by Darlene Glass
Some animals may be exhibited in pens. Keep car doors closed at all times. Do not hang out of your car. Feed only from cup provided and hold bottom of the cup while feeding. No feeding animals from your hands. Outside food is not permitted. Obey feeding and NO feeding zone signs. Do not pet the animals. Stay in your car. Feed right, pass left. Stay in your car in case of emergency. Sound your horn and flash your lights. Speed limit is 5mph. Enter at your own risk.
I read these signs posted at the African Safari Wildlife Park in Port Clinton, Ohio many times as we waited in the hot July sun to buy our tickets. We’d come for the ‘Wild Time’ promised by their website. Instead of focusing on that, however, we should have heeded the “Enter at your own risk” warning. If anything, that only made my partner, Marie, want to enter even more. Furry animals that she can pet and feed? That might attack her at any moment? She was so there.
It was her birthday and the park was especially crowded because it was the Fourth of July weekend. It was only 10 a.m., but the sun was already baking us in our little silver Cavalier. The temperature of the black interior inside the “silver bullet” was rising quickly and I was already regretting this suggestion. However, I thought it was better than watching the poor caged animals in the zoo looking at me with their sad eyes while flies buzzed around their poor little baking bodies, while they wondered how long their slow death was going to take to free them from their misery. The safari park seemed like a better choice for her birthday animal adventure since the animals got to roam free. Except the ones caged up, that is.
We used to go to Sea World, another place I detest. There the caged animals are also forced to do tricks for treats. Plus, it’s just boring. Marie gets excited to pet anything, even if it is just stingrays in a giant kiddie pool while I stand idly by, sympathizing with those poor creatures enduring hours and hours on end of people groping them. It’s like a frat party without the alcohol to dull your senses. In our twenty years together, we have come to a Marie-birthday- compromise: I would accompany her to such animal outings as long as we did it every other year. This gave me time off to recuperate and prepare for the next trip. Since Sea World closed a few years back, the Cleveland Zoo had become the backup. Having seen the signs along route 20 on my many trips to visit my brother in Norwalk, I thought: well at least they get to roam around and get fed. How bad can it be?
Half an hour went by and we were still in line to buy tickets. I looked down at the temperature gauge and noticed the needle rising. Shit. I knew we should have taken my truck. The hundred and eleven thousand miles that lit up on the dash was not faring well for the little car. I had been bugging her for a while to get a new car but her frugalness was making her hold off; that and her indecisiveness. I think she just liked that the car color matched her prematurely aging hair. That or she just did not want to clean out the CD’s scattered all over the back floor. However, I had this vision of wild animals jumping up and down in the back of my pickup truck. I could picture zebras, monkeys, and chimpanzees having a party in my truck bed and shitting all over it. So there we were, with me sitting practically on the ground in this tiny car, overheating, and sweating profusely so I could take pictures of her enjoying her wild African safari. That’s love. Or stupidity. I’m still deciding.
“What the fuck is going on up there? How long can it take to get a ticket?” I asked, annoyed and getting worried about the car.
“You would think there would be more than one line,” said Marie, looking out her window, anxiously awaiting the zebras and giraffes she was going to get to see up close.
We finally made it close to the front and I saw that there were actually two lines for tickets but these dumbasses were too stupid to get out of line and venture to the second booth. Well, we weren’t even in the door yet, and we already got to see some sheep. Stupid, American sheep families piled in minivans and SUVs. I got out of line, passed the dozen cars still in front of me, and went to the second ticket window and we were in. I looked in my rear view mirror and the sheep were following. The temperature gauge was now reading red so we pulled into a parking space and decided to do the ‘walking safari’ first so the car could cool down.
Marie was giggling with excitement. A big smile crossed her round face as we walked past a petting zoo sign.
“Can we go to the petting zoo?,” she asked, like I had a choice.
Yes, that’s always us: the forty-year-old women in the petting zoos with no children. Every. Where. We. Go. Compared to the not-much-younger-than-us parents in the petting areas, Marie’s gray hair and no children makes her look like a crazy lonely grandma. She runs around, knocking little Susies and Tommies out of her way with her chunky butt to pet every animal that will let her, and then chasing down the ones that don’t. She grew up around farm animals in the booming town of Louisville, Ohio and never lost her love of them. The barnyard smell and risk of ticks and fleas doesn’t seem to bother country folk like it does us city folk. From the distance I always create between us in these pens, my smaller frame and less gray hair make me look a little younger, but no less crazy. I usually pick out the saddest one in the corner and spend the entire time scratching and petting its little head and body, looking into its sad eyes and vocally assuring it someone does care and wishing them rescue or for some animal disease to take them quickly.
We entered the walking animal safari and there they were in all their glory: caged animals.
Caution: Animals may bite!
“Take my picture with the sign,” she demanded. Although she tried to look scary with her mouth open like she was going to bite me with her perfect teeth, and her hand clawed up like she was going to attack me like a momma eagle protecting her young, the light shining from behind her dark-rimmed glasses just made me laugh.
“Look at the monkeys,” Marie said excitedly as she ran to watch the Gibbons swinging from trees to ropes and back again. Although sometimes embarrassing, when seeing her face beaming with delight like a child who is seeing them for the first time, I can’t help but smile. I should have seen the writing on the wall then. Gibbons are native to N.E. India and S. China. Interesting to see them in the African safari park. Hmmmm. Oh wait, there’s the black and white Colobus monkey, native to Africa. We’re okay. The petting zoo was non-existent but that did not deter Marie.
“Baby alpacas!” I had never seen her run so fast, except the time she was chasing the peacock through the lawn at the Cleveland Zoo. Selling alpaca fur for sweater material must be their money-maker in their off season because half of them were shaved. We could feel the grit in their fur as we petted them. Thank goodness for hand sanitizer. I wonder if the car is cooled yet.
After wasting an hour in the exciting walking safari, the car was cooled down and we got in line for the driving safari. Great, another line. There were several gray-haired ladies approaching the cars to sell the patrons $7.00 bags of carrots (because, you know, they are way different than the $2.00 bags you get at the market) and $4.00 cups of feed pellets, which is what I am sure they eat in the wild. We got two bags of carrots and two cups of feed, because Marie does not like to share when it comes to feeding the animals. It took twenty minutes to get into the gate and then I understood the other rule that was posted:
Do not feed the animals in the first 100 feet.
As soon as we entered the gates, our vehicle was swarmed with those famous ‘African’ deer we all learned about in school.
“What kind of deer are those?” I asked Marie.
“The kind you see dead on the side of the road.”
We barely moved ten feet before we stopped and a sika deer, from the Asian part of Africa, was at my window, slobbering all over my shoulder. I jumped when its snout touched my head as it tried to reach in the car for my cup of pellets. Its tan, scruffy fur smelled like wet hay and stale manure and its nose left a trail of slime on my cheek.
“Gross,” I complained and rolled up my window, slimy animal spit sliding down both sides of it. I looked over and Marie had her window down and was practically hugging a llama, from the S. American section of Northern Africa. It was fighting for space in the window with two sika deer.
“Look, look,” she squealed. “Take my picture.” She leaned back and looked at me so I could get her big smile in with the animals. She took out a carrot and started to hand one to the deer.
“You can’t feed them yet,” I scolded her. Too late. The deer was faster than my words and the carrot was gone from her hand before she could even turn her head. “Damn!” she yelled.
I was anxious to get moving as the needle was creeping up to red again. I knew if we could just get some air moving through the engine, it would cool down, but as I looked at the swarm of animals surrounding our car, it was not looking good.
“You really need to get a new car,” I told her.
“She’s still got some life in her,” she said. “We’re moving!”
I am not sure if you can consider what we were doing as ‘moving,’ but we were in motion. From the pictures on the internet and what I know from watching National Geographic, I pictured rolling lands of green grass. What appeared before us was a worn gray dirt path that wound through half-dead grass and gravel. Not the safari I was hoping for. She did not seem to notice, because now she could legally feed the animals.
Do not feed the animals from your hand.
“Take my picture!” I knew the drill. She had her hand holding tight to the carrot as the deer was trying to take it from her. She held so tight while I was taking the picture that the carrot actually broke in half. She used her arm to move that deer out of the way so she could feed the other half to the chital deer, who hails from the warm Indian African providence. The sika was barely done chewing and still trying to get the other half she screwed him out of.
“Greedy fuck!” she scorned as she used all her might to push him away, a trail of slime on her arm. I rolled my window down and attempted to feed the one at my window. I barely got the carrot from the bag before it reached in and grabbed it from my hand, getting a good taste of my fingers in the process.
“These fuckers are vicious,” I said and rolled my window back up, leaving it cracked a few inches; just enough to get some air and just enough to let the safari animals slobber inside the car.
We kept moving at a rapid pace of four miles an hour and the silver bullet was not liking it. I was seeing red and she was seeing cute, cuddly creatures. The car could burst into flames and she would still be smiling if there were a llama eating a carrot from her hand. Maybe it’s a rural thing. Maybe it was all those drunk nights spent cow tippin’.
As she was posing for another picture while feeding the animals from her large cup of pellets, teeth grabbed the edge of the cup and began pulling. In true Marie fashion, she was not going to let this animal take her carefully portioned food from her – she still had zebras and giraffes to feed. He kept pulling and she kept pulling back; a game of tug-o-war was on and that sika had met its match.
“Let go of the cup. They said not to fight with them,” I told her.
“I still have more animals to feed, he’s not getting all of it,” she said as she tightened her grip.
“I have a whole cup full,” I reminded her.
“Got it,” she said. “I will triumph,” she said as she held her arm up, proudly showing off her victory cup with a big chunk bitten out of the top. All I could do was laugh.
“And here we have the famous African Texas steer,” I narrated as I pointed out the huge long-horned steer approaching the car. “Those must be from Southern Africa.”
“Where’s the zebras at?” she asked.
“They must be at the end with the giraffes and other African reindeer. Maybe with the cows.”
We moved along and it was clearing out a bit so I decided to roll down my window to get some air. The air-conditioning was only making our engine issue worse so I was not running it and it was getting hotter by the minute – we were in the African desert after all. I think it took all of eight seconds before there was another deer at my window. I barely turned my head to see him and his head was in the window. He reached in front of me, over my lap and grabbed the cup of pellets I had in the center cup holder and was out the window before the gasp left my lips.
“GRAB IT!” screamed Marie.
She continued to sparingly feed the animals, breaking carrots in half just so she could save some for the giraffes. She could see them off in the distance and was getting antsy. I just wanted the needle to move down. Finally, the cars cleared out and I got to pick up some speed, but it was too late, we were in the red. I had to pull over before the car overheated.
We followed the circular path that encompassed a baseball-field-sized sprawling dead patch of grass. The road widened here and I found a spot away from the animals where we could pull over. I stopped the car off to the left side of the road, slanted slightly with my side up in the air. I shut off the engine and sat back in my seat and relaxed.
“This is so fun,” she giggled.
“I’m glad you’re having fun,” I said. We were sitting for about five or ten minutes, when we saw off in the distance, a bison. “Of course there would be a bison; otherwise the Texas steer would feel left out.”
I have been out of school for a few years, but I don’t remember bison being from Africa. They must come from the Central North American section. He turned his head and looked our way. He began walking in our direction. One foot in front of the other over the dry ground, he slowly made his way towards us. Dust kicked up behind him with every step. We watched him with wonder as his graceful gait carried him across the dead grass. As in a slow motion movie scene, he made his way like a lonely bison that had finally seen his long-lost lover after an excruciating absence.
“It’s coming this way,” said Marie practically jumping out of her seat. Although he was still fifty yards away, she was getting her carrot ready for him. As he came closer, she began waving it out of the window like a dull, dirty orange flag. “I got a carrot for you,” she cooed to him. He was excited; I could tell from the look in his black eyes. Somehow, with his huge humped-back body and horns that protruded from his brown fur-covered head like Satan, I did not feel good about this exchange. I forgot about the camera sitting on the dash as Marie fed him a carrot. He gently took it from her hand and slowly chewed his orange treat as she watched.
“He’s so big,” she said.
He bowed his head as he ate, but his eyes were on Marie. He finished his carrot and came to the window for another one. She rolled her window half way up to give him the hint to leave. Clearly, she had been somewhere else for the last half hour and did not realize how persistent the animals were. First, he nudged the glass; then, he tried to shove his huge head through the open space between the window glass and the doorframe. His odor wafted inside the car. Add some stale urine to the manure odor and that’s what a bison smells like when it’s half way in your hot car.
“Give him another carrot,” I said.
“No, I still have to feed the zebras and giraffes,” she said.
“We still have a whole bag left, give him another one.”
“No,” she said as she rolled up her window. “Go away,” she told him through the window as he glared at her still smiling face. She was giving him mixed signals and I could see the wheels turning in his cold eyes. I should have expected his next move but I only ever usually see this in bullfights and horned animals fighting each other in the wild – the wild of Animal Planet from my 54” LCD.
He backed up a few feet, lowered his head, and slowly charged the car. He head butted Marie’s door and the car started moving sideways.
“AAAAAAGGGHHGGHGHHG!” she started screaming.
“What the fuck?!” I yelled. “I told you to give him another carrot.”
He pushed the side of the car and it started rocking slightly. Had he been on the other side of the car that was lifted, we probably would have tipped completely over. Luckily, he was on the lower end of our little silver bullet. It did not stop it from sliding sideways, however, and I envisioned him pushing us off a non-existent cliff.
“DRIVE!” she squealed. I was so in shock as we were being shaken like a Magic Eight Ball, starting the car apparently did not occur to me.
“GIVE HIM A CARROT BEFORE HE SMASHES IN YOUR DOOR!” I yelled as I started the engine. Red light be damned.
“I’m not giving him one now,” she said. She can’t say no to our dog when he’s begging for table scraps after he’s eaten his dinner, but she’ll say no to a 1500 lb. bison that is bashing his head into her door. Priorities. She still had giraffes to feed.
I put the car into gear and got it moving and we outran the hungry beast, which did not chase us, at ten miles-an-hour. Obviously, that was too much work for him in the blazing heat. Plus, another sheep would be along soon with more carrots. We were laughing hysterically as we drove to safety and after we were out of mortal danger, Marie’s first question was:
“Did you get a picture?”
“It was kind of hard with you screaming at me and, you know, the buffalo trying to push the car over since you were being stingy with carrots.”
May be off normal exhibit, to return in the spring.
We drove on and finally made it to the giraffes she was so excited to see, but the scene wasn’t quite like the brochure presented. On the brochure and the web page, the giraffes roamed freely, sidling up to your car and gently reaching down for you to feed them a carrot. What we saw as we drove down the paved section of road were several giraffes in caged pens that gave them barely any room to roam; and they had to share them with the antelope. Even if you pulled close, they could not reach down to get a carrot.
“That’s not fair,” pouted Marie, “I wanted to feed them. And where’s the zebras?”
“So pretty much, the only African animals in this African safari are the only ones not roaming around. Of course.”
We exited the safari and pulled back into a parking space to let our spit-covered car cool before our long drive home. We are the kind of people who would drive two hours for a fake safari park, as well as an hour for a mediocre craft show. Wild, we are. Surprisingly, there was only a small dent in the door and a couple scratches.
We got out of the car and went back to the walking safari area. Just a sidewalk and picnic table width away from the monkey cages, stood a concession booth boasting great food and cool drinks. We got our food and looked for a place to sit. We heard loud voices and cheers coming from a small set of bleachers at the end of the walkway and headed that way. Parents and kids filled the stands and we found an empty spot amongst them, eager to see what all the excitement was about.
The only way to end this amazing adventure was to eat our greasy hamburger and hot dog – that I am pretty sure were made from old sika deer – while sipping watered down fountain drinks and watching squealing pigs race each other at Pork Chop Downs. Yes, we were in the midst of the famous traveling brigade of pig racers.
Excitement filled the crowd of twenty people as the gates flew open with a loud bang and the little pigs raced from their captivity to a finish line I am sure they were hoping was freedom.
“Number two, Mario Pancetti, is in the lead,” called out the announcer enthusiastically, like he was calling a thoroughbred race at Churchill Downs. Sure enough, the black and white speckled Mario with his green cloth saddle emblazoned with the number two was just ahead in the lead.
“Number four, Swiggly Ray Cyrus is close in second. Shakin’ Bakin’ in third and Brittney Spare Ribs is bringing up the rear.”
“Where do they come up with this shit?” I said, trying, unsuccessfully, to hold back a laugh at the absurdity of this day. “This is horrible.”
I normally try to contain my disdain for this type of thing when we are on her birthday outings, but I was too hot, I was too tired, and this was too much. But watching how excited she was broke me down and I shut up and just watched silently, nodding whenever she made a comment. For me, watching these poor animals being forced to race for their pathetic lives was just the sika-meat-grease-bubbling-in-the-back-of-my-throat topper for the day I had: being attacked by animals for food pellets and carrots (almost a whole bag of which was sitting in our back seat). For her, this was the icing on the African Safari Wild Animal birthday cake.
“This is great!” Marie said. Her face had to hurt from smiling so much. “They need one named Bacon Bits.”
Darlene Glass, a native of Cleveland, Ohio, currently resides there with her wife and rescue cat. Her poems “Mama’s Stew” and “Toadless” were published in The Big Art Book. She works full-time as a Carpenter, leaving her mark on such landmarks as Cleveland Public Square, Global Center for Health and Innovation, and Cleveland State. She is currently working on her MFA in Creative Writing in the NEOMFA program, gateway Cleveland State University.