There is a beastly boom sweeping the country. African animals now attract more attention on this side of the Atlantic than they ever did at home. A proliferation of parks where wild animals roam free, or nearly so, while humans ogle them from the comparative safety of people cages (Detroit style) has transported Africa into the backyards of America.
Jungle Habitat in West Milford, N.J., 40 miles northwest of New York City, had more than half a million visitors in the first three months the park was open last year. Quebec's Pare Safari Africain at Hemmingford, two miles north of the U.S.-Canada border, had 250,000 visitors in the first six weeks of operation. Lion Country Safari's newest project, outside Atlanta, has had 225,000 customers in its seven-month existence. In Winston, Ore., where World Wildlife Safari has not even officially opened, some 50,000 have already taken sneak peeks at the birds and beasts newly transplanted to the Pacific Northwest.
All this fascination with foreign animals—although most are African, others represent all parts of the world—has touched off a boom that is big, big business. At $3.75 per person, Jungle Habitat grossed more than $1½ million in admissions in its first three months. The restaurant, snack bars, souvenir stands, camera and gift shops added substantial amounts.
There is still additional money to be made from the animals themselves. In a sense, wild animal production—with a self-perpetuating stock—is the modern merchant's dream. Some animals are more profitable than others but even here nature has proved a beneficent partner. The easiest animals to breed in captivity seem also to be the most popular.
Lions, for example, definitely hold top billing. They are also among the most prolific breeders of the larger mammals. In the first two years that Lion Country Safari at Laguna Hills, Calif. was in operation, its 40 lions produced more than 100 young. At the going price of $350 per cub, that is a bonus with teeth.
Rarer animals, or those more difficult to breed in captivity, bring considerably higher prices. White rhino calves, for example, command as much as $7,500 each, while a giraffe sells for $10,000 or more. As long as the market for wild animals continues to grow, profits from the production and sale of animals to other parks represent a significant ancillary benefit.
Since the opening of the original Lion Country Safari near West Palm Beach in 1967, 12 parks have been started in the U.S. and Canada. Some 15 more are scheduled to open in the next two years, including a $10 million complex near Orlando. Warner Communications Inc., the entertainment conglomerate, with the help of New York real-estate tycoons Herbert and Stuart Scheftel and the Hunt family from Detroit, pioneer animal handlers and dealers, has already invested some $5 million in the 500-acre Jungle Habitat. They see this as merely the beginning of what they hope will become a nationwide chain of similar parks. Florida-based Hardwicke Companies is currently involved in a successful park in Quebec and has another one scheduled to open next year near Freehold, N.J.
Lion Country Safari started its West Palm Beach park with an initial investment of $500,000, added another half-million over the next two years, and in the third year—with a million visitors—was showing profits sufficient to cover capitalization, operating expenses and the establishment of a second park in California, stocked, incidentally, with homegrown animals. By last summer Lion Country had added two more parks, in Texas and Georgia, and had run its net worth up to $35 million. The operation went public in 1971, is currently being traded over the counter under the symbol GRRR, and at its growliest was selling at 55 times earnings.
The concept of wild animal parks is not new. Since President Paul Kruger pioneered the idea with the park named after him in South Africa at the end of the last century, dozens of others have been established throughout Africa. But the idea of wild animals roaming loose in parks far removed from their native habitats is very new. With the possible exception of a handful of exotic game ranches in the Southwest, none of which operate as public exhibitions but as private preserves, the idea of wild animal parks as we know them today dates back only to 1966.
The first, The Lions of Longleat, opened that year in Wiltshire, England, prompted not by dreams of soaring profits but by dire necessity. Lord Bath, the laird of Longleat, one of Britain's stateliest homes, was beset by debt. He had already opened Longleat to the public in 1949 and charged admission—the first of many profit-pinched aristocrats to do so—but even with an average of 135,000 paying visitors a year Lord Bath was having difficulty making ends meet. Just keeping the house, which dates back to 1580, and gardens in shape took some $85,000 a year, on top of which a swarm of deathwatch beetles ate its way through almost a quarter of a million dollars worth of Old English beams. The poor lord looked around for a miracle.
It manifested itself in the form of Jimmy Chipperfield, heir to a family tradition of more than 300 years in the animal business and owner of the famed Chipperfield Circus. But Circuses, as well as stately British homes, had come upon hard times and Chipperfield was casting about for some more practical way to exhibit his collection of lions.
"You can imagine," recalls Lord Bath, "how wonderful it was when I first met Jimmy Chipperfield. It was at 11 a.m. on Saturday, Nov. 7, 1964. At that memorable interview he put to me his idea for having a park such as one can see in Africa, but of course on a much smaller scale; and he had chosen Longleat for this highly imaginative idea."
Not in their wildest dreams did either man come close to predicting just how successful this "highly imaginative idea" would eventually prove. Nor did they anticipate the problems it would evoke. For almost two years before Longleat finally opened its grounds as an experimental wild animal park, the two men battled municipal authorities, zoologists and neighboring Wiltshiremen, all of whom found the idea more horrifying than imaginative. Lions at Longleat became a national incident. The Times expressed the empire's indignation: "...This is one of the most fantastically unsuitable uses of a stretch of England's green and pleasant land that can ever have entered the head of a noble proprietor. The wildest follies of the past pale before it; the old landlords, though they had some odd ideas, seldom lost their feel for their native soil. They seldom went in for stunts.
"Lions in an African game reserve are at home. A few in Whipsnade and at Regent's Park, under the auspices of the Zoological Society, are justified. But a lion in Wiltshire is as out of place as a Wodehousian Empress of Blandings pig would be in Kruger Park. Cattle, sheep and deer ought to be good enough for a Wiltshireman. The proper place for lions on an island that is spared them in the wild state, is in heraldry...."
The public disagreed. If not the proper place for lions, Longleat proved most popular. People descended upon the drive-through park like shoppers at a bargain counter. Traffic was snarled, roads were blocked and still the curious came, cash in hand, to see the big cats. To the dismay of some detractors, no one was eaten. No one was mauled. And apparently no one was disappointed.
Harry Shuster, a South African, heard of Chipperfield's success and set up a similar drive-through park in Johannesburg the following year with animals supplied by Chipperfield's brother. Jimmy Chipperfield and Shuster then joined up in 1967 to open the Florida Lion Country Safari. Chipperfield sold out two years later to Shuster and headed north. At Rockton, Ontario, in partnership with retired Canadian Army Colonel G.D. Dailley, he opened African Lion Safari and Game Farm Ltd. in 1969. They then worked with Hardwicke to open the Quebec park last July that is managed by the Colonel's son Don.
In between the Canadian ventures, Chipperfield put together parks in Holland, Germany, Italy, Spain, France, Australia and Japan and has eight more in the planning stages. From his base in England he travels all over the world, buying, selling, trading and transplanting animals at a pace that barely manages to keep up with the public's wild demands.
The unprecedented acceptance of animal parks is to some extent a reflection of growing concern about the world's wildlife, a concern kindled in recent years by heightened awareness of conservation and its importance in our society. Indeed, the conservation aspects of these parks are among the strongest arguments for their existence. In future years they may provide the breeding nuclei of any number of rare species that are currently threatened in their native habitats. Several parks, such as the one in Winston, Ore., already have programs under way that represent major steps forward in conserving nature's rarest creatures.
But conservation alone cannot claim credit for the record crowds that are commonplace at wild animal parks everywhere. Their primary appeal is the fact that the animals are free. There is something dramatically different and exciting about meeting an animal face to face on the tarmac. One may get close to the animal at a zoo, and even have more time and opportunity to study it, but it is still in a cage and there is a phony quality about the encounter.
Certainly the approximation of African veld in New Jersey or California has its artificial qualities, too, and the reality of fences, no matter how skillfully they are disguised, refutes the word free, but both seem immaterial when the huge form of an elephant in the road brings one's car to a halt. A grizzly bear cub frolicking in a mud puddle only a few yards from the family car is infinitely more impressive than the sight of the same beast performing in a pit. There is a sense of intimacy that comes from sharing the roadway with a herd of wildebeests.
"In a car you are on the animal's level," says Colonel Dailley. "There is something really exciting about having to put your foot on the brake to stop because there is an antelope or a lion in front of you."
When Jungle Habitat first opened it experimented with drive-through air-conditioned buses. "These seemed a logical solution to traffic jams," says Warner Vice-President Jay Emmett. "Originally we charged $1 to ride the bus and did no business. Then we made the buses free and still did no business. Even without air conditioning at the height of the summer heat people preferred their own cars to buses. What they want in a park of this kind is to get eyeball to eyeball with that baboon. They can do that in their own cars."
Sometimes the encounters are even more intimate than the spectators bargain for. Baboons especially are to be reckoned with. They climb on cars, leap from roof to roof, do devastating things to vinyl tops, display singular disdain for radio aerials and side-view mirrors and have the unlovely habit of washing down windshields with spit or worse.
They are also the special bane of animal keepers responsible for keeping them in their own backyards. Chain link fences surround the various compounds into which most parks are divided in order to separate the carnivores from the species that would otherwise wind up as their prey, but normal fences are no deterrent to baboons. Some parks have worked out elaborate steel-mesh double-fence systems that form tunnellike barriers across baboon areas. Jungle Habitat uses an electric fence that has become something of a challenge to baboons. Having accidentally discovered that the current occasionally goes off, several wise old males are now in the habit of sending young ones off to test the wires each day. On more than one morning they have found them uncharged, whereupon platoons of baboons—young and old—scampered over the fence and into the surrounding countryside. Most, however, were back by mealtime.
A favorite baboon trick is to slip through the compound gates by hanging onto the back of a car or hiding under the bumper. This ploy is usually foiled by one of the trained dogs stationed at the gates of most baboon compounds for exactly that purpose.
Besides such dogs, game guards also roam the compounds to make certain that animals stay in the parks and people stay in their cars. A mischievous baboon showing up at the local shopping center may have its humorous aspects, but a prowling lion does not. The possibility of any animal, particularly a dangerous one, escaping from a park is an ever-present concern in most neighboring communities.
To help their neighbors sleep more peacefully, several parks make a practice of rounding up their carnivores and confining them in cages at night (now some of the people are losing sleep worrying about the resulting discomfort to the tightly confined animals). Most, however, safely rely upon the impregnability of their fencing systems and around-the-clock vigilance. In case of trouble, game guards at Rockton's park, for example, are armed with three kinds of ammunition: blanks, which make a loud and frightening noise; rice-loaded cartridges, which act as stingers; and, when these fail, single-ball shotshells, which are lethal. The use of such deterrents is rarely necessary although all parks take similar precautions.
The real nightmare of park personnel is not the job of controlling the animals—their main concern is the people. Along with the sense of intimacy with the animals that these parks produce, they also produce a sense of false security. The grizzly bear rolling in the mud, the baboon perched on the fender, the lion stretched lazily in the sun are no less wild for their proximity. The car as a people cage is decidedly that—a means of keeping animals and people apart. But in spite of warning signs throughout all parks, a few people persist in tempting fate and the animals by driving with open windows, offering bits of food, and the bolder ones sometimes even getting out of their cars.
"Some of the things people do around wild animals are really amazing," says Hemmingford's Don Dailley. "You get some smart alecks who tease and throw things at the animals. Fortunately, they are few. The real problems are the people who won't believe the animals are wild. They're pushing peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches at the bears and all of a sudden they have a claw down their arm. Or they're holding the baby out the window for a better look at the big kitty. You can shout through the horn all day about closing windows and they look at you as if it were some kind of a joke."
Tragically, an open window was no joke for a visiting 2-year-old last August when a lion thrust a paw into the car in which she was riding at Lion Country Safari in Laguna Hills, inflicting wounds that required more than 100 stitches. Two months later a 26-year-old Israeli tourist named Abraham Levi was similarly mauled at Jungle Habitat. Witnesses to the latter attack said it was precipitated by Levi's hanging out the car window and beckoning to the lion. The driver of Levi's car said the lion moved so quickly that he did not see it until its head was in the window. "When you first enter Jungle Habitat, it is not dangerous," he said. "There are ducks and elephants and everybody leaves the windows open. We approached the area that is supposed to be dangerous, and we went through a gate, but we didn't feel it was a dangerous place."
How to make people aware of the dangers that are ever-present whenever wild animals are involved is a problem park personnel will probably struggle with for some time to come. There are other problems, too. An important one is the fact that parks have sprung up in so many areas in such a short time that they have outpaced the numbers of trained personnel necessary to properly staff them. High animal-survival rates and healthy stocks are dependent almost entirely upon the expertise of park personnel. Where this has been less than adequate, animal mortality has been devastating. One park has already closed only months after it opened, largely "because they could not keep their animals alive," according to one wildlife biologist.
There are two sides to that coin, warn other wildlife experts. What happens if all the animals are kept alive and healthy and are reproducing at optimum rates? There may be reason to rejoice at 40 lions in a single park producing more than 100 young in two years, but will there be equal joy if there is equal productivity in say two dozen parks? With populations more than doubling every two years, the number of lions in those 24 parks would grow to almost 100,000 by 1980. Even with enough new parks to handle the surplus in this country, such a surfeit of lions would not only depress their commercial value but would produce staggering upkeep and safety problems.
Then there is the question of just how many wild animal parks the country really wants? Certainly there is room for more than now exist, but the answer to how many more is less certain. Within driving range of the New York metropolitan area, for example, a second park will provide competition for Jungle Habitat in the next year. There are some 20 million auto-adventurists living within this area, the parks' backers argue, which should be more than enough to support three, four, even five such parks. But will they? Or will several competing parks in the same area siphon enough business from each other to undermine all?
Zoo people, who are among the most vocal critics of the parks, have already felt the pinch of competition. Several have attacked the commercial orientation of wild animal parks, expressing concern about what will happen to the animals if profits fall off and parks fail.
Such concern is certainly valid to the extent that most parks, like other commercial enterprises, equate success with economic viability. A conglomerate giant such as Warner Communications is not in the animal business because it loves Bambi but because of the money Bambi can earn for it. It is a safe bet that the moment Bambi's earnings fall off, Warner's interest will also drop. It is one thing to liquidate an inventory of gadgets and another to get rid of a herd of gnus.
Although the parks do not provide an environment comparable to life in the wild, the approximation of wilderness there, the expanses of meadows and plains and woods and watering places come much closer to nature than do the cages in a zoo. Consequently, animals that are born and raised and live in parks behave more normally, more like wild animals, than do their zoo counterparts.
Zoo animals, for a variety of reasons, rarely raise their own young. Most animals raised by humans become socialized to man rather than to each other and then must learn to reassimilate into their own species groups. These animals do not readily breed and often fail to develop characteristic behavior patterns. They become so removed from their own counterparts that they require two or three generations of freedom from humans before they can be returned successfully to the wild.
"Everything about zoo life is unnatural," says Dr. Randall Eaton, director of Oregon's World Wildlife Safari and a most respected authority on big cats. "Animals kept in cages or in small enclosures have higher incidence of disease and suffer from limited physical activity and increased psychostress factors. You never see a truly representative pride of lions in a zoo, and no zoo has more than one pride. The competition among prides, the social interaction, the hunting, stalking, demarcating of territories are all impossible in a zoo. The behavior of parks' animals is remarkably close to that of animals in the wild."
The high reproductivity among park animals gives reason to hope that they may eventually become a major source for reestablishing animals in the wild. The parks are also potentially rich educational centers for enlightening the public about wildlife. Joe Tourist will be considerably more concerned about the imminent demise of the Asian lion if he has met one across the hood of his Ford.
"A park should entertain," says Dr. Eaton, "and it should be commercially viable, but it would be wrong and tragic to limit these parks with their vast potentials as legitimate research and scientific institutes purely to amusement. Beyond the entertainment we offer the public we envision World Wildlife Safari as a highly refined study center that will bring together scientists from all over the world and that will make a genuine contribution to our environment."
"We have just begun to explore the role of private enterprise in animal conservation and research," says Jay Emmett, "but we know it is enormous. Almost overnight we have accomplished more with animals with greater success and less red tape than most zoos in their entire histories. More important, we have forced zoos to take a hard look at themselves."
Not all zoos were entranced by the view. The progressive and heavily endowed San Diego Zoo opened its own wild animal park, an 1,800-acre complex at San Pasqual, 30 miles north of the city, early last year. But administrative personnel at other zoos grumbled, mumbled or, ostrichlike, buried their heads, hoping that this phenomenon would somehow go away. Not even the most vitriolic critic, however, could deny that the advent of wild animal parks represents a major revolution in the handling and housing of captive wild animals.