By Craig Davis, Craigslegz.com
The CD they loan to you at the admission gate provides official commentary for the tour of Lion Country Safari.
But all day as we roamed the seven faux wildlife preserves of far western Palm Beach County in our suburban safari wagon, the soundtrack playing in my head was that Simon and Garfunkel song.
Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo …
I’m eyeing the animals suspiciously, wondering how Paul Simon formed his assessments of some of these critters.
Hmmm, those zebras don’t look particularly reactionary to me. Not in that flamboyant outfit. Now the water buffaloes, they have the look of someone at home in a very red state of mind.
Then I recall what Simon once said to Mickey Mantle, his idol who was perturbed that DiMaggio got the mention instead of him in “Mrs. Robinson”: “Wrong amount of syllables.”
Consider that “reactionary” and “Joe DiMaggio” both have the same number of syllables. So I suspect Simon was more concerned with rhymin’ than offering an accurate psychoanalysis of the animals “At the Zoo,” though he may have had some inside information on that zookeeper’s fondness for rum.
That old song, by the way, hasn’t been around as long as Lion Country Safari, which opened a year earlier in 1967 as the country’s first drive-through zoo.
Others have copied the concept, but the original remains the benchmark in providing a wildlife safari experience without having to leave the country. Considerably cheaper, too, for the $33 price of admission ($24 for ages 3-9).
A few years ago USA Travel Guide ranked it the nation’s third-best zoo behind Columbus and San Diego.
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of the cageless zoo is that the animals roam free while the people are contained in their vehicles. And while you come to see them, there is no doubt they are watching you.
I especially liked the perspective Brian Dowling, the general curator at the park, expressed in a profile on a Palm Beach State College alumni site: “These animals are ambassadors for their species. They represent their species to people, especially to younger generations.”
What comes across in a slow, enchanting drive through the various habitats is that the animals do a better job of telling who they are than Paul Simon’s clever lyrics, amusing though they remain all these years later.
I don’t know about reactionary, but those zebras are staunch individualists, each with their own unique pattern of stripes. They seem quite mellow but wary.
This largest herd of zebras in the country may not realize they benefit from not having to worry about lion attacks. But certainly those SUVs skulking through their habitat are not to be trusted.
We observed one knucklehead in a van who didn’t grasp the concept that giraffes have the right-of-way and prevented one of the big fellas from crossing the road. Hey, it would have taken him only two strides to get across.
If I were writing a song about the safari it would include a line about the difficulty in taking a horizontal photo of a giraffe.
The idea of visitors mingling with the wild animals at Lion Country Safari was scaled back somewhat in 2006 when a chain-link fence was erected to separate the lions from the cars.
It wasn’t the fault of the lions but rather with people who created a danger to themselves by ignoring the rule of keeping car windows closed.
These are the same geniuses who pull over in the Everglades and walk up to alligators sunning on the bank to offer them Big Macs. Then everybody is shocked when occasionally someone gets a real Gator Chomp. Talk about an animal that is genuinely reactionary; Zzzz’s to 30 in 2.5 seconds.
For those who haven’t gotten their fill elsewhere of observing alligators mainly imitating fallen logs, they have their own moat near the park’s petting zoo.
The action is more interesting out on the various preserves named after regions where these animals naturally roam, including Africa’s Gorongosa Reserve, Kalahari Bushveldt, Serengeti Plains and Hwange and Ruaha national parks, South America’s Las Pampas and India’s Gir Forest.
If you’ve never seen a Mongolian Wild Ass, try to resist the inclination for sophomoric laughter. Also known as Kulan, they’re cute little characters. And despite their short legs, they can outrun your ass.
It isn’t necessary to leave the car to observe most of Lion Country’s 900-odd animals doing what they do on a daily basis.
It was fortuitous to visit in winter when milder weather had many of them in a playful mood. Antelope were locking horns. A couple of lionesses were prowling the fence, appearing eager to prey on a Prius or Kia.
The strangest and most eccentric animals, without peer, were the ostriches, which performed a bizarre drag-queen fan dance for our benefit.
The highlight of the visit, though, was tagging along in a procession of rhinos as they finished munching hay late in the afternoon and made their way to the quarters where they apparently spend the night. Nobody challenged their claim to the road, considering most of them outweighed the accompanying vehicles.
The exception was Anna, the white rhino born at Lion Country Safari in 2013, ambling along with the adults.
The white rhinos, despite a frightening appearance as the embodiment of a prehistoric tank, are purported to be quite docile. In one large grassy expanse they coexisted peacefully with grazing herds of wildebeest and zebras.
There was something intriguing and mysterious about those zebras. It was the look in their eyes – not reactionary, enigmatic. As if they alone know the answer to that other lingering Paul Simon riddle.
Where did Joltin’ Joe go? Perhaps to Lion Country Safari. Since 1967, millions have.
Lion Country Safari is about 20 miles west of downtown West Palm Beach off Southern Boulevard.