At a Ranch in California, People and Animals Get to Know Each Other

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

At bed-and-breakfasts, you never know who's going to join you around the kitchen table: love-struck honeymooners, a brainy astrophysicist, a Type A on a BlackBerry, an elephant.

On my one and only morning at Vision Quest Ranch, I broke bread with Mailika, a 4,500-pound African elephant who consumes 150 pounds of food a day despite her severe allergies. She could not fit comfortably inside my tent-style bungalow (she was not allowed to enter, anyhow), so she graciously remained outside. Standing on a patch of dry California earth, she snaked her gray trunk over the railing of my porch, made contact with my open palm and gripped the fruits and vegetables on offer. She chewed without complaint -- I had not peeled or washed the produce -- then held out her appendage for more.

It's not every a.m. that starts with coffee, croissants and an elephant. Or evening that closes with a lion's roar. Or afternoon spent watching a baboon groom a trainer's hair and poke at her freckles as if they were strange, unmoving bugs. But at the safari B&B near Salinas, Calif., this was a typical day.

"We want guests to meet our friends," said owner Charlie Sammut, referring to his animals, which live on-site and are incorporated into the overnight experience. "We don't want people walking away remembering the elephant; we want them to walk away remembering Butch." (Or, in my case, Mailika.)

Sammut entered the wildlife hospitality business in a very unnatural way. As a Monterey area police officer in the 1980s, he arrested a perpetrator who was harboring a cougar in his back yard. The guy was hauled off, and the cat moved in with Sammut.

As the years accumulated, so did Sammut's feline brood. "I developed a fascination with big cats," he explained. "I ordered a tiger, but a lion came." (A bit of unsettling history: In the 1980s, regular folks could order and keep exotic animals, though Sammut now admits, "It couldn't have been a more wrong thing to do.")

The lion, named Josef, became a star, appearing in movies and on television. In 1989, Sammut quit his cop job and turned his attention to training and caring for the animals, plus doing some on-screen stuntman work. (In "George of the Jungle," when George gets knocked down by a lion, that's Sammut, and in "The Postman," when a soldier gets eaten by a lion, that's Sammut again.) Today, his facility houses about 150 critters across the food chain. Many were rescued from unsavory circumstances and now have a safe haven for life.

"Activism is something we practice," said Sammut, an athletic, compact man in his mid-40s who frolics with his beasts as if they were household pets. "The animals in captivity are the insurance policy for the species they represent. If something goes terribly wrong, we have a bank we can pull from."

The 15-year-old operation, which shares some similarities with a zoo (e.g., cages, variety of species, education), stresses a "free contact" approach to wildlife viewing. In short, Vision Quest encourages us visitors to interact with them, with caution and professional oversight.

"The elephants were so in-your-face," remarked Terri Trew, a Canadian visiting with her family of four, who received the 11,000-pound Butch for breakfast. "For us, it was not a normal experience to be able to feed the elephants and have them slobber all over you."

On a crisp January weekday, the Trews and I were the only sleepover guests, but day-trippers showed up for a 1 p.m. tour of the property. (The tour is $10, but free for overnighters.) We departed from the gift shop, which displays a Wall of Fame (photos of Sammut and Steve Irwin, Sammut and Mr. T, Sammut and Isabella Rossellini, etc.) and sells paper products made from Sri Lankan elephant dung, among other items. Our guide, Shannon Gurley, walked us around the outdoor space lined like hedges with unadorned cages, a sight that at times tugged at my heart. (Sammut plans to build natural enclosures in the near future. Hurry up, I say.)

"Lots of our animals are retired Hollywood stars," said Gurley, as we watched the antics of Georgia, the 19-year-old baboon who modeled for the "Lion King" character Rafiki.

Not all of the residents boasted such red-carpet credentials, but they were winsome nonetheless: the fat-as-Garfield raccoon that subsisted on mayonnaise and baloney sandwiches before arriving here; Gretzky the Canadian lynx, who sported a fur-trimmed pencil mustache; and Chui the leopard, who licked Gurley's hand with amazing tenderness. We eventually wound our way to center stage, a five-acre field inhabited by five elephants, two ostriches (Ethel and the very jealous Fred) and Jasmine, a temperamental zebra. As the elephants approached, barely pausing in their grazing, Gurley talked about Mailika's allergy to certains hays and pollens (she is on loan from Six Flags) and the two newest residents, Paula and Kristi, who came from the Carson & Barnes Circus.

"The elephants need so much care. There are so few places that can care for them," said Sammut as I joined him on a post-tour meet-and-greet that involves feeding and petting a pachyderm. "We offer sanctuary to African elephants."

After the outing, I went off to gaze through my own small window on Africa, in my canvas-covered lodging. Each of the four abodes has an animal theme; mine was the Big Cat House, which was expressed through a riot of feline prints, figurines and furnishings. From my deck, I could view the broad stroke of landscape, from the soft Santa Lucia Mountains to the sleeping fields of lettuce to the roaming elephants below.

As part of the overnight package, trainers stop by each tent in the late afternoon to introduce guests to a few of the animals. My first visitor was Eli the serval, unfairly called the poor man's leopard, followed by Babs the baboon, a blur of brown fur that zoomed between Gurley's head and a wooden post. Finally, a zebra and a mule came by, mellow and not at all stubborn when told to move on.

The most anticipated social call, of course, was from the elephants the next day. Like a kid awaiting Santa, I rose early, nudged in part by the 6 a.m. roar of a lion. Just after 9, I saw Sammut and two assistants trudging up with two elephants. After visiting with the Canadian family, they made their way down a path toward my lodging. I was handed my breakfast in a blue cooler (yogurt, a variety of pastries and bagels), then given Mailika's meal: bananas, oranges, a yam, carrots. I fed her one item at a time, watching as she chomped away and preparing for her foraging trunk. After finishing off her pile, she was escorted down the hill. Only after she returned to her range did I start eating my own morning meal.

-- Andrea Sachs

Vision Quest Ranch (400 River Rd., Salinas, 800-228-7382, http://www.visionquestranch.com) is a few miles from downtown Salinas and about two hours south of San Francisco. Tours cost $10 per person, plus $5 more for a meet-and-greet with the elephants. B&B stays start at $195 per night double and include a tour and breakfast with the elephants. The facility also offers more-interactive experiences, such as the Pachyderm Package, which includes bathing the elephants ($225 for two people).


© 2009 The Washington Post Company


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