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.
Always learningThe 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.
Donations and admission fees help Meadows pay for the care and feeding of the animals. By adding themed rooms — such as the Rain Forest Room — available for birthday parties, hosting a Christmas Festival of Lights and providing a rental teepee for guests who want to spend the night on the grounds, Meadows has added revenue for expansion.
He is in the process of completing construction of an education building with classrooms, a 28-foot fireplace, a gift shop and a tiger shark aquarium built into a front counter.
The building's upper floor will be used as a bed and breakfast. Couples can rent a loft bedroom with a Jacuzzi bath overlooking the area reserved for the big cats, Meadows said.
Besides Farrel, there's an African lioness, a Siberian tiger named Raja, a white tiger, a black leopard, several Savannah cats, a mountain lion and the newest arrival, a 5-month-old African leopard called Jabari. Jabari is leash-trained and accompanies Meadows on daily walks around the park.Other animals include a Russian grizzly bear, a black bear, kangaroos, llamas, African crested porcupines, Muntjac deer (the oldest known deer), alligators, a python, boa constrictor and three giant African spur turtles so gentle children are allowed to ride them. Park visitors also can take a hay ride, visit the petting zoo and stop at the tiger feeding station to watch while cats stand on hind legs and stretch to their full length to get at pieces of meat offered to them by staff members using long, aluminum tubes. Once back from South Africa, Meadows plans to complete pens for a giraffe and some otters he is acquiring. In the future, he hopes to buy an adjacent 20 acres so he can make room for an elephant and build a lemur island with a row of rental cabins nearby. Lest anyone worry about the quality of care Meadows gives to his animals, take Emmett as an example. A capuchin monkey, Emmett has a private residence — a heated hut complete with furnishings, a television and VCR should he get bored.
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Bill Meadows shows off Jabari, a 5-month-old African leopard trained to walk on a leash. Meadows is owner of Tiger Safari, an interactive zoo park in Tuttle. BY Steve Sisney, The Oklahoman