Out of Africa
100 species, one hour from home: Oh my!
Peter and Nancy Lang with two of their 13 giraffes.
Peter Lang has a bad case of biophilia. You can see it in his eyes, you can hear it in his voice. The evidence surrounds him.
It's not a disease recognized by the AMA. The great biologist Edward O. Wilson, who popularized the diagnosis, doesn't even think it's an illness.
But there's no question peter lang is stricken-he says so himself, in so many words. And to understand it in one visceral moment you would only have to meet delilah, the fountainhead of lang's biophiliac obsessions and his devoted companion for 35 years.
But you can't meet Delilah because she's dead. She reached the end of an intimate relationship with Lang April 1 and passed away in her sleep.
Peter is a big guy, a man's man, but it made him cry. A bird, a Great Indian Hornbill, with an enormous two-tone beak, small squinty eyes, insatiable curiosity and a profound fondness for people, brought him to his emotional knees.
- Edward O. Wilson
Next to Delilah, Peter is particularly fond of giraffes. There are 13 of them among the 600 animals-give or take-that populate Safari West, the wildlife preserve Peter founded with his wife and wildlife expert, Nancy, a few miles north of Santa Rosa. They stand in gangly, knobby-kneed curiosity anytime anything new or unusual crosses the plane of their elevated eyesight.
Giraffes, as a rule, are tall. They stand up to 18 feet high, three times your average human, more than twice the height of Yao Ming. That height gives them a unique vantage point, an edge if you will, for viewing the world. Up where their heads are, things must look very different.
But height isn't the only thing about them that's extreme. They have hooves the size of dinner plates on legs that last forever. When they run they look like their legs will collide, and yet they can reach speeds of 35 miles per hour.
Not much short of an elephant is bigger than a giraffe, and while they wear expressions of sweet serenity, you don't approach a giraffe lightly. Adults have few natural enemies save lions, whose heads they can nevertheless shatter with one kick of those formidable feet. And while giraffes move with elegant ease, males will sometimes engage in riveting combat, slamming their heads into each other like giant mallets.
That strength is important to remember when they reach down to nuzzle your hands, their gentle eyes fringed with enormous lashes. They seem to navigate their high altitude in a state of yogic detachment, but that doesn't mean they can't casually crush you.
"I'd love to have a hundred giraffes," says Peter, "if I had the space."
Safari West may not have enough room for 100 giraffes, any one of which can eat up to 75 pounds of tree leaves a day, but on the preserve's 400 acres there's enough space for entire herds of wildebeest, watusi cattle, cape buffalo, impala and antelope. There's room for an alphabet soup of animals from addax to zebras. There are bongo and ibex and kudu and nyala. Aoudad and lechwe, gazelles and gemsbok. Let's not overlook the lemurs, the oryx, the springbok, the serval, the warthogs and eland, the Indian crested porcupine and the fennec fox.
And that doesn't even count the roughly 69 species of birds, including six kinds of hornbills, numerous parrots, pigeons, pheasants, spoonbills, swans and storks. Do the numbers on this amazing menagerie and you come up with about 100 separate species, including the recently arrived collection of 35 greater flamingos, a grouping commonly referred to, in the language of taxonomy, as either a "stand" or a "flamboyance."
Neither does it count the new brace of white rhinos, one of which appears to be pregnant. (More than one rhino, by the way, is properly referred to as either a "crash" or a "stubbornness.")
But Safari West is not a numbers game. There's no score card. The animals are essentially wild. They graze and migrate more or less freely, and encountering them on a three-hour safari is always on their terms, on their schedule, not yours. What you see depends on where the animals are, and that's how Peter Lang likes it.
"This is not a zoo," he says, "and it's not a drive-through animal park. The animals are where they are and you see what you see."
Which, it turns out, is a lot. Safaris consist of a three-hour drive in a double-decker "authentic safari vehicle" that looks like some species of Land Rover. The guides, who are much better informed than you are and can speak knowledgeably (and sometimes humorously) about virtually every species, go in search of the animals while never being certain what they'll find. Four hundred acres is a lot of space and the animals like to roam.
"I wanted to do this," Peter explains, "because of my experience going to drive-through parks. Typically, you go through one and you don't know a thing more coming out then when you went in. You go through in my vehicles, you see 35 different species, or more, of African ungulates."
He pauses and lets his gaze wander across a fenced field full of giraffes and storks and numerous animals with hooves and horns whose names most of us can never remember. He picks up the thread.
"This does not replace Africa. But when you go out on a three-hour game drive here, you will see more animals, and you will learn more, than on an African safari. I know. I've done it."
All of which begs the question: Why is Peter Lang doing this and how did he get here?
The path of Peter's story leads back to a Southern California boyhood and a famous father who was both a pioneer of American skiing and a TV and film director. Otto Lang, once director of the Sun Valley Resort ski school, went on to a Hollywood career that included directing several episodes of the wildlife melodrama Daktari. The popular TV series about an African animal doctor featured Clarence the Cross-eyed Lion and, in the opening credits, both an incongruous tiger (not found in Africa) and an Indian elephant. Maybe that geographical faux pas inspired Peter's insistence on an all-African game preserve. OK, the lemurs are from Madagascar but, as he is quick to point out, that country was once connected to the African mainland.
Daktari was shot both in the real Africa and in "Africa, U.S.A.,"a wild animal ranch north of Los Angeles. Peter says he grew up with exotic animals and when he was 14 he got to raise a lion cub "from Easter to September. Wonderful cub, I could go to the beach with that cub, I could take it on the bus."
But the distance from lion-sitter to Safari West was long and convoluted. Along the way he was a commercial tuna fisherman, he sold cars, designed and manufactured furniture and owned, as he puts it, "the last cattle ranch in Beverly Hills." But that's another story.
Always, he says, there were animals. He practiced falconry as a kid, and brokered zoo animals as an adult. He also carves elaborate wooden skulls and drives an off-road, hand-built race car in marathon contests across the Baja desert.
Somehow all the threads of his life came together at Safari West, which he and Nancy founded in 1989 and opened to the public in 1993. Peter is also a licensed contractor and he built most of the structures on the property, milling his own lumber from local wood. There are 31 tent cabins for overnight guests, all strategically placed to provide views of the animal pens. The tents offer rustic luxury, with full bathrooms and handmade furniture, manufactured by Peter from salvaged timber along with manzanita, madrone and oak gathered on the property. There's an on-site sawmill and machine shop, and you get the impression Peter could make just about anything he needed whenever he needed it.
Over the years the woods of Sonoma County have been full of exotic animal collectors bitten by the biophilia bug, many of them dilettantes without the training (or in some cases the permits) to keep wild critters. How is Peter Lang different?
For starters, Safari West is a member of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association, an accrediting organization with stringent standards and on-site inspections. Secondly, Peter sold development rights for the land to the Sonoma County Agricultural and Open Space District, which means if he gets bored with breeding bongos, he can never convert Safari West into Safari West Retirement Estates.
And then, of course, there's Nancy, a Ph.D. biologist and bird specialist who did her doctoral thesis on bald eagles, was a curator at the San Francisco Zoo and has, as they say, real "creature cred."
The facility has a nonprofit foundation, it hosts countless classroom tours drawing some 10,000 school kids a year, and Peter estimates the annual visitor count at roughly 60,000. This is not a small-time operation.
Still, and most emphatically, it is for Peter Lang a lifestyle statement. "A lot of this," he concedes with casual candor, "is for my satisfaction. If we closed tomorrow nothing would change...except I'd go broke."
Another pause and an appreciative scan of the livestock. "Right now," he says, "I'm about having fun. I enjoy the business, I enjoy the guests, I race my Baja car, I do a couple of major fishing expeditions. It's a good story. I like the story."
We're inside the giraffe barn at night with two-year-old Kate and her 16-year-old sister. An enormous head appears over the top of a high stall and descends on an impossibly long neck. Soft lips nuzzle Kate's hand and a long black tongue reaches out for the carrot she holds. She is both terrified and transfixed.
She has giraffes of her own. She calls them, collectively, "Bobs." They are quite a bit smaller and stuffed with foam. We take turns feeding the enormous head with the friendly eyes.
Later, Nancy observes, "We can go into the giraffe barn anytime we want, but it's always a surprise. It's thrilling every time. It's a privilege. It really is."
It is, in a word, "biophelia."
Safari West, 3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa, CA. 707.579.2551, www.safariwest.com.
From the Winter 2008 Issue of SONOMA