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Lions and Tigers and Bears… in Albion

Black Pine Animal Park provides a safe haven for more than 80 exotic animals

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


About 45 minutes North of Fort Wayne, there’s a little neighborhood in Albion where the residents can look out their back windows during the warmer months and see two camels lounging in the grass just a few hundred yards away, with a miniature horse grazing next to them, and an ostrich named Ginger strutting close by. If they listen closely, they also might hear a lion bellowing in the not-to-far distance, competing with the ear-rending squawks and shrieks of a gaggle of Amazon parrots.

These are just a few residents of the Black Pine Animal Park, a retirement community with a different kind of clientele — over a dozen big cats (including seven tigers), a pair of chimps (Coby and Tarzan), a black bear, a 10’ Burmese python named Kamar, a few African desert turtles, just to name a few of the park’s 80+ residents.

Some of the residents are circus animals that have retired from performing, like Ghana, an enormous male lion who was trained as the “attack cat” at Ringling Brothers before he was replaced by two younger male lions. Ghana saw the writing on the wall, just like he would have in the wild, and simply stopped cooperating with his trainer.

Or Coby and Tarzan, two chimps trained for the entertainment industry (and two of only four chimps in captivity in Indiana). Coby appeared in movies with Gene Kelley and Lauren Bacall, and his finger painting was featured on David Letterman during an “Ape or Human” segment. He lived in the Hollywood Hills with his owners, until one of those incidents that serves as a reminder that these are wild animals. Like human infants, chimps have short fuses that can be set off with minor frustrations. Unlike human infants, a chimp has the strength of seven grown men. One day, Coby had a tantrum in his trainer’s house, pulled the trainer’s refrigerator out of the wall niche, and flipped it like a cardboard box.

Other animals at Black Pine were former pets who proved too much for their original owners. Montrose, a 500-lb tiger, was one of three tigers rescued from a private owner and breeder in Shelby county last summer. The breeder’s license from the USDA had been revoked after he had lost a major source of income. The tigers were living in pretty bad conditions due to lack of time, money, and help.

Open to the public since 1995, the Black Pine Animal Park has actually been a haven for exotic animals for over two decades, when founders Karen and Brad Bonar purchased a historic home on 12.5 acres of land, the site of a former hog farm. The Bonars began with livestock of their own — first lamb, but then a little later, adding more exotic animals like llamas and rheas (a gangly, flightless bird from South American that can grow about 5’ tall). But the park’s mission really changed with the addition of two mountain lions, “rescued” from an owner who had fallen ill and couldn’t give the exotic pets the care they needed. Karen had a passion to help animals in need; she had previously worked as an animal rehabilitator for the Department of Natural Resources. “When she realized she could do education and save some animals lives, that was the drive to turn the farm into a ‘sanctuary,’” says Lori Gagen, Black Pine’s Director of Development.

As more exotic animals came to the farm what started as a hobby turned more serious and time-consuming. It also became more expensive. The Bonars got a USDA exhibitor’s license and began charging a small fee to the growing number of weekend visitors who had heard about the farm and would just drop in and ask if they could look around. It took on its name “Black Pine Animal Park” in 1995, and in early 2004, it became a 501c3 non-profit organization.

With its collection of exotic animals, Black Pine Animal Park has been described as an “alternative” to the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo. Not that the Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo needs an “alternative” (it’s considered one of the top zoos in the country) or that the two facilities should even be compared. But for anyone with an affection or interest in exotic animals, Black Pine Animal Park offers a different kind of experience — smaller, quieter, and more intimate — than what you might get at a regular metropolitan zoo. “I think we complement each other,” says Gagen, when asked how she fields questions from people who want to know how Black Pine compares to the Children’s Zoo. “I always say that there’s no reason you can’t see both.”

Actually, one difference becomes very apparent to anyone taking a tour at the park: many of the animals don’t seem afraid or indifferent towards people. Some of the big cats come right up to the barrier of their enclosure to check you out, as curious about you as you are about them. If one of the staff is with you and the tiger is feeling particularly social, you might hear it “chuff,” a sort of lowing sound tigers make when they recognize a scent. It’s their version of purring.

The reason for this friendliness is that the animals at Black Pine are used to people. They’ve been raised in captivity of one kind or another, and the staff at Black Pine work hard to keep them as familiar with people as possible. That means the people at Black Pine expect a certain decorum from kids and adults alike — no running, no yelling, no climbing on fences. “All our volunteers pitch in and make sure no one is running in front of the cats or screaming at the monkeys,” Gagen explains. “We just calmly tell them that when you run in front of a tiger, it thinks you’re food. They’re being challenged, and when the cat has that barrier there, after being taunted time after time, it makes them not like people anymore.”

Gagen’s comment illustrates another part of Black Pine’s mission: education about owning exotic animals as pets. For example, none of the big cats residing at Black Pine are particularly aggressive. Gagen says that they used to have a male lion that would roar and rush the barrier during feeding time — a far cry from the amiable Ghana, who will let out a hearty bellow that can be heard up to a mile away, but overall seems to be enjoying the peace and quiet and regular hours very much, thank you — but he was an exception.

That said, non-aggressive doesn’t mean that these animals are necessarily a good choice as pets; plenty of the residents at Black Pine are there because someone didn’t seem to realize that that cute tiger club flopping around on its oversized feet was going to grow into a 400-lbs beast requiring 20 – 30 lbs of meat per day. Even something like an Amazon parrot — which would seem less high-maintenance compared to, say, a lynx — can prove difficult. “People will go out and buy a bird because they’re so beautiful, and they’re neat because they can mimic you and have a lot of personality. But birds are very high-maintenance, and they can live 70 or 80 years,” Gagen says.

Black Pine doesn’t necessarily discourage people from buying exotic pets, but part of what they do is trying to make sure people really know what they’re getting into. “For every responsible family who has that perfect black Labrador, there’s an irresponsible family that has a pit bull chained to a post in the backyard. The same thing is true in the exotic animal world,” Gagen explains. “There are many, many, many responsible, caring, knowledgeable people who own exotic animals, but there are a lot who don’t know what they’re doing, or don’t know what they’re getting themselves in to.”

Jessica Price, the park’s zookeeper who started as a volunteer in high school and came back after college, agrees, saying that she’d like to see existing laws either better enforced or more clearly defined. “There are people out there who do a good job, who have amazing enclosures who have had tigers or snakes or birds for many years and do an excellent job, so I’d hate to have the laws be so strict that people can’t have them, but there has to be a happy medium. A lot of people don’t do the research, and don’t understand what it’s going to require.”

Black Pine’s 2006 season begins in May, though recently the opening date was preceded with reports that a problem between owner Brad Bonar and his insurance company meant that Black Pine would have to move (the park itself has insurance). Gagen says they are currently looking at their options; it’s very likely that the park will stay in the same general area. In the meantime, she stresses that Black Pine is open and the season will proceed as planned. “We are open, and all of our programs — and we have wonderful programs planned this summer — they’re all in place, and they’re all going to happen, and we’re going to have a great summer season here.”

Black Pine Animal Park is open for weekends in May and then all week for the rest of the summer. For more information, including hours, admission, and tours, visit www.blackpineanimalpark.com or call (260) 636-7383.

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