There is something truly disconcerting about a one-ton beast staring down your vehicle from a mere yard away. He stands there, feet planted firmly upon the dirt road and head cocked to one side, his massive horns tilted like a pair of sharpened goalposts set askew after a rowdy collegiate victory, and you are forced to confront your own shallow materialism. Because rather than reacting rationally with a measure of concern for your personal safety, you are instead preoccupied with a silent plea: Please don’t hurt my car.
The creature lumbers forward toward your window, which you have left down because you have already become addicted to the thrill of witnessing large animal heads poke into your car in search of grain pellets and carrots. Like a trained dog, that is all this immense quadruped is really after – a treat. Yet he cannot insert his gigantic head very far into your vehicle, as those enormous horns will not allow it. You hear them clatter and scrape against the roof, and as you reach for a carrot, you repeat your prayerful mantra: Please don’t hurt my car.
Such are the highs and lows of life on safari, at least as it exists within the decidedly non-African climate of Ohio. We found this particular wildlife park in – of all places – Port Clinton, just a shed antler’s throw from the shallow shore of Lake Erie. With its garishly painted billboards promoting the display of a white alligator and brochures touting pig races and animal rides, the facility reeked of roadside tourist trap more than it evoked the sincerity of a nature preserve.
We waited in a slow-moving double line of cars approaching the safari enclosure while listening to the amplified, big buildup for the adjacent pig race. Spectators were divided into sections of stands and accordingly encouraged to root for particular pigs, including Pig Daddy, Dale Swinehardt, and A. J. Oink. Meanwhile, we studied the signage surrounding the safari gate. There were instructions on how to safely feed the animals, among which was a warning to surrender your feed cup to any animal that seemed determined to snatch it. Also posted was a notice releasing the wildlife park from all liability in the event of property damage or personal injury. We had plenty of time to ponder the implications of that policy, and I could not help but be reminded of an incident that occurred during a two-family vacation over thirty years ago.
We were traveling with the Monforts, in whose station wagon we entered the grounds of a South Dakota attraction called Bear Country, USA. Visitors were told to keep their windows rolled up as they drove among unrestrained grizzlies. According to the proprietors, it was early in the tourist season, and our hopes of seeing a bear up close were likely to be met, as the creatures were still curious about passing cars. As it happened, they were more curious than we would have liked.
One of the standout vacation memories of my childhood is the image of a frantic Ruth Ann Monfort flailing at her window with an umbrella in a vain attempt to shoo away a bear that was showing its menacing teeth just on the other side of the pane. We all heard alarming sounds of claws upon metal that did not bode well for the station wagon’s exterior. Nestled among our luggage on the journey home was a mangled strip of chrome that had been pried loose from a side panel.
The very real potential for vehicular damage was foremost in my mind, then, as we finally reached the safari gate and purchased several large cups of grain pellets and a bag of carrots. No sooner did we drive through than we observed the cars in front of us set upon by a half-dozen or more antlered animals that were not at all shy about begging for food. Moments later, we were surrounded as well. The ravenous beasts stuffed their muzzles into our cups and vacuumed up whole carrots. One of them clamped its crooked teeth on the lip of a feeding cup and wrenched it away, and we quickly realized that our supposedly ample supplies would be rapidly depleted unless we put up our windows and moved along.
Progressing through the park, we encountered bison, which are impressively large from a distance and even more so when viewed within twelve inches. One bull gallumphed alongside the car and stared at us with its left eye. Its head was far too big to pass through the window. We gave it a carrot, which disappeared instantly, and a moment of silence ensued. Then, from somewhere deep within its cavernous oral cavity, there resounded an ominous crunching. We moved on.
Farther along the path was a huge and unfamiliar animal that we would only later learn was a Scottish Highlander. It was shaggy and clumsy, as though someone had figured out how to transform one of Jim Henson’s monster Muppets into organic reality. So gigantic was it that we only caught glimpses of its features when it closed in on us. It exhaled snot into our car, gulped down a carrot, and peered into the back window, looking for more. Every so often, a writhing tongue of about the diameter of my biceps emerged from its mouth and licked about its face, producing an almost comically loud slurping sound. This was not the kind of animal one would ever want to provoke, I decided. I am, in general, wary of creatures whose heads are four times bigger than my own.
The park saved its marquee animals for the end of the trail, which ran alongside wire fences behind which roamed zebra and giraffe. These animals, too, had become carrot lovers, and they easily managed to crane their necks over obstructions in order to accept visitor offerings. I had heard that zebras were, in fact, rather hostile and unpleasant animals, but these specimens appeared as docile as dogs. We patted their snouts, and they munched away contentedly. As for giraffe, I know of no better way of appreciating their outrageous height than to try to gaze at one’s face as it stands beside your car. It is, of course, impossible, and only by poking my upper body out the window upside down could I locate a giraffe head and snap its picture.
When it was over, we pulled into the parking lot and gave our vehicle the once-over. No scratches or dents were readily apparent, but both sides of the car were slathered with dirt, slobber, and whatever viscous matter covered the snouts of the animals that eagerly accosted us. We were alive and unscathed, yet we had been changed. We would never look at a carrot the same way again.