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Sunday, June 21, 2015

Zoo Review: Virginia Safari Park

For this month's zoo review, I'm focusing on a facility which is in the news for less-than-good reasons.  Recently, USDA announced complaints against the Gulf Breeze Zoo in Florida and the Reston Zoo in Virginia, two facilities (unaccredited by the AZA) owned by the same parent facility, Virginia Safari Park.  While I haven't visited Gulf Breeze (which used to be an AZA facility) or Reston, I did stop off at Virginia Safari Park during a long, dreary road-trip down I-81.

Tucked away in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, Virginia Safari Park bills itself as "Two Zoos for the Price of One," in reference to the two very different halves of the facility.  The much larger portion of the park is a drive-through safari, where visitors can purchase buckets of grain and drive amongst the animals.  There are hundreds of animals in the 180 acre safari, about 80% of which belong to three species - llama, fallow deer, and greater rhea.  Also present are other deer and antelope (sika deer, axis deer, Arabian oryx, nilgai, and common wildebeest among others), along with zebras, American bison, pot-bellied pigs, exotic breeds of domestic cattle, and ostriches and emus.  (Side note: I really did love the little guidebook they handed out with info on the animals).  Side pens feature giraffes and bongo antelope; while I was visiting, an enclosure for white rhinos was under construction.  Camels - both bactrians and dromedaries - are the most memorable animals for many guests.  Confined to side pens, they are still capable of reaching their heads in passing cars and stealing whole buckets of food (yes, including the bucket itself), which they then swallow.

Visitors who are uncomfortable risking their vehicles against bison and zebras can take a ride on open wagons pulled by tractors, receiving guided tours from the drivers.  The drivers stop periodically to allow guests to feed the onslaught of animals that follow the wagon.

The second portion of the park is called The Village, and is more of a traditional zoo.  Here the visitor gets more feeding opportunities in a petting barn, a budgie aviary, or at a feeding deck jutting into the giraffe exhibit.  There is a walk-through yard populated by two dozen red kangaroos, a walk-through aviary featuring Chilean flamingos,  and a walk-by reptile house, filled with the sort of herps you would expect to see in a pet shop.  Tigers and cheetahs are the stars of The Village, but along the paths you may also encounter warthogs, spider monkeys, binturong, servals, and both Galapagos and Aldabra tortoises.  

The Safari is the pride and joy of the park, but I wasn't overly thrilled with it.  Yes, it's nice to see animals with so much room to roam... but many of them don't seem to roam, they seem to stand in the middle of the road begging for food (they are, I should mention, fed by staff regardless of whether they choose to eat from people or not).  The park is patrolled by keepers in pick-up trucks, but the potential for animal-visitor mishaps is still great.  I saw visitors leave their cars to approach animals on foot, visitors feeding animals they weren't supposed to (according to the park rules), and visitors almost hit animals because they were driving without looking - thankfully, the animals were.  

In the Village, I likewise saw visitors cheerfully throwing or handing grain to animals that weren't supposed to be receiving it, such as tortoises and primates.  A lot of the enclosures there were uninspired - boxes made of wooden poles and wire with a few branches inside.  No enrichment was evident, but maybe it was happening and I just wasn't seeing any.  I also couldn't really say that I saw enough winter housing, unless a lot of the animals are removed elsewhere for colder weather.

That last point is very relevant - among the complaints lodged against the Safari Park's sister facilities is improper winter housing (especially at Reston, located in northern Virginia).  Other concerns were unsanitary conditions, lack of supervision of guest-animal interactions, and lack of appropriate veterinary care, including inappropriate euthanasia methods.  As suspect as animal care within this company seems to be, the management still strives to distance itself from its nearest neighbor, the Natural Bridge Zoo, located two miles down the road.  Amusingly, the Natural Bridge Zoo and the Virginia Safari Park/Reston Zoo/Gulf Breeze Zoo company are owned by a father and son, respectively - who, while both zookeepers and located almost within eyesight of one another, are completely estranged and have no interaction.

There's a great unwritten novel in this, somewhere.

As cool as it was seeing some of the sights at Virginia Safari Park, I'm uncomfortable supporting a facility that is parent to so many problems with animal welfare, if the allegations prove to be true.  Until I hear differently, the next time I'm on 81, I think I'll keep driving until I find another zoo.

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