There is a beastly boom sweeping the country. African animals now attract more attention on this side of the Atlantic than they ever did at home. A proliferation of parks where wild animals roam free, or nearly so, while humans ogle them from the comparative safety of people cages ( Detroit style) has transported Africa into the backyards of America.
Jungle Habitat in West Milford, N.J., 40 miles northwest of New York City, had more than half a million visitors in the first three months the park was open last year. Quebec's Pare Safari Africain at Hemmingford, two miles north of the U.S.- Canada border, had 250,000 visitors in the first six weeks of operation. Lion Country Safari's newest project, outside Atlanta, has had 225,000 customers in its seven-month existence. In Winston, Ore., where World Wildlife Safari has not even officially opened, some 50,000 have already taken sneak peeks at the birds and beasts newly transplanted to the Pacific Northwest.
All this fascination with foreign animals—although most are African, others represent all parts of the world—has touched off a boom that is big, big business. At $3.75 per person, Jungle Habitat grossed more than $1� million in admissions in its first three months. The restaurant, snack bars, souvenir stands, camera and gift shops added substantial amounts.
There is still additional money to be made from the animals themselves. In a sense, wild animal production—with a self-perpetuating stock—is the modern merchant's dream. Some animals are more profitable than others but even here nature has proved a beneficent partner. The easiest animals to breed in captivity seem also to be the most popular.
Lions, for example, definitely hold top billing. They are also among the most prolific breeders of the larger mammals. In the first two years that Lion Country Safari at Laguna Hills, Calif. was in operation, its 40 lions produced more than 100 young. At the going price of $350 per cub, that is a bonus with teeth.
Rarer animals, or those more difficult to breed in captivity, bring considerably higher prices. White rhino calves, for example, command as much as $7,500 each, while a giraffe sells for $10,000 or more. As long as the market for wild animals continues to grow, profits from the production and sale of animals to other parks represent a significant ancillary benefit.
Since the opening of the original Lion Country Safari near West Palm Beach in 1967, 12 parks have been started in the U.S. and Canada. Some 15 more are scheduled to open in the next two years, including a $10 million complex near Orlando. Warner Communications Inc., the entertainment conglomerate, with the help of New York real-estate tycoons Herbert and Stuart Scheftel and the Hunt family from Detroit, pioneer animal handlers and dealers, has already invested some $5 million in the 500-acre Jungle Habitat. They see this as merely the beginning of what they hope will become a nationwide chain of similar parks. Florida-based Hardwicke Companies is currently involved in a successful park in Quebec and has another one scheduled to open next year near Freehold, N.J.
Lion Country Safari started its West Palm Beach park with an initial investment of $500,000, added another half-million over the next two years, and in the third year—with a million visitors—was showing profits sufficient to cover capitalization, operating expenses and the establishment of a second park in California, stocked, incidentally, with homegrown animals. By last summer Lion Country had added two more parks, in Texas and Georgia, and had run its net worth up to $35 million. The operation went public in 1971, is currently being traded over the counter under the symbol GRRR, and at its growliest was selling at 55 times earnings.
The concept of wild animal parks is not new. Since President Paul Kruger pioneered the idea with the park named after him in South Africa at the end of the last century, dozens of others have been established throughout Africa. But the idea of wild animals roaming loose in parks far removed from their native habitats is very new. With the possible exception of a handful of exotic game ranches in the Southwest, none of which operate as public exhibitions but as private preserves, the idea of wild animal parks as we know them today dates back only to 1966.
The first, The Lions of Longleat, opened that year in Wiltshire, England, prompted not by dreams of soaring profits but by dire necessity. Lord Bath, the laird of Longleat, one of Britain's stateliest homes, was beset by debt. He had already opened Longleat to the public in 1949 and charged admission—the first of many profit-pinched aristocrats to do so—but even with an average of 135,000 paying visitors a year Lord Bath was having difficulty making ends meet. Just keeping the house, which dates back to 1580, and gardens in shape took some $85,000 a year, on top of which a swarm of deathwatch beetles ate its way through almost a quarter of a million dollars worth of Old English beams. The poor lord looked around for a miracle.