Calif. ranch with lions, tigers offers overnight stays

Vision Quest Ranch is a division of Wild Things, Inc., which provides animals for the entertainment industry: http://www.wildthingsinc.com

By MEGHA SATYANARAYANA
SENTINEL CORRESPONDENT
April 12, 2007

SALINAS — Babs and her adoptive mother Georgia chased each other, their brown fur flying and pink bottoms trailing brightly in the air. After a few seconds of frenzy, Charlie Sammut, their trainer, their guardian, and in this case, their dominant baboon, said, “Georgia, come here. Babs, stay” Immediately both baboons slowed down, screeched and made faces at Sammut, before stopping entirely, Georgia on the ground and Babs in a forked branch of a 3-foot tree.

“Right now, we’re speaking baboon,” said Sammut of the verbal and physical language he uses in training the two. Eventually, 1-year-old Babs climbed on his head, and took a breather on his shoulder.

Georgia and Babs are the primary primates at Vision Quest Ranch in Salinas, a 51-acre facility that houses everything from a pet kennel to an exotic animal sanctuary to a horse stable. In the safari-inspired bed and breakfast, guests can snooze with the animals.

A few of Sammut’s exotics are Hollywood stars, having appeared in movies and commercials. Joseph, his 23-year-old lion, now in retirement, was both the prototype for the lions in the animated movie “The Lion King,” and one of the animal actors in “George of the Jungle” Through Wild Things Inc., Sammut rents animals to the motion picture industry. For the most part, though, the animals have a leisurely life, said Sammut.

“Probably 70 percent of the animals here are either retired, or they have never worked,” he said.

Walking through the grounds, Sammut is as comfortable carrying Babs as he is sitting next to Brandy, a black bear, or nuzzling Hobbes, the tiger, excited about the possibility of going for a walk — on a leash.

After 25 years training, rescuing and taking in donated animals, Sammut has amassed his own ark, with elephants, bears, monkeys, cats, kangaroos and birds, plus many more. Every species is different, he said, and he speaks 100 animal languages.

Walking from Georgia and Babs to Forest, a Capuchin monkey from South America, he said, “New world, new language,” as he took Forest out of his enclosure, and let him chomp on his hand. Capuchins use their teeth to feel and explore, he said, but with baboons, it is a sign of aggression and must not be encouraged. After placing Forest back in his enclosure, he looked around for the padlock. Inside, Forest dangled it triumphantly from his hand.

Sammut’s pride and joy are his four elephants, Buffy, Butch, Christy and Paula. They sleep in a barn at night, and after their morning bath, roam a large field. Christy and Paula are new additions from an East Coast circus, and Sammut is busy trying to raise money to keep them. He needs at least $250,000 for all four to live comfortably, and he would like to put a new heater in their barn.

Vision Quest is as much a community project as a business. Through local merchants and volunteers, Sammut has built up his facility, using recycled telephone poles, extra plants from building sites and volunteer labor. A yearly fundraiser in May helps with the elephants’ costs.

It is hard work to keep his lifework healthy, safe and ultimately, in business.

For two months a year, Sammut makes a long commute from Salinas to Sacramento, to challenge legislation affecting animals in the entertainment industry. This year’s target is Assembly Bill 77.

Proposed by assemblyman Lloyd Levine of Van Nuys, AB 77 is a statewide attempt to change the conditions under which elephants are housed and transported by zoos, circuses and facilities like Vision Quest Ranch. AB 77’s main sponsor is the Animal Protection Institute, a national animal rights group that focuses on litigation and legislation to prevent animal cruelty.

“We don’t do direct action,” said Nicole Paquette, API’s director of government affairs.

Direct action refers to guerrilla tactics and sensationalist practices such as freeing animals from farms and laboratories and harassing individuals involved in animal testing or animal husbandry.

Paquette and Levine have visited zoos, sanctuaries and other animal facilities all over California. Their main concern, they said, is the use of such instruments as hooks and chains to train elephants. They think training has no need for instruments that can cause pain, and cite several zoos, including the Oakland Zoo, that have moved away from their use.

Neither Paquette nor Levine have visited Vision Quest. Both indicated a desire to do so.

Paquette, a lawyer who specializes in elephant treatment, serves on a state-appointed committee for exotic animals with Sammut and said there is no need, ever, for such devices.

“There is no humane way to use these tools,” she said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a zoo, a sanctuary, a circus or a business like Charlie’s”

Sammut uses a blunted hook to train his elephants through taps and nudges. He has no intention, he said, of causing them any pain. Should AB 77 pass, he worries it will put an end to elephants in the entertainment business, and punish those who treat their animals well. It is not so much the instrument, as the way it is used, he said.

Last year, one of his elephants became ill, and he believes the sudden introduction of leg chains to keep her still while treating her added to her stress. Lisa, who had never been chained, eventually died of an inherited neurological condition. Her memorial sits outside the elephant space at Vision Quest.

Another part of the bill concerns the ground elephants walk on. Levine wants it to be law that elephants walk on tilled soil or rubber mats. He said that this applies to animals confined and standing for long periods of time. Sammut, in a letter to Levine, said in a facility like his, where elephants roam every day, it could actually be harder on their joints, and in winter rains, create huge mud puddles.

Many of AB 77’s provisions, said Sammut in the letter, will hurt the middle of the ground operators like himself, who are neither exemplary in the eyes of API and Levine, nor criminal.

Still, the most egregious crimes drive the bill, said Levine, and if elephants cannot be treated well, the owners have no right to keep them.

“We’ll give people time to come up to code,” he said. “We need to do this in a manner befitting the elephant”

In the interests of animal safety, there must exist some middle ground, said Sammut. In spite of their stance on animals in the entertainment industry, the Monterey County Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has a good relationship with Vision Quest Ranch. The SPCA recently brought Sammut a baby deer.

Sammut’s schedule, coupled with his fatigue of Hollywood, is moving Vision Quest in a new direction. Aside from a couple of commercials with one of his cheetahs and zebras, he is picky about what entertainment projects he agrees to. There are too many problems with the industry, he said, and it is no longer worth the time and energy. Looking at his exotic cats, some of whom are enjoying retirement, he said he wants to turn the ranch into a bona fide zoo, with as few enclosures as possible.

After 25 years in the business, he still has some of his original animals, and deplores facilities that “dump them as soon as they get old enough” That is how you know a facility is good, he said. If someone has been in business for 30 years, and all their animals are 3 years old, something is not right.

“Animals in an entertainment environment can have a good quality of life,” he said.

Contact Megha Satyanarayana at jcopeland@santacruzsentinel.com

Vision Quest Ranch: A division of Wild Things, Inc.

WHAT: Wild Things, Inc. provides professionally humanely trained wild/exotic and domestic birds and animals for film, television, live productions, education and more, and offers sanctuary to animals that can no longer participate in entertainment or would otherwise not have a home or family.

WHERE: 400 River Road, Salinas.

OWNER: Charlie Sammut.

COST: Vision Quest Ranch offers a safari bed and breakfast outing starting around $125.

ANIMALS: Big and small cats, elephants, bears, snakes, birds, primates and more.

INTERESTING FACT: Wild Things animals have been in dozens of commercials, TV shows and movies including Donnie Brasco, Mighty Joe Young and Bird on a Wire.

DIVISIONS: Wild Things also operates Oxton Kennels, the largest dog and cat boarding facility in Monterey County, and the Vision Quest Equestrian Center, a complete horse boarding and riding facility.

INFORMATION: www.wildthingsinc.com, (831) 455-1901 or (800) 228-7382 or e-mail charlie@wildthingsinc.com

http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/archive/2007/April/ 12/local/stories/04local.htm

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