Wild Things at Night
DUSK SETTLES EARLY ON THIS FLORIDA winter eve across the sprawl of Lion Country Safari in Loxahatchee, off Southern Boulevard west of West Palm Beach. Very soon, from deepening darkness, eyes will shine.
They might, a new visitor can imagine, belong to wildebeest and kudu, to zebra and impala, to rhinoceros and water buffalo and bighorned cattle called Ancole-Watusi.
They might belong to lions.
Led by Terry Wolf, Lion Country’s director of wildlife, a group of zipped-and-buttoned bipeds is heading out among them. The ridership will motor and step into experiences largely limited to only a privileged few: the activity of wild – or, at least, wildly captive – animals at night.
Much of the action won’t match pre-conception. The Ancole-Watusi, placid by day, supporting horns that might grow 9 feet across, will dance and kick up dust. The zebra will run riot.
Mr. Wolf will, inevitably, be talking about life, death, food and sex. This is really a family attraction, but, needing customers, he has thought of an adult evening tour using night-vision goggles, that might be called Sex After Dark.
Tonight, the intruders might glimpse a little pre-mating strutting and preening, but their greatest surprise waits amid a web-work of fencing designed for safety and separation, when, in deep shadow and near-silence, visitors and animals will touch.
The newcomers will discover that animals like surprises, too, as long as the surprise of the moment doesn’t eat or shoot them.
Lights from Lion Country’s adjoining, 55-acre Safari World Amusement Park and its carousel, boat rides and animal encounters wink through the trees. In the parking lot, from the distance, a powerful, deeply subterranean sound envelops the group: the roars of lions.
“Life with these animals is an everchanging, never-ending story,” Mr. Wolf says, and he plucks the padlock from a set of gates through chain-link fencing. “Today was the sloth being moved to his new home. We thought he would be a problem, but we got him so used to his keepers that it wasn’t a problem. He kind of taught us to go slow.”
Daylight fades, and the local version of savannah, of an open plain dotted with trees and brush, stretches ahead across 265 acres. With visitors and staff home for the night, he will work backward from the standard four-mile visitor course, pulling up first alongside three islands capped in two-story cabanas.
“Dandy’s making her nest for the night,” he says, pointing to the nearest cabana’s second floor. “That’s what they do. They sit and they literally puff it up around them. They’re not making a padding for a bed. She sleeps on the floor. The nest actually keeps her from rolling around. Swing may have a nest somewhere else, but she’s still up and around. So is Orbit. They’re late-nighters. They’re as individual as people. Everybody has a different routine.”
Baptism under female fire
There, right out there, Terry Wolf is saying, pointing to the island just beyond, is where the females surrounded him, ready to tear him apart. The male grabbed him first.
He had come here, right to this spot when he was 19 in the summer of 1969. Early on, he says, he was paid $1.70 an hour literally to watch paint dry — to make sure no one sat on benches he had just painted. Then, he was assigned to pilot a boat ride around the attraction’s lagoon. He looked up the animals he saw in the Larousse Encyclopedia and started to narrate his tours, and his popularity led to new hands-on assignments.
“They told me, ‘Go and take care of the chimps,’ by myself, in a boat, go over to the chimp island, and I had never been introduced to any of them,” he says. “I had watched a guy do it, one time. Nobody came out to train me or introduce me. They gave me a bag of Monkey Chow.
“The chimps threw me all over the island. I did not know how powerful they were. I had dealt with cats, I knew they were tough. I’m not a little guy. I came up in the boat, and the male stood there and looked at me, like, ‘Dude, you’re very messed up,’ and he just grabbed the end of the boat and started running, this aluminum boat with 200 pounds of me, across the island. And all the other chimps are screaming and hollering and chasing us. He stopped in the middle of the island, and all I saw were these faces coming at me. The females were deciding which piece of me they want to rip off first.
“The male pushes them all out of the way, grabs me by the shirt, lifts me up over his head and throws me, right into the middle of the canal. This 160-pound chimp threw 200 pounds of me 30 feet, and it was the best thing that ever happened to me. I hit the water feeling like Brer Rabbit just thrown into the briar patch, because chimps don’t chase into the water, and the male knew that. He saved my life. The next day, I behaved a lot different.”
In the years since, the whole culture has changed, too. As a drive-through preserve for exotic animals, Lion Country Safari — which inspired five similar attractions under the same banner that extended from California to Virginia — was among the first of its kind.
Now, it is among the last. By the early ’90s, the other Lion Countrys, plagued variously by recession, gasoline price hikes, too much debt and too few customers, went under.
The San Diego Zoo’s Safari Park, Fossil Rim in Texas and the live-animal attractions of Busch Gardens, and a half dozen safari parks overseas, still mirror the Lion Country experience. The influence of the Lion Country idea of a “cage-less zoo,” offering drive-through views of animals living in habitat and with a lifestyle as close to native as possible, has helped change zoos everywhere.
Now, its staff and overseers hope, it is also changing views about animals in the wild, how they congregate, reproduce, act, live. What the Safari is selling, more than anything, Mr. Wolf says, is learning, a direct experience. They hope to tap the passions — and profits — of environmental awareness.
His own learning, face-to-face with animals and crowds coming to see them, gives him a wellspring.
“You’ve got to educate and entertain,” he says. “I learned the hard way. The good way.”
Master of the domain
Though he’s not on an endangeredspecies list, Terry Wolf might belong there, too. As a keeper and administrator, Mr. Wolf seems every bit as much a throwback. He is a tinkerer, an innovator, a problem-solver, a cohort and resource for a staff of almost 190 in peak season, on-call for any emergency. He never went to college, but he helps teach doctors of veterinary medicine. He has designed many of the animal facilities himself. Even in darkness he sees, if not with acuity of a lion or hawk, at least with the sharpened eyes of more than 40 years of living and working with exotic animals and of dealing with the most volatile and fickle creature of all.
“People,” he says. “They’re the toughest animal.”
Beyond the first gates, the Bronco noses into the area called the Serengeti Plains, after the famed grasslands of central Africa. Within minutes the last daylight fades, and eyes appear.
Rays of light — from the Bronco’s headlights and the flash unit with photographer John Sessas’ camera — decry a field of colored orbs: the reflective layer behind the eyes of antelope, then of wildebeest, then of zebras. The hoof stock stare a moment, then shift away.
These guys, Mr. Wolf says, don’t curl up for the night. “With wildebeest and zebra,” he says, “you’re lucky if you can get those animals to sleep more than an hour a day. Ostriches will sleep maybe four hours a day. The giraffe are the worst. They sleep maybe 20 minutes a day.”
Lions, by contrast, might sleep 20 hours a day. During the other four — in nature, at least — watch out! “When you’re a lion, you go after the weak. Somebody that’s got a broken leg or an injured leg or somebody that can’t keep up, either too old or too young. That’s the lion’s job, to remove those sick or injured animals from the population. That’s why all the animals in Africa look beautiful ... because the lions kill you if you’re not beautiful.
“In captivity, some of my animals are not so beautiful, because they’re old. I have this argument with people all the time. That one doesn’t look very healthy. Well, she’s 75 years old. I don’t look the same way that I did when I was 40, either. They think we must be doing something wrong. The fact is, we’re doing something so right that these animals are living three times as long as they do in the wild.”
Here, as the name proclaims, lions are still the big draw. On this night, Mr. Wolf says with apologies, or on any other night, no lions will be stalking prey. At dusk, even as the kings and queens of beasts loudly announce a night of hunting (or at least a few minutes of eating), they are enticed from their fields through a series of fencedin enclosures to the spacious lion house, 100-by-40 feet, where they have learned to recline.
The pride, though, still stands and actively endures. By day, seen from the windows of slowly passing gapermobiles, they mostly nap, but most gapers still hit the brakes at the sight of them. This, Terry Wolf says, is a REAL pride, a large group mostly of females; not a pair of lions slapped together in some unfortunate and mistaken effort to procreate, but a group that takes care of each other, right down to the babies. They and the shaggy males will sound off again soon.
“When I built the lion section, the one thing that made me the most nervous was how close it was to the KOA (Lion Country’s campground, with 234 sites), because I know how noisy lions are. Two o’clock in the morning they sound off, and it just rocks your world.
“The people over there love it! People fight for those campsites. People will say, ‘What was that recording you were playing last night?’ That’s not a recording. That’s the real deal.”
Still, Mr. Wolf promises plenty of action. Past nightfall, many of the animals shift up a gear, and most of them will see you before you see them, or hear you, or smell you. In a contest of senses, no human intruder can begin to match the animals’ eyes and ears and noses, or their closer attachment to the core of living itself.
Consider, he says, as the party approaches a lone impala, the primal urge. “That’s a bachelor impala,” he says. “With the breeding herd of impala, we create this thing called the bachelor herd. Male antelope hate each other when a female’s around.” Using a popular bar and restaurant in nearby Loxahatchee as an example, Mr. Wolf says, “You walk in there at night, guys are around playing pool. If there’s not a girl in there, no problem. A pretty girl walks in, and a fistfight will break out every time. It’s the same way with every one of these animals. You only need one male. These are the rest of the impalas. This is a bachelor herd, and as long as there’s no girls in here, these guys get along just fine.”
In moments, a dozen other impala step into view, and they move away with a few elegant leaps, their grace belying their speed. In a single leap, they can span 30 feet forward and nine feet in the air, and they reach 50 mph. The visitors, riding their mobile viewer, are going about 5 mph.
On standard day tours, most visitors choose to listen to a tour CD, offering a backdrop of animal calls and a litany of facts that narrate their passage from one section to another: Las Pampas and its tapirs and rheas to the lions of Gorongosa Reserve to Ruaha National Park with its impala and kudu to the Serengeti pounding with zebra and wildebeest and ostrich to the gemsbok and Nile lechwe of the Kalahari Bushveldt to the Gir Forest’s blackbuck and Asiatic water buffalo to the giraffe and zebra and white rhino of the Hwange National Park.
Mr. Wolf’s narrative is more personal, more passionate. He can only begin to unpack his rucksack of stories, hard-earned: the demands of keeping animals safe and at home, of patrolling inner facilities and outer fences, during a hurricane; the danger to animals and staff alike with tranquilizer darts and discovering better ways of caring for animals; the giraffe that kept trying to mate with Volkswagen Beetles (“I could never understand the attraction,” Mr. Wolf says. “People’d be screamin’….”); the time a lion closed her jaws around his lower leg.
That last tale invites a long discussion about how, when confronting a predator in the wild, to avoid being swallowed.
“There’s an online video now of a woman hugging her lion,” he says. “That is SO misleading. There’s a new clip out, some dancer was doing something with a cat, doing some dance with a cat in the background, 300, 400 pounds, a cat that been used for shoots like that all his life. Boy, he took her down! A guy on the leash couldn’t stop the cat. The dancer got busted ribs and hurt her back; she’s lucky she’s alive.
“These predators have, like, switches in their brain, and there are certain things that flip that switch, and you can’t stop it. The certain switches include turning your back; she was doing that, turning her back. That’s how cats show they want to play. I’ll turn my back and you’ll jump on my back. Then if you scream, boom, that switch goes off and they bite harder. If you run ... Who’s not gonna run?
“The proper way to act is, look ’em right in the eye and come right at ’em. I had a lion grab my leg and try to pull me inside (the compound), and the only thing that saved me was my training as a dog handler. I make jokes about that. My mom had a poodle shop. I was the groom. I had to bathe and groom about 25 to 30 dogs a day. It took me awhile, dealing with poodles, little dogs that nip. The teeth bend in. If you try to pull out, they close on you. Chows are the worst. Don’t pull out. Push in. I’ll feed you my arm. They open right up. That lion did the same thing. I put my boot right down his throat. And his mouth opened up and he didn’t come at me again.”
Terry Wolf is not just a host but a teacher and a storyteller, possessed of colossal memory, good humor, prominent stature and an announcer’s voice. For those accustomed to glossed-over, image-driven, manicured marketing, he also seems unusually honest. Of fencing installed between lions and vehicles, to protect both and conform to law, he says, “It sucks.” Of some decisions to sell off animals, he says, “Not my choice.”
Staying true to his mission
Mr. Wolf has plenty to tell, about the survival of wild and endangered animals in a humanity-lorded ecosphere that’s swallowing their habitat, about the endurance, amid pressing development and multi-media hype and commerce, of Lion Country itself.
Hemmed in by liability laws, constrained by dictums from the state and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sensitive to the growing host of animal rights groups, attractions such as Lion County have had to change their game. In the Safari’s early days, he recalls, excitements ranged more widely. Staff members would throw meat on top of vehicles, and lions would follow.
“People loved it,” he says. Now, in a more limited but still open space, in a more natural grouping, he says, the lions are healthier and happier. He likes to think that the staff who endured are, too.
When the other Lion Countrys failed, Mr. Wolf says, the owner had the sad duty of laying off employees and closing the parks. Mr. Wolf himself helped close the facility in Texas, where he had worked as wildlife director. None of them wants to go through that again.
As much as it has ever belonged to anyone, this last Lion Country might be his. Terry Wolf first set foot here more than 40 years ago, and he is still learning, hands-on, he says, every day. “I know things,” he says, “that you don’t learn in school.”
At the moment, he is teaching night school, and the next lesson rises from sleeping positions under a tree, fans of feathers moving away between spindly legs and up-curving neck. This, he says, is the largest bird alive, topping off as high as 9 feet. It can run 40 mph and kick you into next week.
“Everybody loves the ostrich,” Mr. Wolf says. “They’re attracted to people in the cars. It’s an illusion. People think, oh, they like people. No. It’s all about food and self-recognition. They see their reflection and kind of see another bird and think, ‘What are you doing?’ Invariably someone inside taps on the glass, and the ostriches have a pecking reflex, so it’s back-and-forth.”
He and his co-workers operate mostly at ground-level, hands-on. Some operations can be dangerous, especially when an animal’s in trouble.
“It’s not like on ‘Animal Planet’; ‘Oh, there’s a sick animal, let’s dart it!’” he says. “There’s so much involved in darting an animal; that should be the last thing on the list. On these guys here, we put a dart in them with drugs in it, I’ll want it to be a critical thing. They better be dying or about to die, because we may kill them through that process. … The drugs we use to knock the biggest of these guys down, it’s called carfentanil, is a thousand times more potent than street-grade heroin. You cannot get a drop of it on your skin, or you’re going to Palms West Hospital.”
Battle for entertainment buck
In the late ’70s, Lion Country was drawing more than a million visitors a year. Now, Mr. Wolf says, the staff works hard to attract half that number. With the opening of Disney World near Orlando and the growth of other attractions around it, Florida’s epicenter of family attractions shifted north. Some were hard-hit; another family attraction in Loxahatchee, Wannado City, just closed in January.
“Being for-profit is a real struggle,” Mr. Wolf says. “We’re competing not only with zoos but Disney and Butterfly World and the museum. We com- pete with the beach. We have to try to bring in dollars and keep it new.” So they enhance the 55-acre walk-through Amusement Park, introduce giraffefeeding and a camel ride, try out a water slide.
The heart of Lion Country Safari, though, remains on its plains, among the animals. Multimedia circuses — well, the whole ersatz tourist industry — spawned first by P.T. Barnum and the Ringling Brothers and Buffalo Bill and then amplified to crazy heights by Disney and Universal Studios and through all the digital and handheld michigas, can make a drive through Lion Country seem a little, well, tame.
It isn’t, and, Mr. Wolf says, that’s the point. It’s alive, not Memorex. The animals really do, within their fenced limits, have the run of the place. In daylight, the giraffes really are slowstepping past your car; those really are wildebeest jumping and dancing sideways on either side; you really do have to stop to let a rhino or two cross the road ahead, or risk getting swarmed by zebra.
There the zebra are, white stripes in the darkness, just ahead; a large herd of plains zebra, with a young one in tow. Lion Country lists its zebra herd as the largest in North America.
With its lookalike striping, the Bronco might seem to sneak among the zebras. It doesn’t. The striped congregation proceeds on full alert, heads turned, reflexes ready.
“When we’re driving through in this vehicle, we’re a big white buffalo,” Mr. Wolf says. “We have the zebra stripes, but they don’t look on us as a zebra. They kind of do, but it all changes when I step out. See? Every eyeball is now on me. They don’t run away. They stay at a distance, though, because I just became a predator. If you’re a buffalo, I can drive right up on you, OK?”
He adds this, too: “I talk to people about the zebra, for example, that they are a true wild horse. But only true horsemen, horse people, understand what I’m talking about when I say they’re one of the meanest creatures God ever created.”
In moments, in half-gallop alongside the Rover, the zebra and an entourage of wildebeest approach a narrow passage between gates. They flicker in the dark like shadows. “Now,” Mr. Wolf says, “they’re gonna run.”
Nearing the narrows, they explode into full gallop, thundering in the dark. A blade of grass, he says, wouldn’t stand a chance. How would a human do?
“We have a very good record with our animals, and we’ve never lost a lion outside the fence and never had a person killed here by a lion,” he says.
Any incident, he knows, quickly expands in the media echo-chamber. Nationwide, many hundreds of people care for many thousands of exotic animals, with millions of daily contacts, and the animals are seen fairly close up by many millions more. One tragic mauling of a worker or a death, like that of a man attacked on Christmas 2007 in San Francisco by a tiger who leaped a moat that stood for 40 years, might linger in the media and in the public memory for decades.
The death of a favorite animal, meanwhile, can excite remorse and angst, as when Lion Country’s Mort, then the oldest male giraffe in America, died in 2006 at age 27. Mr. Wolf knows, he says, that their most cherished resident, Little Mama, a chimpanzee thought to be more than 70 years old and a favorite of Jane Goodall, can’t last much longer, though he hopes she does.
“People don’t expect animals in zoos to die,” Mr. Wolf says. “They act kind of surprised. And there’s a negative connotation about death; you must be doing something wrong, the animal died. Well, they’re supposed to die at certain times. … The fact is, from the minute you’re born, your body is dying.”
He doesn‘t mean it as a downer. He is, he says, a natural optimist, something he learned growing up on the farm in Ohio. If he weren’t, he says, he couldn’t stay in this business. Anyway, so many animals are born at Lion Country that the scales seem tipped to the sunny side. Just since August, almost a dozen animal babies, including a greater kudu and two blackbucks, have stepped onstage, and the eland nursery is busy.
Those births, he says, are part of an evolving role for zoos and safari parks. They should not be thought of, he says, as offspring of Noah’s Ark.
“In the ’70s and ’80s, zoos were expected to hold inventories of animals to repopulate the world,” he says. “When these animals get wiped off the planet, zoos will have backup. Not true. Ninety-eight per cent of all animals that are endangered are endangered because of habitat loss, not because of poaching. Not because of hunting, of being wiped off the planet by us. It’s because we’re taking their land.
“We try to promote eco-tourism, but as far as sustainability goes right now, it’s trying to educate the public about what conservation is and how important it is, to keep our stock healthy and happy, not to repopulate the earth but to keep us, our population, sustainable, so we have something to show people and not have to take from the wild. We’re active in efforts that promote habitat sustainability and public education. It’s a big job.”
Stimulating the flock
Animals, meanwhile, can show a startling capacity for learning themselves.
“Giving them another piece of food, that’s not enriching. Giving a chimpanzee a puzzle so he can solve the puzzle, that’s enriching. They need social structure to live their lives they way it’s supposed to be. And giraffes….
“We’ve put up a browse tree,” Mr. Wolf says, “with a two-gallon water bottle that we drill holes in, and the giraffe have to stick their tongue in there and grab a piece of fruit and pull it out of the bottle. Which they do very well, because they have a prehensile tongue. They have to work their tongue to get that piece of fruit, and that keeps them busy, and now they’re not bored, chewing on the trees and biting each other.”
Left on their own, they might like to nip at customers. One of the big attractions in the Amusement Park, now, is giraffe-feeding.
“Fifteen years before that became the thing to do,” Mr. Wolf says. “I was telling them to build it, because I had a couple of giraffes that were really homed in on people. My buddy, Pat Quinn, did it up at Pensacola. Then another guy, Brian Hunt, was doing it up in Ohio. Both of these guys had Lion Country connections, but these guys knew and I talked to them, so we built it, knowing full well that giraffe don’t like people.
“Just because you offer food, most animals might come and try it, but they’re not going to stick around and be buddies with you. They don’t like anything about us. It took thousands of years for us to train dogs not to run when they see us. And dogs are wonderful things that we have bred to be wonderful animals. They’re so different than wolves. We forget that. The giraffe, everything we do screams “predator,” which is something they want to avoid. Not only that, but we smell really bad, and scent is very important to animals. On top of that, we have these really obnoxious children that scream at everything. The noise! It’s very disconcerting.”
On this night, the stampede of zebra and wildebeest has passed. They find that thundering gap, he says, because the staff has opened the night gate. Pinched in the narrows, they run full tilt. Giraffes, tallest of mammals, abundant by day, have shifted to other fields.
Visitors, he says, love the giraffes and still wish for elephants. They found them here, until 2006, when the owners decided to save the aggravation and expense. Caring for a single elephant can cost up to $40,000 a year. They are known, too, to kill their keepers.
Their nearest relatives still wait ahead — Lion Country Safari’s bulkiest residents, and its greatest success.
Nobody, anywhere, has succeeded in breeding the endangered white rhino better than Mr. Wolf and his co-workers. As the rhinos approach, they blot out the light behind them with their torsos. The vague backlight defines the scimitar-jut of their moving single horns, brandished above snouts that eagerly push forward. Didn’t we see this scene in that John Wayne movie, “Hatari!,” where the angry black rhino butts the hero’s four-wheeler sideways?
What follows is a massive but gentle push forward and airy snuffles, little puffs of air from the nostrils meant to return the intruders’ odor. “It’s because they can’t see real well,” Mr. Wolf says. “That’s why some rhinos charge, too.”
Then the first of two little ones, Jazzy, pushes through the crowd. The flat of Jazzy’s head, down from the ears and between the eyes, feels rough, like a horsehair sofa. It softens toward the tip of her nose. She nuzzles into the scratching.
Here is where Terry Wolf shows his most emphatic feeling.
“The white was one species we thought we were going to save,” he says. “The numbers were coming back up, everything was going good. Until this year. This year, our economy is in the toilet, the Chinese economy is booming. The Chinese believe you are what you eat, and they go after rhino horn because they think it’s an aphrodisiac. Their horn is made of keratin, the same as your hair. You might as well sweep up the barbershop floor and make a tea out of that. Some really bad men were caught last year lacing the rhino horn with Viagra. The Chinese intelligent people know this is wrong. The backwards people do it, and some of them now have disposable income and they’re spending it, on tiger bones and bear gall-bladders and rhino horns. More rhinos have been poached this year than in the last 12 years combined. They’re flying into Botswana in helicopters, the Chinese mafia, off of ships in the Indian Ocean … shoot the rhino, cut off its horn and fly out. That horn that John just took a picture of right there, that’s worth a quarter of a million dollars. Rhino horn in China sells for more than $1,800 an ounce. The average horn is about 10 or 15 pounds. There’s no rescue from laws. The Chinese government will never listen to us. ...They don’t want to hear our opinions.”
For Mr. Wolf’s part, “We’ve had 32 white rhinos born here. The only zoo that’s close to that is the San Diego Wild Animal Park, and I tell Randy (Randy Reiches, the Henshaw Curator of Mammals at the San Diego Zoo’s Wild Animal Park) that he cheats. He’s brought in several pregnant females. These are all young animals. They started breeding here and we kept ’em breeding here.”
In a few moments, the other youngster, Lainie, pushes her nose under his hand. “They’re good kids,” Mr. Wolf says. “You get attached to ’em.”
Knowing, deep in us, that we are sprouted from the same branch of the tree of life, knowing that we will never tap fully into what they feel but that we will always share in where they come from, knowing that we, the dominant species, have to both consume and care for them, knowing that what we call nature is more indifferent than cruel, we might invest, Mr. Wolf suggests, in fuller contact, in better learning. And, maybe, in taking care of and being honest with each other.
“What I would like people to know ... I don’t really want them to love the animals. I want them to respect the animals. You can love your wife, but if you don’t respect her, she isn’t going to stick around very long. It’s the same with animals. If you don’t respect ’em, you usually end up mistreating them or having misconceptions about ’em. A lion is a lion, it’s not something you keep as a pet. A macaw is a very colorful tropical bird that lives for 70 years. You take it on as a pet, you better leave it to somebody in your will. It’s going to outlive you.”
He may seem a guide, a caregiver, a designer and builder, but one role stands out. “If you’re not an educator here,” Mr. Wolf says, “you’re wasting your time.”
The next day, he will lead a runthrough for a commercial shoot, then go over plans for the chimpanzees’ annual holiday encounter with Santa. Then – after answering staff and public questions– he will be out again.
Out here, each day, each night, he says, brings its own surprises. Some of us, he adds, discover that surprise is the stuff of life. And our fellow creatures, two-footed and four, deliver it. ¦