Florida Wildlife Park's Lions Lose Some Freedom to Roam
Richard Patterson for The New York Times
The stars of Lion Country Safari were free to approach visitors' cars until fences were erected late last year.
By ABBY GOODNOUGH
Published: January 8, 2006
LOXAHATCHEE, Fla. - Out past the strip malls and tract housing of western Palm Beach County, the lions have sidled up to tourists in sturdy cars since Disney World was still a figment.
If you followed the rules - windows up, doors locked, absolutely no pets or convertibles - you could motor among packs of the fearsome creatures at Lion Country Safari, a drive-through wildlife preserve whose residents occasionally dislodged bumpers and gnawed on side-view mirrors.
But in November, Lion Country Safari enclosed its 14 African lions in a tall chain-link fence to keep rule-breaking visitors from becoming lunch. Too many were opening their car windows and occasionally even doors, a park official said, making the threat of lawsuits too great for the small attraction.
"People are just ignorant about this size animal," said Terry Wolf, the park's wildlife director, who began working there as a teenager shortly after it opened in 1967. "I don't meant it in a derogatory way, but they watch a lot of Disney movies and think because we feed them every day that they're tame."
To prevent mishaps, Mr. Wolf stationed two workers among the lions. From their zebra-striped pickup trucks, they closely watched visitors and scolded rule breakers through loudspeakers. Now, the fence keeps cars at least eight feet away.
The lions were snoozing on their ersatz savanna during a reporter's recent visit. Mr. Wolf said they slept up to 20 hours a day. He said that the new layout, first reported in The Palm Beach Post, gave the animals three times as much space and diminished their stress level because they no longer had to be herded with trucks when they roamed too close to the entrance gate.
"We don't take this decision lightly," Mr. Wolf said. "But the lions have always been a major safety concern, and over the years it's become more and more an issue. And we live in a litigious state, anyway."
A similar park in Canada, African Lion Safari, was ordered to pay $2.5 million last year after a tiger attacked two guests through their open car window.
Lion Country Safari, opened by a group of South African businessmen, used to have 150 lions and few other animals. Now 89 species of birds, reptiles and mammals call it home, including elephants, chimpanzees, giraffes and white rhinoceroses, as well as greater kudus and aoudads.
The elephants and chimpanzees are considered the biggest liabilities, and are separated from visitors by steep moats. The park does not bother with tigers, which Mr. Wolf said are "sneakier" than lions. It gets its animals from zoos around the world, he said, and is the oldest attraction of its kind in the country.
Until this month, it was also one of the boldest. At Six Flags Wild Safari in Jackson, N.J., fences have long separated guests from the lions and all other predators, a spokeswoman said. Mr. Wolf said that only one park in the United States, Wildlife Safari in Winston, Ore., still intermingles lions and guests.
Exotic animals abound in Florida - not only at tourist attractions but in the wild, where disenchanted owners abandon them, and in the back yards of people who get licenses to keep them. Just down the road from Lion Country Safari, a 600-pound tiger named Bobo escaped from a private home in 2004 and was killed by a wildlife officer.
"People try to give us animals all the time," Mr. Wolf said. "But we are pretty full up on everything we can take care of."
Lion Country Safari gets about 500,000 visitors a year, Mr. Wolf said, down from a million in the 1970's. It has expanded, adding a Ferris wheel, a giraffe-feeding exhibit and a water play area in hopes of drawing bigger crowds. It has even won permission from the county to build homes on some of its 640 acres.
A caravan of cars streamed through on a recent warm afternoon, many stopping to take pictures of the lions - 3 males and 11 females - in their new enclosure. Joe Gagne of Loxahatchee figured it was now all right to roll down his window for a better shot, but doing so got him a reprimand from a worker in one of the zebra-striped trucks.
Mr. Gagne, who had brought his sister and her children, visiting from South Carolina, said the lions seemed "pretty peaceful."
"If they've never had an incident all this time," he said, "why bother with the fences now?"
Donna Vellon, who brought her children to the park in the 1970's, came with her grandchildren, Kira, 8, and Kelli, 6. She found the fencing of the lions disappointing.
"They used to be right up along your car," said Ms. Vellon, of Summerville, S.C. "You could actually watch them breathing. But I guess safety is something you've got to think more about."
In truth, she said, her granddaughters' favorite part was not the lions, anyway, but the ostrich that pecked at their car window.
New York Times