Aug. 25, 2006 12:00 AM
Dean and Prayeri Harrison have been animal lovers all their lives. Dean, who was born in Mesa and met his wife while living in California, kept reptiles as a boy, building them little habitats. Prayeri had birds, a lamb, dogs and cats. The couple have been married 26 years.
They always kept animals, along with their three children, and hosted occasional educational programs in schools. When they ran out of room, they moved to Grants Pass, Ore. By then they had a panther, leopards, tigers and lions that practically lived in the house. Dean laughed. “We thought everybody did that.”
About 1986, they decided to try to make a living working with animals, and opened their home to visitors. Two years later, they returned to Arizona to build Out of Africa near Fountain Hills. Having a larger facility was always the dream, so the Yavapai Nation’s decision to take back its land was serendipitous.
Today, their animal population continues to grow. Animals breed (babies are never sold). Other zoos donate unwanted animals. Orphaned babies, such as cougars, come from Arizona Game & Fish. Federal and state confiscations also contribute to the community.
Through the years, the Harrisons have learned about animals. Over decades, they saw patterns in animal behavior and recognized the instincts that rule the animal kingdom: self preservation, the need for food, the drive to protect territory and, Dean Harrison said, the desire to be a part of something greater than themselves.
Sometimes the Harrisons learned from mistakes. In trying to introduce a jaguar mating pair, the male decided to kill the female and lunged at her head. The cats were on leashes and Dean was able to pull him back and subdue him after the female was bitten but survived.
They’re still in the park, Prayeri said, but joked, “They’re not going to date.”
In his self-published autobiography, Return to Eden (1998, $5.95 paperback), Dean shares other such incidents, including one in which a cougar being released in a new compound went on the attack, sunk its teeth into the back of Dean’s neck and began to drain the life from him. Dean yelled for Prayeri, who was able to distract the cat and rush her husband to medical help.
The Harrisons are spiritual people who believe humans can learn from animals how to live together in a peaceable kingdom. In one compound, a white tiger and a black panther have happily co-existed for years. Bears and cougars live in harmony.
Out of Africa’s mission is to demonstrate that “we’re all one,” Dean Harrison said. “Animals, us, the trees, the water, all share a common abode.”
The couple’s goal is to give wild animals a comfortable environment to live out their lives, he said.
“It’s a passion. It feels like a calling.”
– Barbara Yost