Behind the Scenes at Lion Nation Safari

It’s a sunny morning in Las Pampas. Lancelot the Aldabra tortoise, effectively into his 90s now, barely raises his head as we crawl by in our SUV. A light-weight breeze ruffles the slash pines, distant ibis wheel overhead, and all is at peace right here at Lion Nation Safari.

Aside from the million issues which might be actually occurring.

We took a behind-the-scenes take a look at what’s arguably Palm Seaside County’s most beloved attraction with longtime PR Supervisor Haley McCann, who confirmed us a distinct perspective, from ill-tempered woman zebras to a really Zen chimp named Higgy, to like between the impalas and good-looking Kawazi, a swoon-worthy lion.

The huge drive-through safari park, which should have been ranchland 60 years in the past, is now divided into seven zones with unique names like Ruaha Nationwide Park or the Kalahari Bushveldt, and is residence to 900 animals. It was the primary “cage-less zoo” when it opened in 1967, and it’s recognized for its conservation efforts, working intently with the Affiliation of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to attain breeding herds, and even convey again some populations, just like the scimitar-horned oryx, from the brink of extinction.

However what in regards to the on a regular basis drama? We requested McCann how issues actually work, from stormy climate to heartsick rhino love.

Entrance to Lion Nation Safari

How the day begins

This morning, we meet better rhea Newman, who has huge blue eyes; tiny impala calves newly born; an especially good-looking eland named Blue; and the brand new bongos, Makumi and Bacari. However it’s all in a morning’s drive-through for the keepers…

Haley McCann

“Every day, now we have an early morning inspection and do a rely. The keepers know their animals so effectively, they know the place they like to put down and the way they wish to sleep—for instance, the chimps are on island habitats in a single day. … The keepers know the chimps’ particular person quirks or preferences; some chimps want to sleep on prime of the shelter, some are within the shelter. So often when you name their names they are going to in a roundabout way flip or acknowledge you. On cooler evenings in Florida’s winter, once they’re actually bedded down within the hay they usually don’t really feel like actually getting up within the morning, they’ll simply stick an arm out of the hay mattress and say, ‘I’m right here, let me sleep, why are you bothering me?’”

Who will get to work right here?

“We have now a number of keepers for the lion habitat, a number of keepers for the chimp habitat, antelope and hoof inventory, rhino part. Our keepers have a wide range of backgrounds; some have a number of animal expertise, a few of them go to high school particularly to be an animal keeper, and a few have greater levels in biology. They’ve fairly various backgrounds.”

Makumi, jap bongo

When a child is on the way in which

“After we see we predict a child from an animal—our staff is superb at recognizing these indicators—we are going to relocate females to maternity areas, as they get nearer to beginning. We have now maternity areas throughout the habitats, a quieter zone, that provides mother and child a very good alternative to bond as effectively.”

How you progress an 800-pound animal

“You’d be shocked how sturdy a motivator meals is, both their common meals or extra-special treats. … and also you simply type of herd them very slowly.”

Herd of better kudu

And their annual check-up

“We maintain detailed information on the animals below our care; these information begin the day they’re born. We’ll usually do a neonatal examination—we’ll weigh them to ensure they’re wholesome, and everyone will get some form of ID quantity and a microchip.

We attempt to give everybody a well being examination every year, however on the identical time we don’t wish to overstress an animal unnecessarily. We do routine well being care “coaching” [practicing contact with animals through positive reinforcement, like food] with lions, rhinos, giraffes. These are huge species, so we do common coaching with them, so if we have to do a blood check or one thing, it’s not demanding to them. We at all times pair it with constructive reinforcement, so that they’re arising and selecting to take part, which provides us sufficient time to present them an injection or take a blood draw.”

A herd of rhinos

New child on the block

A better rhea

“Anytime we work with one other accredited zoo—for instance, to get a brand new male that may convey extra variety to the genetics of the herd—there’s a complete course of that we undergo. We solely work with different zoos which might be accredited by the Affiliation of Zoos and Aquariums so we all know they’re respected. The very first thing we do is relocate them to an space and put them below a quarantine interval. Although there may be well being testing earlier than they depart the power, we simply double verify earlier than we introduce them to different members of their species to ensure they don’t have any well being points that might be contagious or of concern to the opposite animals within the habitat.

Then we begin with introductions to members of their species below supervision and for brief intervals of time.”

The mane attraction

There are 9 lions at Lion Nation Safari, and a newly expanded habitat. It’s the one fenced-in a part of the park, and McCabe says they’re starting to “formulate their breeding delight,” with three teams of males and one group of females. There are strict security procedures right here, and iron bars on the home windows of vans of keepers who monitor the habitat all day. It’s difficult to introduce male lions to at least one one other, a course of underway proper now with Masaba and his uncle, Atlas, whose son is Okay’wasi, usually thought-about drop-dead good-looking and the heartthrob of the bunch.

“Lions are thought-about a Class I animal—an animal that might be a predator or harmful— so there are strict protocols. They’ve their evening home throughout the street. They go up there within the evenings and have their dinner there. There are good little followers. They arrive out once more very first thing each morning. We even have an elevated catwalk above the evening pens so the keepers can management a collection of doorways to totally different areas.


We don’t wish to introduce lions the place we expect there is perhaps very severe preventing concerned. That’s all a part of the introduction course of. We don’t transfer ahead to the following step until we’re seeing indicators of habits that they’re prepared to maneuver ahead and it’s not going to be an enormous conflict. However it’s tremendous regular habits for lions to scrap within the wild. Between females, between males, that’s normal lion habits.

As they’re establishing their hierarchy, they’ll have somewhat battle after which they’ll resolve who’s going to again down, who’s going to be dominant, however you possibly can’t merely take two lions who don’t know one another in any respect after which simply stick them collectively and anticipate it to go effectively. It’s not going to. It’s all in regards to the sluggish, monitored introduction course of. It’s all about being in tune with the habits, understanding the animals you take care of. Our lion keepers don’t must even see who’s roaring; they know whose roar it’s.”

Okay’wasi the lion

Rhine love and an getting old lothario

In an enclosure with its personal shelter lives Buck, a “founding member” of the park who has been right here since 1972. Buck is an getting old rhino who, as is true for many male species, doesn’t know the way previous he’s with regards to placing the strikes on a woman. Which is partly why he will get to reside out his golden years with loads of TLC and privateness.

“Buck was a breeding male for a lot of, a few years. At this level he’s in his early to mid-50s, which makes him one of many oldest rhinos within the nation. Male rhinos are usually very solitary until they’re pursuing a feminine for mating.

Females are very tightly knit, and in the event that they don’t really feel like placing up with the males, they don’t thoughts telling them that—in a really rhino method. At his age, along with his arthritis and having slowed down, we don’t really feel like he must take care of the extent of drama that comes with a big group of feminine rhinos. We don’t need him to harm himself making an attempt to breed.

He additionally will get specialised geriatric care, [including] a spa day. [Rhinos can only roll in mud to protect their skin.] Along with his arthritis, he actually can’t attain his again anymore, so his keepers will are available in (rhinos are very tactile) and use scrub brushes; primarily, they’re exfoliating him. We’ll additionally do the Pores and skin So Gentle, which has insect-repelling properties, and we end with a pleasant little mudpack on his again. After which he will get to simply relaxation and loosen up and nap the remainder of the day. He’s a very cool man. …”

Zebras could be imply ladies

A part of the zebra herd; courtesy of Lion Nation Safari

We at all times had an urge to nuzzle a zebra in its striped pajamas, nevertheless it seems these are usually not essentially the most pleasant of animals, and the women are at all times making bother. In actual fact, all through the course of our day, we be taught there’s a number of this form of drama occurring all through Lion Nation—and most of it revolves round both intercourse or meals.

“[Herds of zebra have cliques] with rating females, like lions. … There are a number of issues that go on, a number of drama there as effectively.

We use the stripe patterns to establish the totally different zebras, and now we have a guide in our keeper complicated that has an image of each single zebra’s face in it, so if we’re looking for a particular particular person we are able to determine it out. Our dominant stallion, Billy Ray, is simple to inform aside as a result of he has a distinct [short and spiky] mane from everyone else.”

Ruby child and different tales of life

Southern white rhinoceros Blossom along with her child Ruby

The most recent zoo star, child Ruby the rhino, was nonetheless within the maternity pen along with her mom once we visited. However very cute and really sleepy.

“The rhinos come out of their evening space each morning and voluntarily enter our chute system [part of the way keepers can readily access the animals]. We at all times do this sort of constructive coaching with meals concerned. [It’s how] we do common weights with the rhinos, fast checks of their toes, medicine distribution or injections and blood attracts. It’s crucial while you’re coping with an animal that weighs 4,000 kilos or so for us to securely have the ability to do that in a method that’s not demanding on our employees or the animals. Due to that chute system we truly caught a uncommon type of most cancers in one in all our rhinos that we have been in a position to deal with. She’s now in remission and has been for years. What initially offered as somewhat wound or abscess of her smooth tissue exterior of her horn turned out to be an infinite tumor that was rising within the smooth tissue and up by way of the middle of her major horn.

Had we not had that good relationship and hands-on care with the rhinos, who is aware of if that might have been caught early sufficient to do one thing about it?”

Monkey enterprise

The chimp islands are complicated social teams, every headed by a male. And have been as soon as the house of the now-famous late Little Mama, of whom Jane Goodall was a fan—as soon as the oldest recognized chimp on this planet. As we speak, the oldest lady is Swing, 54. The chimps are cared for and noticed by a staff of pros, together with Dr. Tina Cloutier Barbour, a physician of evolutionary psychology who makes a speciality of chimpanzee getting old.

Higgy, an island chief; photograph courtesy of Lion Nation Safari
Irene carrying Tonk

“We don’t put two alpha males on the identical island without delay—there could be a number of aggression. The largest problem is simply type of protecting a finger on the heart beat of their social methods as a result of they’re at all times fluctuating. And they’re so vital to their social methods, simply protecting observe of who’s indignant with whom, what’s occurring, who’s finest mates this week and who’s in estrus—as a result of that modifications their habits totally. It’s like a relentless cleaning soap opera/chess match.”

And the physician’s favourite

Dr. Tina Cloutier Barbour

Cloutier Barbour says, “I strive to not have one. However then there’s Higgy on Island 3 over there. He’s simply been such an affect on my life. He’s a powerful alpha. Watching him work is a pleasure. For instance, his group goes by way of some difficulties proper now. Janice is youthful, and he or she is making an attempt to maneuver up in rank over Jen, who’s older and the matriarch of that group. There was some battle between them earlier within the week, and Higgy—it’s like watching a maestro in an orchestra—he’s simply ‘you’re allowed to come back right here however not this a lot nearer’ or ‘you don’t take a look at her that method.’ The alpha’s job is to maintain peace, even when there may be some aggression.”

Park with a coronary heart

“Lion Nation Safari was the primary one which applied cardio cell monitoring—and blood stress monitoring as effectively,” says Cloutier Barbour. “Cardiac illness is the No. 1 reason for mortality in chimpanzees—it appears to impression our male chimps greater than the females.

Tuli, one of many park’s giraffes; photograph courtesy of Lion Nation Safari

Swing, our oldest chimp, was retired from a lab a few years in the past. There was a researcher named Linda Koebner who was actually taken with determining if chimps might be rehabilitated and discover ways to be chimps after being in laboratories. The one place that was keen to present {that a} strive was Lion Nation. So the preliminary six or seven retired laboratory chimps—Swing was one in all them—got here right here to attempt to combine with ‘regular’ chimps and be social. It was profitable right here. [After that] they have been in a position to discovered the Nationwide Chimp Sanctuary and Save the Chimps and the Heart For Nice Apes.”


Driving towards the giraffe herd, McCann says “The problem of giraffes is working with their wants. A few of the giraffes are very specific. They’re very cautious. For instance, when they’re able to stroll by way of the chute they don’t even need you to have a look at them.

“They’re additionally liable to heart-related considerations later in life, because the chimps are. Theirs is extra associated to the truth that their hearts need to work so laborious to pump 6 toes towards gravity to their heads.”

Climate woes

“We have now protocols and procedures for warmth and chilly and hurricanes,” McCann says.

“We don’t have a lot of a difficulty with excessive warmth; the animals are principally from climates which have excessive warmth and humidity. … the rainforests of South America, the plains of Africa. We do like to present chilly treats: frozen Crystal Lite ice pops for the chimps, blood popsicles for lions, to present them alternatives to chill off. Typically we’ll arrange the sprinklers for the antelope and the alpacas.

White-handed gibbon monkey

“Our chilly climate protocols principally have an effect on our smaller species and our reptiles. We don’t need our cold-blooded animals to be uncovered to temperatures which might be too chilly, as a result of they’re extra delicate. So we’ll convey them into the constructing, present additional meals, additional hay bedding. For a lot of the animals right here, although, it doesn’t get chilly sufficient that now we have to regulate a lot.

“We practice for hurricanes all yr spherical [the regular health care training that brings animals into their houses pays off here with treats and activities], so the animals which have safe amenities such because the lions, the rhinos and the chimps will go to those safe amenities. The hoof inventory has totally different protocols. As a result of they’re liable to flight or panic if one thing bizarre is occurring, it’s truly extra harmful to attempt to comprise them in a barn the place they might hit a wall or severely injure themselves. In order that they have a pure intuition to exit within the middle of the pasture, discover the low spots, flip their rumps to the wind and get away from bushes and buildings. We open up entry to buildings to present them freedom of alternative, and this reduces stress on them considerably, which is likely one of the main hazards for animals. They journey it out higher than we do.”

This text is from the November/December 2022 concern of Boca journal. For extra like this, click on right here to subscribe to the journal.