Story David Bolling
Photos Steven Krause
One of the more iconic images to emerge from the fires of October, 2017, is a massive, 5,000-pound southern white rhinoceros, named Waldi, surrounded by 21 firefighters in turnout gear and big smiles.
Waldi is a star resident of Safari West, the African-themed animal enclosure that focuses on conservation breeding of rare or endangered animals, as well as iconic critters that warm the public heart.
The public perception of rhinos doesn’t usually include the quality of being heart-warming, since they’re commonly portrayed as armor-clad, mammalian battle tanks with 3-foot horns.
But no matter how formidable rhinos may appear to be, they—like all other wildlife—are vulnerable to wildfire. Which guaranteed that when the October firestorm came roaring along Porter Creek Road and through the canyon of Mark West Springs Creek like a demonic visitation from hell, Peter Lang refused to abandon his 400 acres, and the 1,000 creatures living there. Ordered out by first responders, Lang simply wouldn’t leave. “I could not leave,” he says. “It’s not in my make-up.”
Instead, in what is now a well-told story, he conducted a nonstop, one-man assault on the fire, wielding garden hoses, rakes and shovels, firing up a forklift to move stacks of lumber away from the warthog housing. Had he not, Lang wryly explains, “We would have had barbecued warthog.”
He also climbed an 8-foot fence and chased a herd of Nyala antelopes out of a fenced enclosure and through the threatening fire to safety on the other side. He tore around the property in a jeep, stomping out hot spots wherever he found them, constantly wetting down the hoodie sweatshirt he wore as protection against the heat and flames.
When it was all more or less over, not a single animal had perished or even been hurt; not a rhino or giraffe, not a cheetah or an antelope, not a bongo or an aoudad, not a cape buffalo or a lemur or a kudu or a scimitar-horned oryx. Not even a single flamingo, wildebeest or zebra.
Lang doesn’t look at his behavior as heroic, and he is quick to warn, “Don’t confuse luck with expertise.”
But if you had seen the place soon after the fire, you would know that without Peter Lang’s one-man firefighting force, the outcome would almost certainly have been tragically different.
He is quick to credit his staff, who worked nonstop for two days in the aftermath, mopping up fires, repairing fences and enclosures, cleaning up the mess. “They never stopped.”
He’s also certain that his practice of letting Safari West’s grazing animals severely crop the pastureland paid off as a form of fire protection, limiting the spread and fury of the flames.
The facility lost a few outbuildings and several vehicles, including Lang’s latest custom-built, high-performance off-road race car, with a Ford Raptor engine and 36-inches of wheel travel. It’s a loss he ruefully acknowledges is “probably a good thing. I’m 76. I raced for 14 years, and I really enjoyed my trips to Baja. But I think that’s over now.”
The race car wasn’t his only personal loss. While he fought for the safety of his animals, the home that Peter and Nancy Lang built and occupied half a mile from Safari West burned to the ground, and with it went a lifetime worth of African artifacts, California art and what he calls a “world-class mineral collection.”
Lang’s heroics (a term he adamantly rejects) have not gone without recognition. This year he received the 2018 California Northwest American Red Cross Animal Rescue Hero Award.
Reflecting in the aftermath, close to a year later, he observes philosophically, “Remarkably little changed. Spring came, the rain came and the grass grew beautifully.”
Ask Peter Lang to name his favorite animal and you expect to hear him say the giraffe, of which Safari West has many. He’s fond of giraffes and delights in feeding them for the benefit of eager photographers, but his answer these days is more inclusive.
“The composite of the whole collection is my favorite,” he says now. “The collection defines my life at this point. I have said it before and I’ll say it again. You will see more species of animals here, in a single day, than you will see in any park in Africa. We have sort of a loaded deck.”
“A man with a granddaughter, who had to have two heart surgeries, promised her he would take her to Africa. That proved difficult, so he brought her here. She was thrilled. And he told me, ‘You saved me an awful lot of money.’”
Safari West is open year-round for guided safari trips and overnight stays in African-style safari tents—luxury accommodations on raised platforms and private bathrooms, with dinner. Go to safariwest.com for more information.