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Tanganyika Wildlife Park in Goddard Opens Today

June 21, 2008

By Beccy Tanner, The Wichita Eagle, Kan.

Jun. 21–WILD ANIMAL ENCOUNTERS

At Tanganyika Wildlife Park, visitors can stroll past Bengal tigers, Indian rhinos and kookaburras, just as they could at a zoo.

But they can also walk into a kangaroo enclosure, touch lemurs, feed giraffes and ride on a camel.

The park near Goddard, which drew about 5,000 people last year for private tours, will open to the public today. It promises to allow visitors to interact with exotic animals — a practice that spurs debate among wildlife experts.

Owner Jim Fouts says having a park with interactive exhibits is the only way he knows to educate people and help species survive.

“You can watch the Discovery Channel but never know what it is like to get up close to a wild animal, smell it or touch it,” he said.

Fouts, who worked as a zookeeper at the Sedgwick County Zoo from 1971 to 1977, started the park in 1985 as a zoo supply business. He also has been a home developer and builder.

He says Tanganyika is the largest breeder of snow leopards in the world, and has the largest collection of clouded leopards, at nearly 30 cats.

Animal expert Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, tours with two of Tanganyika’s hand-raised clouded leopards.

The park has undergone $6 million in improvements that include 10 new buildings, a 50-foot waterfall and landscaping.

Although it will offer species similar to some at the Sedgwick County Zoo, about 13 miles away, it is not accredited through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as the zoo is.

Tanganyika is accredited through the Zoological Association of America. Fouts, the association’s vice chairman, helped form it in 2005 to focus primarily on the interests of privately operated animal attractions.

Steve Feldman, spokesman for the larger Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said he could not speak about Tanganyika because he does not know about it. But he said there is concern about whether non-AZA-accredited groups can have the same credibility with the public about safety and animal welfare.

“An institution that goes through the AZA undergoes a mandatory on-site inspection that covers every aspect of operation from animal care to staff training and a long-term financial plan to make sure standards can be met over time,” he said. “The AZA goes beyond government requirements.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture requires all facilities that have wildlife displays to be licensed. Of more than 2,500 facilities licensed by the USDA, only 218 are accredited members of the AZA.

Government regulations require exhibitors, especially of big cats, to keep adequate distance or develop barriers between the animals and the viewing public.

When Sedgwick County adopted strict regulations governing exotic animals in 2000, Fouts’ park was cited as an example of a good business.

Fouts said he has never had an animal hurt a visitor at Tanganyika, where visitors will view big cats through wire enclosures.

“Jim has had animals many years,” said Kathy Tolbert, director of Rolling Hills Wildlife Adventure near Salina. “I’ve never heard of a bad incident happening at his place.”

A spokeswoman for the Sedgwick County Zoo said it wishes Tanganyika the best of luck. “We welcome anyone who wishes to join in the mission to inspire respect for animals,” Christan Baumer said.

The zoo does not allow visitors to touch many of its animals out of concern for the animals, she said. Primates in particular are susceptible to tuberculosis.

“We believe that kind of experience is something we don’t want to place in front of our animals,” Baumer said.

Fouts said his experience has shown him interaction between animals and people is the way to go. He has not had problems with animals getting ill.

“We are thinking we can share something we have that’s different than what other places have,” he said.

Fouts’ son, Matt, the park’s assistant director, said he hopes visitors “fall in love with these animals as we have.”

He estimates the park should draw 85,000 visitors its first year.

Jim Fouts said his primary goal for the park is conservation. Funds from the park will go toward projects around the world.

“We are looking at a cheetah reintroduction project in South Africa,” he said. “We hope to bring some into the park next spring but it’s all tied together. We do quite a bit of international work. We think this is the right thing to do.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

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