Descendants of the founders of Africa USA share how America’s first open-air wildlife park hatched and thrived—in Boca Raton, of all places.
John Pedersen summarized the Boca Raton of 1950 thusly: “This is the deadest town I have ever seen. I am going to wake up this town.”
Within a few years, Pedersen would achieve this ambition with the opening of Africa USA, the nation’s first cageless African wildlife tourist attraction. A shrewd businessman whose previous projects included the city of Wilton Manors, Pedersen purchased 300 acres of land—at $25 an acre—from the city of Boca Raton and Palm Beach County Commission. While his son, Jack, spent seven months in Kenya acquiring the animals, John finished work transforming his vacant stretch of Federal Highway into a veritable jungle: He dug miles of canals and lakes, and added 55,000 plants.
When it opened in 1953, in the space now occupied by the Camino Gardens subdivision, the theme park featured hundreds of exotic animals ferried in from Africa, from gazelles, emus and ostriches to Asian elephants and giraffes. A botanical garden, boat rides, a safari train tour, a 30-foot-high waterfall and a geyser complemented the experience. The park famously beat out California’s Disneyland for a Life magazine cover story, in 1960, about the theme park boom.
“It was the era of the roadside attraction all over Florida,” recalls Ginger Pedersen, Jack Pedersen’s daughter and a Palm Beach County historian. “There was Dog World, Pirates World down in Dania, a chimp exhibit in Fort Lauderdale. There was Ancient America, and the burial mound is still there, pretty much intact, at the Boca Marina. Families would stop and have a picnic and then go through the attraction. That was part of their vacation plans, to visit attractions like that up and down U.S. 1.”
Africa USA reportedly shut down, in 1961, after an infestation of disease-carrying African red ticks was found on the animals, though information revealed in this article raises questions about this story. In this oral history, Pedersen, who operates the website africa-usa.com, and her cousin John Schneider, a documentary filmmaker who grew up on the property, share their memories of this singular attraction.
OUT OF AFRICA
GINGER PEDERSEN: Boca wanted something in the early ‘50s to put its name on the map as not just a pass-through city. My grandfather always liked being a showman, and this was the way he could be a showman. He was not a young man when he launched this; he was 54 years old when this opened. It was the culmination of all of his dreams of having a big business—and making it a family business too. He had a job for my dad, for his daughter.
He sent my father to Africa in 1952 to purchase animals, and that was not an easy thing. He was there for more than six months. … It wasn’t just buying them off some lot. There’s a film I have of them roping a zebra. I feel guilty about it now, but they’re roping this poor zebra and putting him on a truck. I’m glad things like that can’t happen anymore.
So all of these animals were packed on a ship in Mombasa called the African Planet, and that ship, with my dad aboard, sailed to Port Everglades. My dad always said he was going to write a book called I Shoveled Shit Across the Atlantic. I have some video of the ship, and it was very rough at times. They had to expand some of the cages for the ostriches as they grew on the voyage. And a couple of animals did not make it across the voyage. It was not a pleasure cruise.
The animals arrived and were taken off in crates. It was featured in all the papers—the Sun Sentinel, Miami Herald, AP. It was difficult, because these animals were just released on the property. A couple of them ate themselves to death almost instantly. They had to then be more controlled, not just let out wild to run and eat all the grass they wanted. They had to be slowly acclimated to the Florida diet.
It opened in March of 1953, toward the end of the big tourist season. Nobody was here in summer; I think they picked a time of year for a soft opening. But it grew in time to be quite popular as a stop-off point coming down the coast. Before the Turnpike opened, the only way to Miami was on U.S. 1. There was no other road. Everybody came down U.S. 1, which means everybody had to ride by the entrance to Africa USA.
JOHN SCHNEIDER: People would literally take their kids and say, “go over by that ostrich and take a picture!” We had cheetahs out front in a fenced-in yard, and the fence was only 4 or 5 feet high. Even then, people would put their child over the fence and say, “I’ll take a picture of you.”
PEDERSEN: Someone said, “We used to break in there at night and run with the animals!” John had no 24-hour security. There was no night watchman. He had a double fence system to stop the animals from getting out, so if they jumped over one fence, there was another fence right next to it, so they couldn’t get up enough motion to jump the other fence. But the kids said they would cut the fence and crawl in, not to let the animals out but to just play in there.
SCHNEIDER: Sometimes kids would break in and try to shoot the animals with beebee guns, which was extremely dangerous. The fence said, “electrified,” but it really wasn’t, because my grandmother didn’t want to spend all that money to have it electrified!
PEDERSEN: We forget how much we’ve changed as a country on these kinds of issues, with people suing for everything, and regulations. It just didn’t exist then. You had a license to do business, and that was the end of it: no 24-hour vet staff, no security lights, no alarms. John had no insurance, so any claims he lost he just paid himself. He would get a lot of calls from people threatening him, mafia kinds of things, and he never paid them mind.
SCHNEIDER: At night, when [the park] would close up, we’d go out for a drive, and it was cool to see the animals. We’d go out in my grandfather’s convertible and feed the giraffe, which was the tallest giraffe in captivity in the world. It was 20-plus feet tall, named Champ. We’d go out and feed him bananas, and he’d slobber into the Cadillac.
We had an incubator next to my grandfather’s house, and that’s where we raised ostrich eggs. Sometimes we’d eat them; we’d scramble them. It was one of the biggest omelets you’d ever have, like 20-plus regular eggs.
PEDERSEN: They had a certified zoo veterinarian, Dr. McGowan, on call in Delray Beach. And they were lucky in that. He told me a story where he saved the life of a zebra that had been eviscerated by an ostrich. The ostrich was by far the most dangerous animal they had on site. He said, “I did the best I could. I basically put everything back, cleaned everything with saline, and we sewed up the animal, and it was fine.” He said it was one of his weirder calls.
SCHNEIDER: When an animal would die on the property, it would be buried where it died. Sometimes my dad was on the shift where they’d bury the animal. I said to my dad, “what’s the craziest thing you ever buried?” He said, “a giraffe.” Somewhere among those houses, there’s a giraffe skeleton. I’m told people have done some excavating in their backyards, and found all kinds of crazy skeletons of African animals.
I was there when Bettie Page came; I was around 6. They took pictures with the monkeys and the cheetahs. At one point they wanted to take pictures of her in the tree, which was behind our house. They wanted naked pictures, so they said, “Johnny, go inside the house, and we’ll let you know when it’s OK to come back out.” Being the curious kid I was, I looked out the window and saw everything. It broadened my horizons!
We’d have celebrities come for dinner. One of the first girls I ever kissed was Jack Paar’s daughter, because she came, and we hung around, and I started getting frisky with her. We’d spend Thanksgiving with Jack Paar and his wife Miriam, and Randy Paar, his daughter, Benny Goodman, Jeanette MacDonald, Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca. My grandfather was always bringing these famous people into the house. My secret fantasy was that he would invite Elvis Presley to the house, but he never did.
PEDERSEN: The African-American cast members [who portrayed Africans in the park] have to be understood in the time it happened. I don’t find it stereotypical but in fact genuine. These were local men from Boca Raton and Pompano who also drove the train, fed the animals and did maintenance. Some also did don the genuine warrior costumes my dad brought back from Africa to entertain the tourists and give it a genuine feel. Given that African-Americans wore costumes from Africa, I think it was not disrespectful.
The End, and the Legacy
PEDERSEN: I think it was encroaching development [that led to the downfall of Africa USA]. There had already been housing being built on the west end and south end of the property. Residents would complain; animals would get out once in a while. And the Department of Agriculture, with the African red tick they supposedly found, that’s a whole story in itself, and a scary story.
When Dr. McGowan, who was the most trustworthy man you would ever meet, was elderly, he told us over lunch, “You know that whole African tick thing? That was all a lie. They were planted.”
My grandfather said the Department of Agriculture men came, and they had dead ticks folded in a handkerchief, and they said, “we found these on your animals.” When Dr. McGowan went, he found nothing. He sent blood samples to Ames, Iowa, to the national lab, looking for these diseases the Feds said the animals had. And they all came back negative. He told my grandfather, “these men are lying to you. There are no ticks here.”
And so, he had his practice on U.S. 1, and he would get there quite early in the morning. He would get there at 6 a.m., and there were men in black suits waiting for him when he got there. And they said to him, “if you keep pursuing this, you’re a dead man.” He called my grandfather and said, “we have to back off. These guys are serious.”
My dad’s theory was, this was payback for losing the court case with the giraffe. [The Pedersen family won a case against the Department of Agriculture in 1958 to allow an African giraffe on property.—Ed.] Not only did my family get the giraffe; another judge ruled that they didn’t have to pay the feed bill from the giraffe while it was being held.
That was the final blow for my grandfather. City hall is always going to win, so to speak, whoever city hall is.
The university was being built in 1961 when they sold. Neighborhoods were popping up; it was the postwar boom. All of those things were attracting people to South Florida, and Boca really wanted to come out of its sleepy little town atmosphere. People find it almost unbelievable that such a thing could have existed in tony Boca Raton.
SCHNEIDER: When I walk down to the lake [in Camino Gardens] from where our house used to be, I love to go excavating for stuff that’s from the house. Maybe it’s an old pipe, or a piece of marble from the front door. I’ve got a few pieces in my collection just to remind me. When I was down there a couple years ago, some woman said to me, did you ever go here [to Africa USA]? I said, go here? I lived here!
This feature is from the November/December 2021 issue of Boca magazine. For more like this, click here to subscribe to the magazine.