Drive-Through Safaris

May 6, 2008 — The weird thing about having an ostrich in your car is that, naturally, you have an ostrich in your car.  Perhaps weirder is the fact that not only is it a voluntary experience, it’s one you actually paid money for.  Or at least I did.  Twice.  So far.

I’d heard about drive-through safari parks all my life, but they never penetrated the television-screen-sized area of concentration in front of my consciousness that something has to for me to take notice of it.  The only random, peripheral thought I had about them was that I thought they were relic cultural experiences from another era, like dime museums, freak shows, soda jerks, and roller skating waitresses.  I mean, what modern overly protective regulatory body would ever let its populace interact with potentially dangerous creatures in such an unsupervised manner?

There is a no more embarrassing place to be wrong than Cleveland, and that, unfortunately, is where I first discovered my error.  While driving around outside the city after my original plans for the day fell through, I saw a billboard advertising a place called the African Safari Wildlife Park.  So, feeling a bit like Napoleon trying to decide whether to attack Russia in the winter, I thought, “What the heck?”

What the heck, indeed.  I’m not quite sure what I was expecting, something placid and zoo-like probably, but I certainly wasn’t prepared for the furious chaos of skin-rippers, heart-piercers, and organ-gorers prancing, trotting, clopping, loping, galloping, and other terrifying verbs of animal locomotion toward my open car windows on a rutted, dirt road with no one else in sight, my only weapon a bucket of food pellets and my only shield—hold on, almost finished the sentence—a thin Honda Civic door with dent-but-not-maul resistant panels.  That is exactly what happened.  Except more violent.

Now, I’ve slept over in a murderess’ bedroom, ghost-hunted in an old prison in the middle of the night, walked alone through urban Baltimore, and even sat through a Broadway show once or twice.  Never have I been more terrified than at a drive-through safari park.  And I’ve only rarely had more fun. In fact, it was such a revelatory experience for me that as soon as I found out that there was one in Virginia within driving distance of where I lived, I had through it.  The sweaty Ohio flashbacks in the middle of the night just weren’t enough anymore.

The Virginia Safari Wildlife Park is located in the Shenandoah Valley area of the state, near the Natural Bridge.  From what I’ve read since my discovery of drive-through safari parks, the rules for each can differ.  For instance, unlike the Cleveland one, some (rather sanely) do not allow either feeding the animals or opening your windows.  However, to my profound horror and utter delight, it turned out that the Virginia park was similar to the Ohio park.  In other words, every man and animal for him or itself.

From what I can tell, there are usually two parts to a drive-through safari park.  And I know I might be generalizing based on the two I’ve visited, but there are so few in the U.S. that I feel comfortable that I’ve visited a quorum.  There’s the drive-through area—about which this article is mostly—and a more conventional zoo park, featuring predators, reptiles, peacocks, kangaroos, monkeys, and other creatures that I guess don’t do well mingling species and interacting with wheeled and panic-prone humans on the drive-through course.  I’m not always sure where that line lies, though.  I’ve heard of safari parks that have monkeys running loose, but I didn’t experience this in either Ohio or Virginia.

Even though we did this more sedate part second, I thought I’d mention it first and get it out of the way.  It is, however, a good way to gently come down from the drive-through experience.  It would be sad and somewhat surreal to go right from dodging rams on a dirt track to Dodge Rams on the interstate without even taking a breath or getting the opportunity to wipe the animal slobber off your car.

And you can do that drive-through part in one of two ways.  The way you should, in your own car, simultaneously feeding the animals, driving the car, taking pictures, and frantically toggling the car windows up and down in alternating conditions of primal fear and childish wonder.  Or if you go on a weekend, you can take a group tractor ride driven by park staff.  Don’t be a pansy, though.

So after we bought our tickets, we pulled up to a chain-link fence that, while not exactly the gates to the interior of Skull Island, still have that same foreboding aura about them...and beat of primitive drums.  This is also where you get to buy animal food, which is basically a bucket of little greenish-brown pellets much like you’d find at any generic pet store for any generic pet. 

By the end of your trek, this food will be an omnipresent annoyance (or nostalgic reminder) inside of your car.  Partly because the animals are messy eaters, but mostly because you’ll be flinging the bucket around in a constant state of startlement as your body—without even asking your brain’s opinion—interprets every twitch of an animal’s mouth as the harbinger of a sudden taste for human flesh.  Think box of popcorn at a 3D horror movie.  It’s been a year since my visit and I’m still picking pellets out of the floor mats and the window sheath.  I also never vacuum my car, so that also might factor in.

Inside those gates, the animals are pretty much all just sitting there waiting for you to come by, kind of like in the last scene of Hitchcock’s The Birds.  As soon as you stop, whatever creatures are in the immediate area come right up to your car (after laughing to each other how tentatively you drove into the enclosure, I’m sure).  I imagine it’s a lot like being mugged, honestly.  Gangs of vicious, weapon-wielding nightmares capable of instantaneous mortal damage run at you while you simultaneously freeze and try to throw whatever you think they might find the most valuable at them.  In this case it’s those magic pellets that somehow lure every animal equally, regardless of species, dietary preference, and stomach number.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  Whenever they approach you one at a time, it’s exactly the calm, up-close-with-nature experience that the parks tout.  But the fact remains.  This is not a controlled situation.  The only warnings that you’re given before entering are don’t exit the car, keep your hands away from their mouths, and don’t brag about how higher up you are on the evolutionary tree.  The animals themselves aren’t given any rules...none that I saw posted, anyway.  Like I said, not a controlled situation.  I might even have had to sign a waiver when I bought the tickets, I don’t remember.

However, just as often as the one-on-one encounters is the mass animal free-for-all, or MAFFA, for short.  In fact, they’ll often surround you like a Seventies nature run amok film, literally standing in front of your car and looking at you like they’re playing the “I’m not touching you” game.  And you’ll never feel more ridiculous than when you’re honking the pathetic horn of your compact car at a buffalo.  It’s like being inside of a Far Side cartoon.  Sometimes they’ll squabble with each other over the food, too.  Which is terrifying.  And also embarrassing.  Like when you inadvertently cause two children to fight enough that the parents have to step in.

All told, the drive-through dirt track at the Virginia Safari Wildlife Park is three miles long and meanders through 180 acres of real estate.  This is obviously a road that you have to take at a crawl for a variety of reasons, but my point in the previous paragraph is that it’s not always up to you how slow you go or how often or long you stop.  Actually, nothing is up to you once you enter the enclosure.  That’s my thesis here.

I guess I should tell you the types of animals you can encounter during one of these things.  All I remember really are horns the length of my arm, snouts filled with chainsaw rows of gleaming teeth, and beaks like daggers.  But after undergoing a few hypnotic regression sessions, I’m pretty sure these all belonged to llamas, reindeer, pigs, elk, deer, zebras, bison, giraffes, camels, gazelles, ostriches, rheas, Chinese oxen, and many horned African grazers whose names I do not know.

I also discovered that my then-girlfriend/now-fiancée/future-wife is insanely afraid of any bird taller than her.  I should have known this from the way she freaked out every time I told her how to get to Sesame Street, but it’s fine learning it when I did.  Coincidentally, I also discovered at the same time that in modern cars, the driver can lock out control of all windows for himself, including the passenger-side window, and especially when the passenger seat beside that passenger-side window is filled with a frantic ornithophobe.  I think she rode on the center console the entire way.  The rest of our lives together are going to be so much fun now that I know that.

But in her defense (against me), there is something to it.  The thing about being both in such close proximity to and in such closed quarters with a beak on the end of long, flexible neck is that everything seems more vulnerable—flesh, vinyl, cloth, the electronics of your car radio, the thin, jellied surfaces of your eyeballs.

In conclusion, the first time I visited a drive-through safari park, it was a complete and random Plan B.  Now I’ll preempt my own funeral procession if we happen to pass one on the way to the cemetery.