Gentle Giants

Lions and tigers and giraffes, oh my! At Great Adventure’s Wild Safari, animals roam alongside Nissans and Mini Coopers.

By: Susan Van Dongen


Wild Safari has had a very successful breeding program, particularly with the highly endangered Siberian tigers. Llamas (above), elk (below left) and a giraffe (below right) scope out writer Susan Van Dongen in her car at Great Adventure’s Wild Safari.

   America. The land of drive-thru restaurants, pharmacies, even churches and weddings. New Jersey has the country’s largest drive-thru safari — Six Flags Great Adventure’s Wild Safari in Jackson. In fact, outside of Africa, it’s the biggest animal attraction of its kind in the world.
   If you can’t get to the zoo, this is the place to see some 52 species of animals from six different continents — a grand total of about 1,200 critters. And if you don’t like zoos because of the confining quarters for the animals, this might really appeal to you. The animals roam across 350 wooded acres, designed to simulate their natural habitat. Of course some are behind fences for their protection (and yours) but many have the run of the place. They literally stop traffic.


   My husband and I figured it would be prime picture-making territory. I didn’t know he was going to shoot with a 20-mm lens, though, his favorite for street photography and capturing unusual human sightings. If you come to take pictures, try a telephoto instead.
   We went in May, the weather on the border of warm and cool, when the animals were frisky — except for the lions, who reminded me of my own cats, who also sleep 23 hours a day.
   There was romance in the air, as well. Were those bears doing what I think they were doing? Then we saw a male ostrich performing a mating dance that looked complicated and painful — fluffing its feathers up like a Sally Rand fan, kneeling and bowing and squawking, again and again to one female who just walked away, unimpressed. I felt a little sorry for him, he was trying so hard.


   But I really felt badly for the other big bird trying to seduce one of the Wild Safari striped pickup trucks.
   The proprietors ask you to keep your windows shut and not to feed the animals, but people ignore this warning, especially with the wandering Roosevelt elk. They’re some of the first creatures you encounter on the road in the North American section. An elk head disappeared inside the passenger window of a van in front of us, because someone was hand feeding it. Pretty soon the road was cluttered with enormous quadrupeds looking for a handout.
   It was warm in my old car and I needed to crack the window a little but even just a crack is inviting to this gang. Inquisitive wet brown noses swarmed around both sides of the car. In addition, the North American section boasts a healthy collection of bison, which rested with their young nearby.
   Giraffes also like to look for free food. In the African Plains section, they walk all around and almost over the cars — their long legs could probably clear a Mini. They hovered over my Nissan and one found something that must have tasted good because it lingered to smooch the window and the roof. A vanload of people next to us laughed as a giraffe cleaned their windshield with its purplish tongue.
   All of Great Adventure sits at the very northern edge of the Pine Barrens, so it’s naturally swampy with plenty of tall, skinny trees. It’s not the kind of cover a leopard might like, but it’s grassy and shady enough so the animals don’t seem to suffer and they have plenty of room to wander. There are roomy barns where many of the warm weather species reside during the winter.
   "Although many of the animals are from the original herds brought here 30 years ago — the elephants and rhinos, for example — many of the animals were born in New Jersey," says Six Flags spokeswoman Kristin Siebeneicher. "So they’ve adjusted to the climate. They’re also somewhat smarter than humans in the hot weather. Unlike us, they know when to take it easy and how to cool off.
   "The planners tried to simulate the animals’ natural habitat," she continues. "One of the interesting things we do is to combine species that would naturally be together. So on the African Plains section you can see giraffes, zebras, and five or six kinds of antelope and deer, all things you’d see together in Africa — at least before the species were threatened by poaching. Of course, we separate predators and prey. The lions and tigers are in their own space."
   The deer and the antelope playing on the range include wildebeest, adax, kudu, eland, oryx and lechwe, some as small as a medium-sized domestic dog.
   As you drive into each section, Wild Safari employees wave. We guessed they were there to enforce the rules, feed the critters and close the fences if something gets loose, but they looked like their main job was just to wave. Ms. Siebeneicher says many of the animal handlers have a couple of decades of experience here. It’s funny — they kind of looked like they "went" with the creatures they were tending. A barrel-chested guy with a thick blondish buzz-cut tended the bears, a gal who might have been Crocodile Dundee’s sister was feeding the kangaroos and a woman who looked like she had a good sense of humor stood near the monkeys.
   Ms. Siebeneicher says Wild Safari now offers a limited tour of the park, the V.I.P Tour Off-Road Adventure, where visitors can go behind the scenes in a Land Rover with a personal Safari tour guide. They’ll bring you close enough to feed elephants, giraffes and other species on the African Plains. The lengthy tour also takes you inside the lion compound as well as the animals’ winter homes.
   The highlight for me was seeing the Siberian and white Bengal tigers. Wild Safari has had a very successful breeding program, particularly with the highly endangered Siberian tigers. Ms. Seibeneicher knows of several different births with multiple cubs, just in the last nine years. In fact, two females were born two years ago. We got close enough to see the sisters lolling around, cuffing each other to see who would win the best spot in the shade.
   "We’re also very proud to have bred the southern white rhinos successfully," Ms. Seibeneicher says. "They’re probably our most rare occupants. In Africa, their horns are prized and they’ve been heavily poached. They’re also losing their natural habitat, so they’ve become very endangered. The rhinos are really special because they’re so huge but the animals are right there as you’re driving, sometimes right along the road. There’s nothing to separate them from the cars. We call them our gentle giants."
Wild Safari at Great Adventure, Route 537, Jackson, is open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. on regular theme park operating days through the end of Oct. Closed Fridays during Fright Fest (late Sept.-Oct.) Admission: $17.99 safari only; safari is free with $47.99 general adult admission, $29.99 seniors/disabled/children under 54 inches; free, 3 and under. For information, call (732) 928-1821. V.I.P. Tour Offroad Adventure is $99.95 per person; advance reservations required. For information, call (732) 928-2000 ext. 2075. On the Web: