By Art Petrosemolo
It’s full of familiar and exotic animals – many so curious they come face-to-face with you through your car window. Kids love it. And what’s not to love? An African safari you don’t have to fly to Africa for… and it’s less than an hour away in Jackson.
Wild Safari, one of three parks at Six Flags Great Adventure, has been part of the complex since the theme park opened in 1974. In addition to an up-close-and-personal look at some unique American and African wildlife, the park in recent years has added educational programs from one-day experiences to weeklong camps for children and teens to make them more aware of how fragile the environment is for wild animals in the U.S. and abroad.
Many of the park’s current animals were born at Wild Safari and some come from other parks or are rescued. Six of the seven elephants have been on-site since the safari opened, according to the Wild Safari staff.
Dave Peranteau, the safari’s senior supervisor of animal training, spends his days in the 350-acre preserve working with staff to make sure the animals are well-cared for and the guests are enjoying something special along the 4.5-mile drive. They want the experience to be as close as visitors can get to observing bison, brown bear, and elk in the American West or elephants, rhinoceros, lions, and giraffes on the African plain.
Unique programs and full-access experiences are popular today and Wild Safari does its best within the boundaries of safety and New Jersey regulations to give visitors what they are looking for. “Our staff’s background and education crosses areas of animal care including zoology, psychology, biology, and veterinary science,” Peranteau said. Wild Safari is not a petting zoo but a home to 1,200 animals that need 24/7 monitoring and care in a natural habitat.
Visitors to Wild Safari have various options. If they choose not to drive their own vehicles, they can take a bus tour or a VIP tour, where a safari guide drives a small group in a zebra-striped Land Rover. Guests get the opportunity to hand-feed elephants and giraffes on this off-road adventure.
Many safari park employees are veterans. Chuck Rose, currently in his 36th year, watches over 15 giraffes from an area – Camp Rose – named in his honor. Animal Educator Katrina Sauers has been with Wild Safari for six years and serves as a safari guide as part of her duties. “I really enjoy working with children.” she says. “They just seem to relate to our animal population.”
As parents look more and more for immersion experiences for their children, the staff at Wild Safari has developed a number of programs to put youngsters in close contact with the animal population in an educational setting. Today, the park offers four specific programs that appeal to children and teens through high school age.
Academic Animal Adventure is an outreach program where staff visit schools and interact with students in Grades K-12. It is designed to motivate students to protect and conserve the environment.
Animal Adventure Camp has nine, weekly summer programs of hands-on activities for children ages 5 to 13. “They learn about the animals,” Peranteau said, “and care for animals during the week at base camp and during excursions into the field.” At the end of the week, campers get to be tour guides for their parents. “It’s eye-opening to listen to them talk to their parents about what they have learned,” he said.
Journeys In Learning is geared toward children in Grades K-6. The program is a hands-on bus trip for a behind-the-scenes tour of the safari with a guide. It includes stops to see a number of animal species as well as displays of animal skulls, teeth, and claws.
Biology Experience, which incorporates the state’s core standards for high school life sciences, teaches students the importance of interdependence and genetics to endangered and threatened species. Classes see the park’s sea lion exhibit as well as the animal park.
Many visitors to Wild Safari return every year and have their favorite spots to view the animals. There is no reason you can’t drive the paved loop a second time on your visit if you haven’t seen enough. “But,” Peranteau said, “don’t expect to see a lot of exotic animal activity on a hot summer afternoon. They also look for spots to stay cool.
“Many visitors come to Wild Safari at 9 a.m. when it opens and spend an hour-plus visiting the American and African plains animals before heading off to the rides or the pool.”