June 22, 2008

White Lions Newest Attraction at Parc Safari: White Lions Newest Attraction at Animal Park

By Dan Heath, The Press-Republican, Plattsburgh, N.Y.

Jun. 22--The assembled reporters and photographers weren't the only ones focused on Parc Safari's three new white lions when they were introduced Wednesday.

As Parc Safari President Jean-Pierre Ranger introduced the lions, a pack of five Arctic wolves in the adjacent enclosure howled loudly, their attention focused on the recent additions.

"Those are our friends, the wolves. They are probably jealous of my voice," Ranger said.

A pair of hyenas on the other side seemed to take it all in stride.

The lions, one male and two females, were initially reluctant to venture from their den under the observation deck. Suddenly, the male and one of the females charged from the den with a roar, as the wolves' howls rose in volume. The second female stayed in the doorway, sniffing the air before finally venturing out.

Two female tawny lions were at the edge of their fence, face to face with the newcomers through the links. All seemed to be getting along well, Ranger said.

The new lions occasionally let out a mild roar as media and park employees wandered in the glass tunnel that crosses their enclosure. Even behind the glass, it was enough to make people jump.

Ranger said efforts to bring white lions to Canada began last fall. Those efforts were part of Parc Safari's efforts to raise awareness about the fragility of life on the planet, he said.

"Parc Safari's contribution to education is at the core of what we have done since 1972," Ranger said.

According to the Timbavati Private Nature Reserve Web site, white lions were rediscovered there in October 1975. The white coats result when both parents carry a recessive white gene and both pass it to the offspring.

It is not a form of albinism, but of leucism, which results in a white pelt but pigmented skin and eyes.

Parc Safari's 2008 Souvenir Guide states an estimated 200 white lions remain in existence. The park management worked with the Linda Tucker of the Global White Lion Protection Trust, the South African government, a South African breeding farm, the Johannesburg Zoo and KLM airlines to bring the three lions to Hemmingford.

That included three weeks of quarantine and testing at the Johannesburg Zoo, a lengthy flight from that city to Amsterdam and then a 20-hour flight to Montreal.

Parc Safari Zoo Director Patrice Deneault said the lions arrived at the park on May 9, but had to be kept in quarantine until June 6. The were moved to the big cat house on June 9, and allowed to enter their outer yard Monday night.

They were out for about 90 minutes, then entered the den by themselves. They spent a little more time out in the pen Tuesday, then were introduced to the public Wednesday.

Deneault said the new lions were not nervous. If they were, they would've been pacing back and forth.

"The wolves are pretty excited by it. They'll probably accept them within a few days," he said.

One of the goals is to improve the white lion breeding stock. The park's dominant male tawny lion carries the recessive gene needed to produce white lions.

"It is possible that Parc Safari may send healthy young white lions to renewed freedom in a large park in the Timbavati region of South Africa," Ranger said.

The elevated walkway also allows views of the hyenas, tigers and wolves. It continues past a group of macaques that were swinging from various structures, followed by a enclosure with several chimpanzees and another with a group of sleeping black bears.

Parc Safari opened on July 15, 1972. At that time, it was a drive-through safari, with all of the species roaming the grounds.

Visitor input during the 1980s led to several changes, such as moving the predators to secure enclosures. One of the innovative features of the feline area is the observation tunnels.

The first was installed in 2004 with financial assistance from the Canadian government. They allow visitors to get up close with the tigers and lions, who sometimes rest right on top of the glass enclosures.

Ranger acquired Parc Safari in 2002. Since that time, he and his team have invested more than $11 million in the park. The bulk of that was for infrastructure improvements, such as burying the water, electrical and fiber optic lines.

He said his number one priority is the safety of his employees.

"We have had no accidents with our employees in the last 24 months," Ranger said. "That's very important to me as a father."

The animal are housed in some of the best and safest facilities in the world. Parc Safari management examined many other parks and zoos in North America and used the best practices to make sure they did it right.

In the feline area, an observation deck is above the dens. Below, there is no contact between human and animal, Ranger said. That's also the case in several other parts of the park, he said.

The second phase of renovations and improvements will include about $10 million in improvements to the recreation facilities, to be completed as funding becomes available, Ranger said.

One project would involve construction of a 36-foot tall elephant, with an interior display of various animal habitats and an observation basket where parents could take pictures of their children "riding" the elephant.

In 1985, the park opened its first water hole, Lake Cascade, a place for visitors to cool off. There are now four small water park areas and a small amusement park.

"That has contributed to the enhancement of the quality of a visit," Ranger said.

In the early days, most visits lasted about 2.5 hours. Today, the average peak season visit is from 5.5 to 6 hours.

Putting the predators in secure enclosures allowed visitors to open their windows as they use the drive-through portion of the park, where most of the park's 55 species roam. The park is home to more than 500 animals from five continents.

Many of the animals will stick their head right into a vehicle to receive a snack from a visitor's hand with a gentle touch.

It starts with a close up of elephants and giraffes, although the giraffes stayed near their stable in a sometimes driving rain. Zebras seemed to be acting as traffic police as they stood in the middle of the road a little farther along, while three water buffalo watched from their spot near a watering hole.

Other wildlife includes a white rhinoceros, bison, elk, deer, camels, llamas and various exotic bovines and antelope. Separate areas include a deer trail and several pens with exotic birds.

Parc Safari also offers several gift shops and restaurants.

A plaque that commemorates the opening of the feline observation tunnel includes words that exemplify Parc Safari's mission, Ranger said.

"In harmony with nature, the management team of the park aspires to create a unique blend of leisure, enjoyment and an awareness of the environment for the whole family."

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For more information about Parc Safari, including prices, directions, hours and attractions, visit www.parcsafari.com.


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