A tour of the Vision Quest Ranch animal kingdom includes a close-up look at Bengal tiger Kolar, famous for her Hollywood movie and commercial work.
Photograph by: Andrew McCredie
Hours before our breakfast was “trunk” -delivered by an African elephant, we awoke to the roar of lions less than a football field from our safari tent-like bungalow.
Earlier the previous day and just a half-hour’s drive away, we stood nose-to-snout with a scalloped hammerhead shark, stroked beautiful bat rays and watched black-footed penguins playfully chase one another through frigid clear waters.
No, this wasn’t a half-the-world-away holiday at some exotic locale that fills your digital camera but drains your wallet.
This was in Northern California on the Monterey Peninsula, a locale famous for golf, car shows and John Steinbeck, but increasingly a place where the wild things are.
Of course, the Monterey Bay Aquarium has been a tourist magnet since it opened its doors more than a quarter-century ago, as famous for its Fisherman’s Wharf location as it is for its unique architecture and design. That it is positioned right in the heart of Monterey Bay only adds to its appeal, what with sea lions, seals and all manner of waterfowl on site and living and playing in their natural environment. Also, on a clear day and with the assistance of one of the many free telescopes lining the aquarium’s outdoor concourse, you might even catch sight of a blue whale breaking the surface of the bay (they frequent the area in summer and fall).
But what many animal-loving visitors to the aquarium don’t know is that just a few kilometres inland is another wild attraction, though one that resembles an African safari rather than a coastal tidal pool.
Vision Quest Ranch is located in the beautiful Salinas Valley, a landscape not unlike the rolling hills of B.C.’s Cariboo Country. Like the aquarium, the animals have been residents here for about a quarter-century, its early years serving as a dog and cat kennel. Then came an elderly cougar, Sam, followed by an even larger cat that changed everything for kennel owner and police officer Charlie Sammut.
Josef the Lion, in Sammut’s words, “became my best friend, my star, and the single most important influence on my life that would change the course of my life forever.”
In short, Jozef became a movie star, and with it turned the humble dog and cat kennel into Wild Things Animal Rentals Inc. The five-acre property quickly became too small for the burgeoning business — and subsequent Noah’s Ark-full of animals — so Sammut uprooted his wild and growing brood to the nearby 51-acre Vision Quest Ranch between Monterey and Salinas.
Today, Wild Things houses more than 100 animals — “From spiders to elephants,” quips Sammut — and much has changed in the last decade.
In 2001, Vision Quest Ranch B&B was established, featuring a handful of upscale African tent-style bungalows scattered around the ranch that gave visitors the incredible opportunity to experience the sights and sounds — particularly at night — of the African savannah. Highlights of the stay include visits to your bungalow by staff trainers and their animals during their late-afternoon walks, and delivery of a continental breakfast to your tent by one of the facility’s African elephants.
During my family’s two-night stay at the B&B, we missed the first “trunk” delivery as we had plans to be somewhere early that day — the elephant and trainer typically deliver brekkie to the bungalows around 9:30 a.m. — but the second morning the excitement was palpable in our tent as breakfast’s arrival was imminent. My 11-year-old son has a bit of a too-cool-for-school attitude most times, but he was glued to the bungalow’s elevated front porch giving us by-the-minute updates. “No sign yet.” Then, “Okay, I see it at another bungalow.” Then, “It’s making its way to another one.” And finally, “It’s coming this way!”
The nine-year old girl? Let’s just say we had to keep her inside with a pillow close at hand to muffle the screams of excitement as Malika and trainer approached.
On that note, it’s only been a couple of months that children have been allowed to stay overnight at the Vision Quest B&B, as there are real safety issues with wild animals wandering about — albeit always with a leash-in-hand trainer close at hand — and there are strict instructions about the expected behaviour of any children on the ranch (no running, stay on the asphalt paths, always stay close to an adult). Needless to say, we did our best to ensure the child-friendly experiment continues for other families to enjoy.
Another great up-close pachyderm experience is the nightly Elephant Bedtime Package, in which you can tuck the big beasts in for the night and read them a bedtime story. I understand Where The Wild Things Are is a favourite.
We skipped that, but did do a one-hour guided tour that took us through the outdoor facility where the majority of the animals live. These include lions, tigers, bears, a black panther, assorted monkeys and apes, a hyena and a couple of kangaroos.
In addition, there is a large open area where the elephants, two ostriches and two water buffalo spend their days. A number of the bungalows overlook this area, and there are a couple of viewing platforms for guests in further afield tents to enjoy the animals.
As mentioned, many of the critters, both big and small, have done star turns in the movie and TV business, but
thanks to the wonders of CGI (computer-generated imagery), the animals aren’t getting many calls from agents these days.
And so, plans are afoot to turn Wild Things into a full-time zoo and educational facility within the next two years. The B&B also figures into those plans.
Big changes have already taken place back at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, with the July opening of the stunning and highly anticipated Open Sea galleries, designed to underscore the epic migrations of ocean animals across the Pacific and the constant motion of life in the open ocean.
The three Open Sea galleries house new-to-the-aquarium species such as tufted puffins, sandbar sharks and deep sea jellyfish that join longtime favourites such as tuna, sea turtles and a great white shark.
The most impressive new gallery in terms of scope and size is the one-million gallon, two-storey tank that houses animals that are built for speed and endurance. One can spend a long time watching the tuna, mackerel, barracuda and swarming school of sardines flash in and out of view. And one gets a sense of the ocean’s wildness when a hammerhead or sandbar shark darts by, splitting the sardines into scattering groups.
But for all that power and strength, the exhibit that really captivated young and old during our half-day visit to the aquarium was the “Secret Lives of Seahorses.” Featuring one of the largest collections of sea horses in the United States — more than 15 species — the four multimedia galleries celebrate these remarkable fish that have the heads like horses, tails like monkeys and pouches like kangaroos. And they are the only species in the animal kingdom in which the males get pregnant. Who knew?
You can work up quite an appetite during an aquarium visit, and as luck would have it, it’s location is right in the midst of Cannery Row, a wonderful high street of shops, bars and restaurants that provide sustenance, shopping and entertainment once you’ve had your fill of the wild.
Just a few minutes away is the beautiful and lower key town of Pacific Grove, a seaside community with wonderful cottage architecture and scenic Lovers Point Park. Chances are if you check the park out on a weekend, you’ll be witness to a wedding or two. And if you have plans for a picnic, this is the place.
We capped a busy day in and around Monterey at the park for a little downtime, but the day’s animal-themed adventure couldn’t escape us. Curious, and very bold, squirrels quickly appeared and made short work of snacks we were enjoying.
Seems no matter where you go on the Monterey Peninsula, wild things are constant companions.
IF YOU GO
Getting there: The Monterey Peninsula is located 140 kilometres south of San Francisco, which is just over a two-hour flight from Vancouver International Airport. The fastest driving route south to Monterey from San Fran is on Highway 101 through San Jose, which takes about two hours. If you’ve got the time, however, take the Pacific Coast Highway (#1) that follows the coastline and takes you through iconic Northern California towns Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz.
Staying there: Vision Quest Safari B&B is located 30 kilometres east of Monterey on Highway 68. Rates range from $175 to $265 a night (double occupancy). There is a $50 additional fee for additional persons (any age). Available packages include Walk with the Animals, Elephant Bedtime and a VIP Tour. As there are just eight bungalows, accommodation is limited. Visit www.wildthingsinc.com for more information and booking details.
In Monterey itself, there is a wide range of accommodation options, from small B&Bs to chain hotels to high-end resorts and vacation homes. Check out www.seemonterey.com for more details.
Eating there: Where to begin. Seafood is obviously at the top of most menus at the many restaurants located throughout the Monterey Peninsula, particularly in the ever-busy Cannery Row district of Monterey. Be sure to plan a lunch at Phil’s Fish Market in nearby Moss Landing, though if you go on a weekend prepare to wait as this oceanside landmark is a favourite with locals and tourists alike (www.philsfishmarket.com). For a wonderful Mediterranean dinner, check out Fandango Restaurant in nearby Pacific Grove, but before you do work up an appetite walking around Lovers Point Park (www.fandangorestaurant.com). At Vision Quest B&B, apart from a continental breakfast delivered by an elephant, you must dine off-site, but nearby Salinas offers a wide range of dining options. The resort will provide a list of suitable choices for all ages and tastes.
Note: Big Cat Rescue does not condone renting animals out for movies and commercials and has posted this only because of the very true statement that real wild animals are no longer needed for entertainment as computer generated content is far superior and does not require that new babies be bred every year to use during their young and handleable stage.
Read more: http://www.vancouversun.com/technology/Lions+tigers+rays/5346465/story.html#ixzz1X1Tmxr2K
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