African Lion Safari


(This column was first published in the August 5, 2002 Buffalo News.)


When my daughter Susan was two, we once parked at an Adirondack town dump that used to attract local bears. While my son and I in the front seat were watching several bears snuffling through garbage just twenty yards away, I suddenly heard the car's back door being opened. Susan was trying to get out to pet another bear that was standing next to the side of our car. I was just able to stop her.


I thought of that episode as I drove through the game reserves of the African Lion Safari park north of Hamilton, Ontario. There were not just lions but hundreds of other species that range over more than a square mile of open grasslands. Reversing normal zoo conditions, you are the one enclosed.


At one point I had to steer around a huge lioness resting on the roadway. It kept flicking its tail into my path and I couldn't help thinking that, if I ran over that tail, my car windows wouldn't hold back an enraged cat. At another, I watched a baboon trying to chew the aerial off the car in front of me when suddenly another bounded up onto my car so fast I thought he would come through the windshield. Instead he took a seat on my side view mirror and frowned at me, his head inches from my own. At still another, a majestic tiger padded along the road oblivious to us. It was so big it made a VW Beetle it passed seem like a toy car.


Mine was an interesting tour and I recommend this destination as a worthwhile family day trip. In addition to the drive-through there are, for example, elephant, parrot and raptor shows and a boat ride. For (human) children there is a large swimming area. Most groups spend five or six hours on site. And there are many visitors: each year over a half million.


That is just the public side of the park. There is also a more serious side. One of the declared goals of Colonel Donald Dailley, who founded African Lion Safari in 1969, was "maintaining self-sustaining populations of species in decline." His son James and current co-owner Mike Takacs have continued that tradition. Thirty endangered and twenty threatened species have already been successfully bred there.


My host at the park, Karen O'Grady, gave me an opportunity to talk with two professionals who care for these animals and I came away deeply impressed.


First I spoke with Valika Zafirides about her work with cheetahs. In just over a year six have been born at the park and she brought out year-old Marikeli for me to observe up close. With the cheetah came Mercedes, a doberman that unexpectedly adopted them when Marikeli and her twin brother Khyber were rejected by their birth mother. Marikeli is one of the most beautiful animals I have ever seen. Already bigger than her doberman stepmother, she has not yet taken on that emaciated look of the adult cheetah. A true princess, Marikeli was fully alert yet paid little heed to us lesser beings.


Then I met Charlie Gray, who enjoys a fine international reputation for his work breeding Asian elephants and who has raised six young here. He introduced me to 40-year-old Kitty, who also seemed stately and aloof but was immediately responsive to her trainer, and Kitty's year-old son Johnson, a frisky little elephant who, like a human two-year-old, seemed to get into everything.


It was good to see how, as at our Buffalo Zoo, serious and important activities go on behind the scenes of a good show. -- Gerry Rising