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November 24, 2013
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Every day an adventure at Oregon's Wildlife Safari

WINSTON — It’s not a zoo. The Wildlife Safari is an entirely different animal.

Here you can test your strength against a lion. Feed raw meat to a tiger and lettuce to a giraffe. Have your Honda washed by elephants, then drive it right up to a yak.

Keepers might even walk right past you and wave. “Hi, we’re just taking this cheetah for a walk,” one might say to you.

And she’d be right.

The Wildlife Safari isn’t like many places. It’s a nonprofit wildlife park and home to about 500 animals of more than 100 species from every continent but Antarctica. It features a 4.5 mile vehicle loop ($18 to take per adult) and a free park village crowded with exhibits. It’s Winston’s (Motto: “Home of the Wildlife Safari”) biggest claim to fame. It has a Teddy Roosevelt conservation ethos, a well-educated staff and a devoted following of wealthy patrons and other fans.

But, like a zoo, operating it requires a huge amount of resources: more than 50 staff members, an army of docents and volunteers, and about $10,000 a day. None of that is government money.

To make expenses, the park has allowed its 160,000 guests per year closer and closer to the action, and found new ways to monetize its animals. It’s also gotten creative in reducing costs, all while maintaining compliance with numerous agencies.

Recently, The News-Review got a full-site tour that included many of the Wildlife Safari’s unique animal encounters to get a better understanding of how all this works.

HUNTER STARTS PARK

The Wildlife Safari was opened in 1973 by real estate investor Frank Hart, a serious big game hunter who led Douglas County residents on more than 40 trips to Africa. While on safari, Hart developed a concern for the plight of the endangered cheetah, a victim of hunters, poachers and habitat loss. He founded a drive-through safari-themed tourist attraction with a focus on cheetah breeding on a 600-acre cattle ranch. He chose Winston because it had a landscape that reminded him of South Africa and a close proximity to Interstate 5 and its 100,000-plus vehicles per day.

The first litter of cheetah cubs was born a year later. To date the park’s bred 173 cheetah cubs. The park’s carnivore supervisor, Sarah Roy, said 90 percent of captive cheetahs in the U.S. were born in Winston.

At first glance, the safari doesn’t look much different than it did 40 years ago. The same signs that have built suspense in carloads of kids — “They are watching you” — still stand on Safari Road leading to the park. Operations are still housed in a surprisingly austere single-wide trailer.

But in its lifetime, the safari has become more sophisticated in its approach to its stated mission: breed cheetahs and entertain and educate humans.

Hart ran the park as a business for two years before switching to a nonprofit model. The latter is a much better fit with park goals, said Executive Director Dan Van Slyke, a rancher and former Douglas County commissioner. Van Slyke regularly touts the park’s affiliation with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which he’ll tell you only accredits the top 10 percent of the country’s wildlife parks. The safari has been AZA-accredited since 1996.

The accreditation is up for review every five years. But with so many different regulations to adhere to — enclosure dimensions, levels of human contact with different species — the review process has become an everyday consideration for the safari, Van Slyke said.

“It’s basically a work in progress,” he said.

When asked about a woman killed by a cougar this month at a non-AZA animal sanctuary in Portland, Van Slyke said it’s the kind of thing that an accreditation regime like the AZA’s helps to prevent.

The Wildlife Safari is different from a zoo in some ways some people don’t like. Activist groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and In Defense of Animals have complained about the way the park uses its animals to make money. PETA said having elephants to “wash” guests’ cars is “irresponsible” and “demeaning” for the elephants.

The safari’s animals all have names — often, cute names. Bears wave at drivers from one Interstate 5 billboard near Winston. In another, just south of Eugene, a Photoshopped lion chugs from a 2-liter bottle of Pepsi.

There are some people who don’t like the Wildlife Safari, but those people probably haven’t been here, and they probably don’t really care about animals, Van Slyke said.

ROADSIDE MARKETING

It’s just after 10 a.m. the day after Halloween and newlyweds Jared and Tanya de Boer are waiting at the safari gift shop. The weekend before, they were married in their hometown of Victoria, British Columbia. They’re now on their way to their honeymoon in California. There they hope to attend a taping of “The Price is Right.”

They learned about the Wildlife Safari from a pamphlet at a hotel. Tanya de Boer, a big fan of big cats, said they’d decided rather impulsively to add another quick thrill to their itinerary.

Rack cards like the one the de Boers picked up are one of the safari’s common marketing methods. Perhaps the most effective advertising method is also one of the oldest, Van Slyke said.

“We get a lot of interest from our billboards.”

The safari has eight billboards along Interstate 5 between Oregon’s borders with California and Washington. Two corporations — Pepsi and Umpqua Dairy — split the cost of several of them, to link their brands with the popular park.

Each billboard costs $800 to $900 per month.

With a limited marketing budget, the safari has to choose carefully where it puts its money. Van Slyke said much attention goes into researching who visits and what experiences they enjoy.

The $50 Jared and Tanya de Boer were ready to spend for a photo with a cheetah is the reason. The couple wasn’t planning to drive through the park or spend any other money — they only wanted the picture.

Research gathered from guest interviews has revealed some interesting information. By tracking area codes, the park’s management learned that when gas prices go down, people are willing to drive farther to amuse themselves. Locals tend to visit more when gas prices go up.

Once the tour starts, one is inundated with interesting facts about animals, one after another. Did you know you can tell an African elephant because its ears are shaped like Africa? Or that the heart of a hibernating brown bear beats just 10 times per minute?

Roy, the safari’s carnivore supervisor, has been with the park for nearly 10 years. Under her are the caretakers of the park’s 22 cheetahs, six black bears, five brown bears (two coastal and three inland), four lions and two tigers.

In 2012, the safari hosted 3,300 Douglas County students on field trips ($7.50 per student). Most of these visits include a stop at the park’s education building, where Leila Goulet oversees a staff of two. Goulet also spends a lot of time taking the park’s animals to schools, libraries and community events. Last year, 60,000 people were exposed to safari animals through these outreach efforts, according to the park.

Goulet said the park’s mission of education through exposure is especially useful with children, who often have unfounded fears of certain animals. They can develop a lifelong love of animals far better in person than through a glowing screen, Goulet said.

“Having a personal experience with an animal will affect them differently. It will stick with them a lot longer,” she said. “All zoos should be doing this.”

Goulet, 31, is new to the park since transferring from the Red River Zoo in North Dakota. She has a degree in wildlife biology and found her current position advertised on a AZA website. Under Goulet is Safari educator Julianne Rose, 25, who has degrees in wildlife biology and education. She came to the safari from the Lake Superior Zoo in northern Minnesota.

She said though it’s a competitive field to break into, zookeeping often includes lot of custodial work

“Being a keeper is not like being an educator. We get the opportunity to inspire, and be more hands-on,” Rose said. “It’s not just cleaning.”

SOCIABLE GIRAFFE

At the bear hut, Sarah Roy showed what guests get with a “whisper-only” hibernating brown bear encounter. For $10 guests can spend a few minutes in the short hall that separates the males and females, and where grated fencing is all that separates guests from bears.

These bears will enter the deep sleep stage in several weeks. They’re now in a deeply lethargic state. Up close, they look dog-like and actually tired — heavy eyelids, slow in turning their massive heads.

During hibernation, grizzlies lose between 100 and 200 of the pounds they packed on in the fall. Roy said that it’s a natural and healthy part of their lives, but most zoos don’t hibernate their bears. Instead they choose to display them year-round.

“Obesity is a big problem with captive bears,” she said.

Like most of the safari’s large animals, the bears respond to several commands. Most commands relate to medical care or guest encounters. For instance, the bears are trained to show their paws for blood draws, and open their mouths for dental checkups. And the giraffes are “clicker trained” to come to the open-topped encounter truck to be fed romaine lettuce by guests experiencing the Giraffe U-Feed ($45).

Two-year-old, 12-foot-tall Miya hasn’t quite learned the drill well enough. She isn’t yet allowed to freely roam the African section of the park like Mate, a sociable 17-foot male Rothschild’s giraffe that will walk right up to the encounter truck.

Among the safari’s vast menagerie, Tava the African elephant might possess the biggest bag of tricks. Before coming to the safari last year, the 35-year-old lived at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo, Calif., and performed daily in its stage shows. YouTube clips show her entertaining crowds by kicking field goals, “dancing” to music and catching sticks with her trunk. She’s appeared in television commercials and the movie “Coming to America” starring Eddie Murphy.

At the safari, she, George and Alice share a spacious enclosure where they sometimes wash guests’ cars ($20) and paint pictures and ceramics that are sold in the gift shop or auctioned.

The park acquired her via an AZA exchange network. It purchases other animals, and sometimes receives them as donations.

Many animals arrive on the beds of zoo trucks or as ground freight. The breeding lion Tao was shipped, yes, through FedEx (though with three trainers at his crate’s side).

The safari’s clout in these transactions comes from its rare, successful cheetah-breeding program. It’s not necessarily a barter system, as every AZA park must follow the AZA’s species survival plans.

“We produce cheetahs, and that’s how we can really help with conservation. But if we need a giraffe, other people produce giraffes,” Van Slyke said.

At the cheetah enclosure on the park’s southern slope, two 7-week old cubs were brought out to be weighed while their mother was fed. These three- to five-minute check-ins have the added benefit of habituating the cubs to humans, as they haven’t been debuted to guests yet.

It’s also likely they’ll remain in custody their entire lives. At the safari, that prospect doesn’t seem so bleak. Park officials say one of the reasons their breeding program is so successful is the comfort these noble, handsome cats are afforded. The large tracts they have to roam are claimed to lower stress levels, which aids in breeding. And with a large cheetah population at the park, Van Slyke likens the breeding program to a dating service, where having lots of options means a greater liklehood of finding compatible pairs.

The unnamed cubs — dubbed “shoulders” and “hips” by staff due to the locations of small identifying marks — just had meat added to their diet, and still gain weight every day.

Feeding the animals at the Wildlife Safari is a massive daily undertaking, one that wouldn’t be possible without donations. Much of the food was once intended for humans and has nearly gone bad, though things do become spoiled at the Safari, Roy admitted. “Our bears are so spoiled.”

The safari’s bears are given all of the Rock Creek Fish Hatchery’s spawned out salmon, tens of thousands of pounds a year. Salmon and other food are wrapped in packages by volunteers for the bears and other animals to tear into as an “enrichment activity.”

Medford gift basket giant Harry & David donates its past-market fruit and nuts to the safari, hundreds of 25-pound boxes at a time.

It’s these “partnerships” that park officials talk about. They’re another reason the park’s AZA accreditation is so important to maintaining its bottom line. Van Slyke said corporations are much more comfortable donating to animals at a reputable AZA facility than a private entity.

Rather than throwing away their expired food, Roseburg’s Costco and Super Walmart also donate to the safari.

Other partners are smaller. In the late afternoon, Kris van Houten arrived to deliver about 40 rabbits. The Melrose rancher and animal breeder makes some money selling her rabbits as pets, but most she sells by the pound to the safari.

There, handlers dispatch them and feed them to the carnivores. (So accustomed to dead meals are the park’s carnivores that many will bat around an unfortunate live squirrel or bird like a curious house cat, Roy said.) At his enclosure in Safari Village, Arthur the red-tailed boa was fat with a rabbit he’d eaten the day before.

The transaction complete, Van Houten and her four kids roamed the free village. She said it costs too much to drive through the park on anything but a special occasion. But her home-schooled children love Arthur and the primates.

The safari is the recipient of gifts of all sizes, including, frequently, large bequests. A wealthy childless couple in 2006 left it their entire $3 million estate when the husband died. That one gift represents about a year’s worth of operating costs. One woman who reportedly fell in love with the park on a drive through, left it her home and her $140,000 in assets.

“None of us even knew who she was,” Van Slyke said.

An association of female Safari enthusiasts, the Ladies Auxiliary of the Wildlife Safari, hosts a big-ticket benefit auction that each year funds a park improvement. This year it’s a waterfall pool for the elephants.

As far as the future of the Wildlife Safari goes, Roy hinted it’s interested in expanding its lion pride.

Van Slyke said the park is interested in pursuing programs that incorporate the therapeutic effects animals have on people. The park’s keepers regularly take the creatures to retirement homes and work with children with autism, who they say respond well to animals.

The park is the home of a major fundraiser for Camp Millennium, a camp for children with cancer. And once a year the park hosts terminally ill children at its Dream Night.

“For a lot of these guys it’s their last year on Earth,” he said. “There’s something so comforting about being around animals.”

• You can reach reporter Garrett Andrews at 541-957-4218 or by email at gandrews@nrtoday.com.


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The News-Review Updated Nov 25, 2013 02:56PM Published Nov 26, 2013 12:34PM Copyright 2013 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.