LaGrange Tiger-nado draws national attention

Published 4:59 pm Wednesday, April 5, 2023

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By Daniel Evans

The LaGrange Daily News

The Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain, Georgia is typically a joyous place filled with people of all ages. Every few minutes, you can usually hear the hilarious scream of someone who got animal slobber on their hands or the surprised reaction of someone who didn’t expect a zebra or giraffe to come right up to their window.

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And, with Spring Break about taking place in Troup County, this would usually be the busiest week of the entire year for the tourist attraction, which brings in a little over 200,000 guests per year.

Instead, the sounds of laughter are replaced by chainsaws, welding equipment and construction vehicles, all part of clean-up efforts after an EF-3 tornado hit the park Sunday causing thousands of trees to fall and resulting in significant damage to buildings, fences and enclosures.

“Basically, our whole walkabout, there’s not a single exhibit that was untouched,” said zoo director Katie Harrison.

There are 2,000 to 3,000 trees down, according to Mark Whitfield, executive vice president of Parks America, who owns the Wild Animal Safari and two similar parks in Missouri and Texas. Five animals — a new guinea singing dog, capybara, peacock, miniature zebu and fallow deer — were killed in a March 26 storm.

Harrison, who has been the zoo director for 10 years, gets choked up talking about the animals that didn’t survive.

“I can’t talk about it too much or I’m going to cry,” she said at a press conference Friday. “… This is my pride and joy. My home.”

Another handful of animals received minor injuries, Harrison said. A veterinarian from Zoo Atlanta came down following the storm to help treat the animals.

Zoo Atlanta Spokesperson Rachel Davis said a team from Zoo Atlanta went to the safari that Sunday, including representatives from the zoo’s animal care, facilities, horticulture, and veterinary teams. 

“Our teams assisted in ensuring that animal spaces were secure, assisted with downed trees, and helped prepare animal diets,” Davis said. 

The animal safari became a national topic Sunday after two tigers escaped their enclosures during the storm. Both tigers were found within a few hours — both within the confines of the park. And both — specifically a white Bengal tiger and a liger — were safe.

“My team knew what to do,” Harrison said. “They were fully trained on it. They got everybody tranquilized and back where they needed to go. [The tigers] never left the property. I’m so, so proud of my team.”

Harrison said she was planning to go to the animal safari after the tornado warning expired around 7:30 a.m. on March 26. Instead, she received a call urging her to get to the park quickly.

“We had somebody here on site, who called me and said ‘you need to get here now,” Harrison said.

The one staff member who was at the park rode out the storm under a small space, near where the walkabout area starts.

The aftermath of the storm was trees down everywhere, animals that needed to be moved temporarily to their sister park in Missouri, and a lot of work to get reopened.

“It honestly could’ve been a lot worse,” Harrison said, looking over the damaged property.

The park hopes to reopen in early April, though no specific date is known yet with much cleanup left underway.

“[Spring break] is literally our busiest week of the whole year every year, so we are taking a big hit there,” Harrison said. “But we’ve got to do what we have to do to keep the public and the animals safe. That’s our top priority.”

Whitfield compared not being open for Spring Break to the cancellation of a major event.

“Imagine the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade where an event happened where you couldn’t have the parade,” he said.

However, he said the Wild Animal Safari is not going to be deterred by this storm and will rebuild.

 “The spring break at any park at any zoo at any Wild Animal Safari Park generally is a very, very busy time to the park and, and for us, it’s one of the busiest weeks of the year,” Whitfield said. “So the financial impact is significant and substantial. But Parks America, the parent company, and Wild Animal Safari, we’re in this business for the long haul, we’re in this community for the long haul. We’ve been here for 30 years and a tornado is not going to chase us out.”

In the aftermath of the storm, PETA issued a statement calling for the escaped tigers to go to an animal sanctuary.

“Wild Animal Safari’s long history of leaving enclosures in disrepair and its apparent unwillingness to plan for a natural disaster made the escape of dangerous tigers inevitable,” said PETA Foundation Director of Captive Animal Welfare Debbie Metzler. “Before this roadside zoo risks the public’s and big cats’ lives again, PETA is calling for the feds to crack down on the shady safari and for the animals to go to reputable sanctuaries that know how to give them the care they need and prepare for the worst.”

Whitfield said he had not seen the PETA statement, but he said the Wild Animal Safari takes very good care of its animals.

“Our parks, a couple of weeks prior to this, you know just passed another USDA inspection. We passed it with flying colors,” he said. “We care for our animals better than anybody. Our animals are very much well fed by us and all the nutrients and that we give them and then by our guests. Our animals are very well cared for. When you have a category three tornado with a direct hit, you know, look what happened to homes and businesses across this great state of Georgia. Nothing can withstand that.”

Harrison and Whitfield thanked Callaway Gardens and other Pine Mountain neighbors for helping with cleanup efforts. Callaway Gardens also fed the safari staff earlier this week.

She urged anyone who wants to help to continue supporting the safari.

“Just keep supporting us. Keep sending those positive vibes,” she said. “That helps our crew. Just to see everybody who cares and loves us so much. Keep sending the love. That’s what we need right now.”