TUTTLE — Farrel the lion strides resolutely toward visitors at Tiger Safari, his big paws silently moving, shoulder muscles rippling, and his gaze dead-on. Stopped short by a reinforced chain link fence, he settles down, Caesar-like, in the grass, and continues to eye his guests.
A Barbary lion, Farrel is one of only about 40 or 50 left in the world. He leads a protected life on the 45-acre zoological park near Tuttle, one of 116 exotic animals owned by Bill Meadows.
"He's spoiled rotten,” Meadows said.
Instead of having to catch and kill prey for food, Farrel gets his fill daily of raw steak, ribs and chicken wings, hand-delivered to him by Meadows.
A lifelong lover of exotic animals, Meadows is living his dream. An Oklahoma City firefighter, he opened the rustic animal park almost four years ago. He operates it as a refuge for exotic and wild animals and as an educational, interactive zoo for the public.
Especially committed to preserving the lives of animals nearing extinction, Meadows temporarily closed his park this week for the first time since its September 2003 opening. He and his staff left Wednesday for Johannesburg, South Africa, to work with a cheetah rescue organization. The park will remain closed until May 15.
The Savannah Cheetah Foundation is dedicated to breeding the endangered cheetahs and reintroducing them into the wild. Meadows met the foundation's director at an international conservation meeting last year. He invited Meadows to visit the 3,000-acre game preserve south of Johannesburg.
While there, Meadows and the 14 staff members and three veterinarians who accompanied him will help the foundation build huts, fire walls and a cheetah run. In exchange, they will learn about the care, breeding and reintegration of the cheetah.
"I'm always learning,” said Meadows, who has been working with exotic animals for 15 years. He started by volunteering to help people who had exotics, then gradually began to acquire wild animals of his own.
First visualizing an interactive zoological park on his computer, Meadow since has turned it into reality. Visitors to the not-for-profit park have increased yearly, as have the number of exotic residents.