personalized services and unique event offerings. We love teaching riders of all ages how to handle, love, respect and enjoy these beautiful animals. For those who don’t wish to ride we offer ground handling and grooming sessions. 901 East Road, Sarasota, 941-356-3993,