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The drive-thru safari is not Africa, but what did you expect for $19.99?

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When it comes to leisure, the public face of this summer will not be built of Caribbean cruises and European jaunts and August-long seaside rentals, but of state parks and neighbors’ pools. Many people will still enjoy the former, but the latter feels a lot less conspicuous, and that’s a collective self-image we feel we should put forward right now.

It is therefore an especially appropriate time to eschew a decadent trip on the order of, say, an African safari. Its closer and (relatively) more affordable alternative? The American drive-thru safari. It was with a talent for such recession-inspired creativity (Carpool! Eat at home! Don’t go to Africa!) that I recently found myself at the gates of Wild Safari in Jackson, New Jersey — a member of the Six Flags family of amusements that claims to be the largest drive-thru safari outside Africa.

If the drive-thru safari is ever going to have its moment, this could be it. These are indeed tough times. But something in the air —the explosion in home gardening? the surging sales of boxed wine? the rise of gold-swapping parties? — suggests to me that though we’re not yet willing to give up our expectation of pleasure, we think it should come with a bit of down-and-dirtiness, should have a kind of roughness to it.

And drive-thru safaris do have a rough image. This is likely because cars and driving figure so largely in the experience. We once celebrated the idea of doing things beyond simply moving in our cars: eating and banking and developing film and watching movies and even getting married. It was possibly inevitable that we’d start experiencing nature from them as well — Lion Country Safari, the country’s first drive-thru safari, opened in West Palm Beach, Florida in 1967.

The cultural valuation of driving and drive-thrus is different today. Maybe it’s the drive-thru’s strong bond with cheap, unhealthy fast food, or the fact that the act of driving itself has become a political one, economically and environmentally. Whatever it is, the drive-thru safari can sometimes seem less a unique way of looking at animals, and more an easy out for people too lazy to make the effort of walking through a zoo.

That the attractions function primarily as entertainment does nothing to help this image. You can argue all you want over the value of traditional zoos, but we can agree they carry cultural authority. Drive-thru safaris do not. They tend to be unaccredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, which requires its institutions to have conservation and education as part of their missions. Built on huge expanses of land with easy access to highways, they lack the enlightened air an urban context confers on zoos. Six Flag’s Wild Safari is actually one-third of the company’s Great Adventure theme park group in the pine forests of central New Jersey: Next door is both its namesake amusement park and Hurricane Harbor, a waterpark. And though it claims to be the nation’s largest with 350 acres and 1,200 animals, Winston, Oregon’s Wildlife Safari has 500 animals on 600 acres. What makes a safari the biggest — animals or acreage? Either way you measure it, the asserting alone tells you this is more P.T. Barnum than Jane Goodall.

As I pulled up to Wild Safari’s entrance, I passed tall roller coasters on my right and giant neon-colored tubes of water on my left. I paid $39.98 for myself and a companion — $19.99 each — received a map, and then drove to a tall chain-link fence. There, a young woman told me to read the rules on the map’s back (no smoking, speed limit is 12 MPH, animals have the right of way) and reminded me to never put my window down.

Despite its nods to Africa, Wild Safari has a lot of animals from other places in the world. It’s divided into eight zones; the Americas comes first. A minor traffic jam formed immediately, but I imagine this happens at the beginning of all drive-thru safaris, as everyone is (a) excited to see the first animal and slams on the breaks and (b) learning how to navigate safari driving — what it means to go 12 MPH, the fact that you can just stop wherever you like, the fact that you can just swerve across three lanes when you’re watching a zebra on one side of the road, but then notice that there’s a baby zebra on the other.

In the Americas, I watched bison and elk and rhea (an ostrich-like giant bird) roam the wide, grassy fields on either side of the road. The animals were, of course, neither free nor wild, but there was enough space to suggest that if they were, this was how they would interact spatially with both one another and the landscape.

This is not to say the exhibits looked naturalistic in any way. Tall fences run along each side. Behind one, I saw cars further along the route move slowly forward; the amusement park’s coasters rose over the trees. So what?, the safari seems to ask. It makes no attempt to hide the fence separating one zone from the next; seeing this, you realize the extent to which such masking in zoos is done for the benefit of the visitors, to make the enclosure’s limitations not so explicit. Space is less a concern in the safari, so why conceal its edges? To a bison, there’s no difference between a silver chain-link fence and a brick wall that’s covered attractively in green ivy.

At Wild Safari, I saw no real attempts to gloss over the fact that these are captive animals. Approaching the closed gate to the area described on the map as Elephant & Rhino, I stopped behind a row of cars. An ostrich ran back and forth across the road on the other side. While an employee watched from our side, a pickup truck painted a zebra pattern appeared over a hill and drove to the bird. The driver used the truck like a cowboy’s horse to send the ostrich running from the gate, its wings flapping wildly and its body swaying from side to side as it sped away. I saw another truck do the same thing when a rhino wouldn’t move from the road and cars started backing up alongside the elephant enclosure.

Giraffes, too, caused a backup, but not by blocking the road. Though we were told not to open our windows, and signs all along the route restate the rule, some visitors did. The driver of an SUV stopped alongside me, opened his sunroof halfway, put some carrot sticks on the glass, and then closed it. A giraffe slowly walked over to eat the vegetables. When it was finished, it leaned down to the driver’s window and slid its thick black tongue over the glass. In the next car, four kids and an adult crowded into the front seat of a minivan and fed a different giraffe those thin, cigarette-length pretzel sticks that come in little cardboard boxes.

I think that kind of activity contributes to the drive-thru safari’s unsophisticated image. Well, that and the pictures of baboons ripping anttenas off cars you sometimes see on television (Wild Safari’s baboons were enclosed; some napped on a curving piece of roller coaster track). And it’s true: The whole thing can at times feel a little…déclassé. The drive-thru safari’s archetypal visitor is one who takes pleasure in feeding a giraffe salty junk food and doesn’t mind seeing a captive ostrich intentionally scared off with a pickup truck.

Explicitly educational elements are few and far between in Wild Safari. Signs with “Fun Facts” are peppered along the road. For instance, did you know that zebras “are white with black stripes”? Or that fallow deer “are the most abundant deer in captivity”? Facts they may be, though I’m not sure how fun or useful they are.

The safari is its best when it just lets the animals do what they do best. Toward the back of African Plains, I noticed a female ostrich lying on the ground. A male stood above her, dramatically fanning his wings and dipping from side to side; something spooked him and he bolted off (back at home a bit of research confirmed that his interests were, as I suspected, purient). Driving through Australia, I stopped when I saw motion in the trees. Six kangaroos ran out, speeding past the car and into a clearing. I’d seen kangaroos hop in zoos before, but I’d never noticed how, at full speed, their feet are so close together, and that so little of them actually touches the Earth as they move. All the energy behind such a fast, long jump is concentrated in that small, brief contact with the ground.

Wild Safari ends in a parking lot, where you can get out and visit a small attraction called Exploration Station on foot. The Station had a few animals on display, including two lion cubs born this spring, but the whole thing felt like what it actually was — a way for the park to sell snacks and souveniers and $5 pony rides. I did watch a squirrel try to jump into a trash can in the parking lot, miss, and slide down the side, cartoon-style, but Exploration Station was otherwise a whimpering end to Wild Safari.

But it was an experience, and a novel one at that. While it can feel that a drive-thru safari is just dumping a bunch of animals on some fenced-in open space and paving a road through it, what really can they do? Visitors here control the experience because they control the context. Museums and zoos can shape their visitors’ encounters any number of ways — lighting, music, crowds, architecture. But in a drive-thru safari, visitors experience from within their own personal space, and the safari can only do so much to affect that self-centered approach. Sure, you can tune to the safari’s AM radio narration, but you can also blast “Blame it on the al al al al alcohol…” while watching a black bear run into a marsh. Your group can discuss possible reasons that elk is standing all alone, but you can just as easily argue over the air conditioning or fight for the last bag of Cheetos.

I know we’re unlike to ever see a Times Sunday Styles trend story that finds people passing on the real Africa for the drive-thru safaris of Jackson, New Jersey or Gentry, Arkansas or Grapeland, Texas. But if anyone finds himself there — or in Epps, Louisiana or Port Clinton, Ohio, for that matter — it might be worth the time and money to drive though. It never hurts to test your impressions.

Take it from me: As my friend and I approached a gate in Wild Safari’s Pan-Asian Ranthambore Trek (named for an Indian national park), we noticed a guard, a young girl, holding something small and black between the thumb and four fingers of each hand.

“I bet her boss would be angry if he knew she was texting,” my friend said. But when we pulled up, we saw that she wasn’t holding a cell phone — it was a small turtle, its head and legs pulled into its shell. • 12 June 2009

 

Jesse Smith is a writer based in Philadelphia.
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