Brian Dowling watches from his van as lions wander slowly into their morning paddock at Lion Country Safari, moving like the senior citizens they’ve become.
“We have five of the 10 oldest lions on record, who are 20,” says Dowling, the park’s wildlife curator.
Tsavo, 17, the group’s alpha male, and Hiro, also 17 and nicknamed “Zoolander” for the perfection of his Fabio-like mane, watch as Dowling angles his SUV close.
He calls out to Tsavo, who responds by looking at him exactly as a domestic cat looks at its owner: with epic feline indifference.
Pulling closer, Dowling points out the network of scars around the big cat’s face and ears.
“Believe it or not, those are from the ladies,” he said of Tsavo’s reign as the pride’s Romeo.
Big ideas often seem preposterous at the start, like building a zoo where the animals roam free and people are in cages, or cars, anyway.
Fifty years ago, the concept of a drive-through animal park was a wild dream by a group of South African and British businessmen who created a 600-acre safari-like setting in rural Loxahatchee to display African animals, particularly lions. Lion Country Safari opened with 100 lions on Aug. 29, 1967.
While celebrating its history, the park is also preparing for its biggest change if a scheduled sale next month goes through.
The novel prospect of driving through a park where a snoozing lion pride might block the road or an family of elephants sometimes held up traffic attracted 800,000 visitors that first pre-Disney year.
At the time, laws governing human and wild animal contact were so lax that park rangers would place raw meat on people’s cars to bring lions closer. Local residents recall feeding and playing with lion cubs, in the park’s attempt to domesticate them for a petting zoo.
Today, the park’s 13 lions are separated from cars by a 16-foot fence, because humans turned out to be the animals most difficult to control. Despite strong warnings against the practice, visitors sometimes opened their windows or even car doors to take photos.
On this morning, the pride arranges itself in lazy-looking groups, but all of them face the enclosures where a group of young lions can occasionally be heard chuffing and rumbling. Their postures are relaxed until you notice the intensity of their stare.
“They are always on alert, ” says Dowling.
If one of those 3- or 4-year-old lions were to enter the pride’s territory, “They’d kill it, even as old as they are. They’re not as good as they once were but they’re as good once as they ever were.”
Over the years, Lion Country Safari (LCS) has reinvented itself several times, reducing its number of lions to add more species of animals and operating under conservation guidelines. The park added a KOA campground, rides and waterslides, a popular giraffe feeding station and a petting area, which help to hold annual visitor numbers to about 500,000, say park officials.
In 2006, the park’s elephants were shipped to zoos and sanctuaries with more space than LCS could provide.
LCS has gained coveted accreditation by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, a milestone that places the park in the elite company of the world’s best-run zoos.
Next month could bring the biggest change in LCS’s long history, when conservationist Marcella Leone is expected to finalize her purchase of the park.
Leone, the founder and director of the nonprofit Leo Zoological Conservation Center in Greenwich, Conn., who also has ties to Wellington’s equestrian community, has mentioned she’d like to add cheetahs, orangutans and even African rock penguins, a species which tolerates hot temperatures.
It’s exciting news to Dowling, who’s spent 20 years caring for the park’s more than 1,000 animals.
“We expect to be able to enhance our conservation efforts and start some new beautification projects,” said Dowling.
Driving around the park with Dowling is like touring a middle school with its most popular teacher.
Many of the park’s animals recognize Dowling and even respond to their names.
He pulls up to a huge steel enclosure and yells for Buck.
Incredibly, a massive rhinoceros comes galumphing toward us as rapidly as something that weighs more than two tons and resembles a tank on four legs can move. In other words, a slow galumph.
At 50, Buck is the oldest male Southern white rhino on record.
Once he’s secured inside his feeding area, Dowling gives him a mixture of grain and arthritis medicine. He demonstrates how Buck likes being scratched vigorously around the base of the two horns on his shovel-like head.
His thick hide feels like warm, bristly rubber.
“He can’t roll in the mud anymore, so the game keepers rub him down with mud regularly which keeps him cool and conditions his skin. They also spray him with Avon’s Skin So Soft,” said Dowling.
For years, the park’s 13 rhinos have been part of a successful rhino breeding program, as rhinos in the wild slowly go extinct due to poaching.
Occasionally, game keepers have to become animal psychologists to persuade nature to take its course. When an older male rhino named Ronnie seemed to lack the means and motivation to get the job done, Dowling placed a 4-year-old male nearby to drum up a little competition.
“On that first day, Ronnie was chasing girls again,” said Dowling.
He pauses at a pond where water buffalo lie submerged up to their nostrils. Their sharp curved horns rise out of the water like the stems of strange aquatic plants.
The public has rarely been injured, although animals have sent game wardens to the hospital several times. In 1974, the park’s sole fatality was the result of a worker being trampled, then gored by a water buffalo.
As we pull up to the tortoise compound, Dowling starts calling for Lance.
At 93, Lancelot is the park’s oldest resident. On this morning, he’s also a cantankerous codger who doesn’t want to meet visitors.
His breakfast banana still dribbling down his chin, he turns to go back to his pen until he spots Dowling.
Incredibly, his rear half suddenly rises as if on hydraulics, then his bowed front legs slowly straighten, eventually lifting 670 pounds of Aldabra giant tortoise two feet in the air to greet Dowling, who rubs the top of Lance’s beak.
“Man, Lance is so chill,” says Dowling, while the tortoise seems to lean against Dowling’s hand, like a dog wanting to be petted.
Driving through the park’s zebra herd — with 65 members, it’s the largest in the world outside of Africa — Dowling points out that zebras aren’t black-and-white, they’re shades of brown and cream, each with a distinct pattern of stripes.
Because they can be bad-tempered and aggressive, Dowling says they’re the only members of the horse family to never have been successfully domesticated.
We pull up at the park’s famous chimpanzee islands, whose residents have been studied since 1972 by none other than famous chimp expert Jane Goodall. In 1984, LCS became one of the founding members of Goodall’s ChimpanZoo program, which studies chimps in captivity.
“The chimps are the most dangerous animals we have,” Dowling cautions, because they’re strong and quick and often aggressively territorial.
Spotting Dowling, they immediately start gathering on the shore. After he ducks into a nearby building and emerges with a huge pile of ripe plantains, they begin jumping up and down and whooping.
It’s snack time.
A male named Tonic pounds his hands together like a baseball catcher, before Dowling wings a plantain across the water. Tonic snags it like a pop fly.
Dowling is calling “Mama, Mama,” as the tiniest adult chimp on the island descends creakily from her treehouse, pausing to sling a stuffed doll over her shoulders like a shawl.
“Little Mama” is the oldest chimp ever recorded. She’s a favorite of Goodall, who inspected her teeth years ago to determine her age. Goodall declared she was probably born just before World War II. But, since she was born in the African jungle, it’s just a estimate, if a highly-educated one.
If true, it would make bald, gray-bearded Little Mama, who once performed in the Ice Capades, nearly 80. Chimps in the wild rarely survive past 50.
After other chimps grab the first few plantains Dowling throws to Mama, she positions herself closer to the water so she can quickly grab two he lands at her feet.
Little Mama hasn’t survived all these years without a few tricks up her hairy sleeve.
While Dowling clearly loves the animals he care for, he also hopes visitors, especially children, understand the importance of preserving them.
As a cautionary tale, he shows off the park’s herd of 30 scimitar-horned oryx, an antelope from North Africa with gracefully curved, rapier sharp horns, now extinct in the wild.
“Places like this are now the only way to see them,” he says. “The only way to save others is to be sure there’s a next generation of conservation-minded people.”
IF YOU GO
LION COUNTRY SAFARI
2003 Lion Country Safari Road, Loxahatchee (561) 793-1084
Lion Country Safari is holding an anniversary sale on admission in honor of its opening in 1967.
Ticket prices have been reduced to $19.67 per person through September 8. Regular admission is $35. You’ll need a coupon available at this website: www.lioncountrysafari.com