Saturday, January 28, 2023

Behind the Scenes at Lion Country Safari

It’s a sunny morning in Las Pampas. Lancelot the Aldabra tortoise, well into his 90s now, barely raises his head as we crawl by in our SUV. A light breeze ruffles the slash pines, distant ibis wheel overhead, and all is at peace here at Lion Country Safari.

Except for the million things that are really going on.

We took a behind-the-scenes look at what is arguably Palm Beach County’s most beloved attraction with longtime PR Manager Haley McCann, who showed us a different perspective, from ill-tempered lady zebras to a very Zen chimp named Higgy, to love between the impalas and handsome Kawazi, a swoon-worthy lion.

The vast drive-through safari park, which must have been ranchland 60 years ago, is now divided into seven zones with exotic names like Ruaha National Park or the Kalahari Bushveldt, and is home to 900 animals. It was the first “cage-less zoo” when it opened in 1967, and it is known for its conservation efforts, working closely with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) to achieve breeding herds, and even bring back some populations, like the scimitar-horned oryx, from the brink of extinction.

But what about the everyday drama? We asked McCann how things really work, from stormy weather to heartsick rhino love.

Entrance to Lion Country Safari

How the day starts

This morning, we meet greater rhea Newman, who has enormous blue eyes; tiny impala calves newly born; an extremely handsome eland named Blue; and the new bongos, Makumi and Bacari. But it’s all in a morning’s drive-through for the keepers…

Haley McCann

“Each day, we have an early morning inspection and do a count. The keepers know their animals so well, they know where they like to lay down and how they like to sleep—for example, the chimps are on island habitats overnight. … The keepers know the chimps’ individual quirks or preferences; some chimps prefer to sleep on top of the shelter, some are in the shelter. So usually once you call their names they will in some way turn or acknowledge you. On cooler evenings in Florida’s winter, when they’re really bedded down in the hay and they don’t feel like really getting up in the morning, they’ll just stick an arm out of the hay bed and say, ‘I’m here, let me sleep, why are you bothering me?’”

Who gets to work here?

“We have several keepers for the lion habitat, several keepers for the chimp habitat, antelope and hoof stock, rhino section. Our keepers have a variety of backgrounds; some have a lot of animal experience, some of them go to school specifically to be an animal keeper, and some have higher degrees in biology. They have quite diverse backgrounds.”

Makumi, eastern bongo

When a baby is on the way

“When we see we are expecting a baby from an animal—our team is very good at recognizing those signs—we will relocate females to maternity areas, as they get closer to birth. We have maternity areas within the habitats, a quieter zone, that gives mom and baby a really good opportunity to bond as well.”

How you move an 800-pound animal

“You’d be surprised how strong a motivator food is, either their regular food or extra-special treats. … and you just kind of herd them very slowly.”

Herd of greater kudu

And their annual check-up

“We keep detailed records on the animals under our care; those records start the day they are born. We will generally do a neonatal exam—we’ll weigh them to make sure they are healthy, and everybody gets some sort of ID number and a microchip.

We try to give everyone a health exam once a year, but at the same time we do not want to overstress an animal unnecessarily. We do routine health care “training” [practicing contact with animals through positive reinforcement, like food] with lions, rhinos, giraffes. These are massive species, so we do regular training with them, so if we need to do a blood test or something, it’s not stressful to them. We always pair it with positive reinforcement, so they’re coming up and choosing to participate, which gives us enough time to give them an injection or take a blood draw.”

A herd of rhinos

New kid on the block

A greater rhea

“Anytime we work with another accredited zoo—for example, to get a new male that will bring more diversity to the genetics of the herd—there’s a whole process that we go through. We only work with other zoos that are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums so we know they are reputable. The first thing we do is relocate them to an area and put them under a quarantine period. Even though there is health testing before they leave the facility, we just double check before we introduce them to other members of their species to make sure they don’t have any health issues that could be contagious or of concern to the other animals in the habitat.

Then we start with introductions to members of their species under supervision and for short periods of time.”

The mane attraction

There are nine lions at Lion Country Safari, and a newly expanded habitat. It’s the only fenced-in part of the park, and McCabe says they are beginning to “formulate their breeding pride,” with three groups of males and one group of females. There are strict safety procedures here, and iron bars on the windows of trucks of keepers who monitor the habitat all day. It’s tricky to introduce male lions to one another, a process underway right now with Masaba and his uncle, Atlas, whose son is K’wasi, generally considered drop-dead handsome and the heartthrob of the bunch.

“Lions are considered a Class I animal—an animal that would be a predator or dangerous— so there are strict protocols. They have their night house across the road. They go up there in the evenings and have their dinner there. There are nice little fans. They come out again first thing every morning. We actually have an elevated catwalk above the night pens so the keepers can control a series of doors to different areas.


We don’t want to introduce lions where we think there might be very serious fighting involved. That’s all part of the introduction process. We don’t move forward to the next step unless we’re seeing signs of behavior that they are ready to move forward and it’s not going to be a huge clash. But it’s super normal behavior for lions to scrap in the wild. Between females, between males, that’s standard lion behavior.

As they are establishing their hierarchy, they are going to have a little conflict and then they are going to decide who’s going to back down, who’s going to be dominant, but you can’t simply take two lions who don’t know each other at all and then just stick them together and expect it to go well. It’s not going to. It’s all about the slow, monitored introduction process. It’s all about being in tune with the behavior, knowing the animals you care for. Our lion keepers don’t need to even see who’s roaring; they know whose roar it is.”

K’wasi the lion

Rhine love and an aging lothario

In an enclosure with its own shelter lives Buck, a “founding member” of the park who has been here since 1972. Buck is an aging rhino who, as is true for most male species, does not know how old he is when it comes to putting the moves on a girl. Which is partly why he gets to live out his golden years with plenty of TLC and privacy.

“Buck was a breeding male for many, many years. At this point he is in his early to mid-50s, which makes him one of the oldest rhinos in the country. Male rhinos are generally very solitary unless they are pursuing a female for mating.

Females are very tightly knit, and if they don’t feel like putting up with the males, they don’t mind telling them that—in a very rhino way. At his age, with his arthritis and having slowed down, we don’t feel like he needs to deal with the level of drama that comes with a large group of female rhinos. We don’t want him to hurt himself trying to reproduce.

He also gets specialized geriatric care, [including] a spa day. [Rhinos can only roll in mud to protect their skin.] With his arthritis, he really can’t reach his back anymore, so his keepers will come in (rhinos are very tactile) and use scrub brushes; essentially, they are exfoliating him. We’ll also do the Skin So Soft, which has insect-repelling properties, and we finish with a nice little mudpack on his back. And then he gets to just rest and relax and nap the rest of the day. He is a really cool guy. …”

Zebras can be mean girls

Part of the zebra herd; courtesy of Lion Country Safari

We always had an urge to nuzzle a zebra in its striped pajamas, but it turns out these are not the most friendly of animals, and the girls are always making trouble. In fact, throughout the course of our day, we learn there’s a lot of this sort of drama going on throughout Lion Country—and most of it revolves around either sex or food.

“[Herds of zebra have cliques] with ranking females, like lions. … There are a lot of things that go on, a lot of drama there as well.

We use the stripe patterns to identify the different zebras, and we have a book in our keeper complex that has a picture of every single zebra’s face in it, so if we’re trying to find a specific individual we can figure it out. Our dominant stallion, Billy Ray, is easy to tell apart because he has a different [short and spiky] mane from everybody else.”

Ruby baby and other tales of life

Southern white rhinoceros Blossom with her baby Ruby

The newest zoo star, baby Ruby the rhino, was still in the maternity pen with her mother when we visited. But very cute and very sleepy.

“The rhinos come out of their night area every morning and voluntarily enter our chute system [part of the way keepers can readily access the animals]. We always do this kind of positive training with food involved. [It’s how] we do regular weights with the rhinos, quick checks of their feet, medication distribution or injections and blood draws. It’s very important when you’re dealing with an animal that weighs 4,000 pounds or so for us to safely be able to do this in a way that is not stressful on our staff or the animals. Thanks to that chute system we actually caught a rare kind of cancer in one of our rhinos that we were able to treat. She’s now in remission and has been for years. What initially presented as a little wound or abscess of her soft tissue outside of her horn turned out to be an enormous tumor that was growing in the soft tissue and up through the center of her primary horn.

Had we not had that good relationship and hands-on care with the rhinos, who knows if that would have been caught early enough to do something about it?”

Monkey business

The chimp islands are complex social groups, each headed by a male. And were once the home of the now-famous late Little Mama, of whom Jane Goodall was a fan—once the oldest known chimp in the world. Today, the oldest girl is Swing, 54. The chimps are cared for and observed by a team of professionals, including Dr. Tina Cloutier Barbour, a doctor of evolutionary psychology who specializes in chimpanzee aging.

Higgy, an island leader; photo courtesy of Lion Country Safari
Irene carrying Tonk

“We do not put two alpha males on the same island at once—there would be a lot of aggression. The biggest challenge is just kind of keeping a finger on the pulse of their social systems because they are always fluctuating. And they are so important to their social systems, just keeping track of who’s angry with whom, what’s going on, who’s best friends this week and who’s in estrus—because that changes their behavior entirely. It’s like a constant soap opera/chess match.”

And the doctor’s favorite

Dr. Tina Cloutier Barbour

Cloutier Barbour says, “I try not to have one. But then there’s Higgy on Island 3 over there. He’s just been such an influence on my life. He’s a magnificent alpha. Watching him work is a pleasure. For example, his group is going through some difficulties right now. Janice is younger, and she is trying to move up in rank over Jen, who is older and the matriarch of that group. There was some conflict between them earlier in the week, and Higgy—it’s like watching a maestro in an orchestra—he’s just ‘you’re allowed to come here but not this much closer’ or ‘you don’t look at her that way.’ The alpha’s job is to keep peace, even if there is some aggression.”

Park with a heart

“Lion Country Safari was the first one that implemented cardio mobile monitoring—and blood pressure monitoring as well,” says Cloutier Barbour. “Cardiac disease is the No. 1 cause of mortality in chimpanzees—it seems to impact our male chimps more than the females.

Tuli, one of the park’s giraffes; photo courtesy of Lion Country Safari

Swing, our oldest chimp, was retired from a lab many years ago. There was a researcher named Linda Koebner who was really interested in figuring out if chimps could be rehabilitated and learn how to be chimps after being in laboratories. The only place that was willing to give that a try was Lion Country. So the initial six or seven retired laboratory chimps—Swing was one of them—came here to try to integrate with ‘normal’ chimps and be social. It was successful here. [After that] they were able to found the National Chimp Sanctuary and Save the Chimps and the Center For Great Apes.”


Driving toward the giraffe herd, McCann says “The challenge of giraffes is working with their needs. Some of the giraffes are very particular. They are very wary. For example, when they are ready to walk through the chute they don’t even want you to look at them.

“They are also prone to heart-related concerns later in life, as the chimps are. Theirs is more related to the fact that their hearts have to work so hard to pump 6 feet against gravity to their heads.”

Weather woes

“We have protocols and procedures for heat and cold and hurricanes,” McCann says.

“We don’t have much of an issue with extreme heat; the animals are mostly from climates that have high heat and humidity. … the rainforests of South America, the plains of Africa. We do like to give cold treats: frozen Crystal Lite ice pops for the chimps, blood popsicles for lions, to give them opportunities to cool off. Sometimes we’ll set up the sprinklers for the antelope and the alpacas.

White-handed gibbon monkey

“Our cold weather protocols mostly affect our smaller species and our reptiles. We don’t want our cold-blooded animals to be exposed to temperatures that are too cold, because they are more sensitive. So we’ll bring them into the building, provide extra food, extra hay bedding. For most of the animals here, though, it does not get cold enough that we have to adjust much.

“We train for hurricanes all year round [the regular health care training that brings animals into their houses pays off here with treats and activities], so the animals that have secure facilities such as the lions, the rhinos and the chimps will go to these secure facilities. The hoof stock has different protocols. Because they are prone to flight or panic if something weird is going on, it’s actually more dangerous to try to contain them in a barn where they could hit a wall or seriously injure themselves. So they have a natural instinct to go out in the center of the pasture, find the low spots, turn their rumps to the wind and get away from trees and buildings. We open up access to buildings to give them freedom of choice, and this reduces stress on them significantly, which is one of the major hazards for animals. They ride it out better than we do.”

This article is from the November/December 2022 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.

Marie Speed
Marie Speed
Marie Speed is group editor of all JES publications, including Boca Raton, Delray Beach, Worth Avenue, Mizner’s Dream and the annual publication for the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce. She also oversees editorial operations of the company’s Salt Lake City magazines. Her community involvement has ranged from work with the Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce to a longtime board member position at Caridad Center. She is also on the George Snow Scholarship Fund review committee. She is a past officer of the Florida Magazine Association and a member of Class XVII of Leadership Florida. In her spare time, Marie enjoys South Florida’s natural world through hiking and kayaking, and she is an avid reader and an enthusiastic cook.

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