Saving Safari West

Story David Bolling
Photos Steven Krause

Peter Lang Makes a Stand for 1,015 Animals

For the 400-acre wildlife preserve parked smack in the path of the Tubbs fire that almost destroyed Safari West and its 1,015 African-sourced creatures, maybe the absolute best thing that happened—other than, of course, owner Peter Lang’s obstinate and heroic efforts to save all the animals—was the opportunity it provided for a gaggle of first responders (that’s not an official designation) to hang out with and pose beside a 5,000-pound, southern white rhinoceros named Waldie.

If you’ve never scratched behind the ear of a rhino (and not everyone gets to do that), you are missing one of life’s most sublime and unexpected pleasures. Its skin is two inches thick and you can almost see its giant, square lips curl into a faint smile.    

You think of meeting a rhino face-to-face and you think of running up a tree. Not with Waldie. He’s a sweetheart. He comes when he’s called, like a very, very big dog. He LOVES to be scratched behind the ear. And he’s surprisingly social.

He is also one of the many reasons (there are, apparently, 1,015 of them) to be grateful that Peter Lang did what he did, which was to ignore the orders and beseechments and threats and pleadings of those who told him (officially and unofficially) to leave the preserve, and instead stayed to fight the flames that threatened his life’s work, even while his own home, on an adjacent property, was burning to the ground.

Peter Lang is not a man averse to risk. One of his passions is to drive very high-powered custom-designed, hand-built, off-road race vehicles through the wilds of Baja California. He did, in fact, have a Baja racer in preparation for an upcoming race when the fire intervened and melted it.

But standing by his animals was not a thrill-seeking act of bravado—it was a moral imperative. Safari West, which he opened to the public with his wife, Nancy (a Ph.D. biologist and zoo curator), in 1993, is the fulfillment of a lifetime commitment to wild animals and species preservation. Peter’s father, Otto Lang, was a film and TV director who produced, among other things, the wildlife TV melodrama, Daktari, and exotic animals were childhood fixtures.

In some respects, Safari West is that childhood writ large, with an A-to-Z collection of all-African animals, ranging from antelopes to zebras and almost everything in between, including numerous giraffes (a Peter-favorite), three rhinos, wart hogs, lemurs, cheetahs, hyenas, monkeys, ostriches, wildebeest, servals, cape buffalo, hundreds of exotic birds and a resident population of guinea hens that wander freely around the property.

A companion wildlife foundation is focused on creating “wildlife advocates” and helping people develop an appreciation of natural environments and conservation. Sonoma’s own Lynette Lyon, a wildlife expert in her own right who nurtures a family of exotic creatures at Lyon Ranch, has been hired as a conservation ambassador to carry the foundation’s programs to schools and the world beyond.

On October 8, Peter arrived at the preserve shortly after 10 p.m. and was soon ordered to evacuate, because Mark West Springs Road had turned into a tunnel of fire.

“I said, ‘Sorry, I’m not leaving.’ I got into a jeep and began driving, stomping out hot spots, laying out garden hoses attached to garden hoses attached to garden hoses. I got in the forklift and moved a couple stacks of lumber that would have burned. We would have had barbecued wart hogs. I moved a bunch of cars. I felt very lonely. There was nothing in the way of help coming up the road. Nothing.”

At one point, some Nyala antelopes got trapped in the corner of a fenced enclosure with the fire moving toward them. Peter climbed over the fence and chased them back through the fire to safety.

He was not exactly dressed for fighting fires. “For some reason I grabbed a hoodie when I ran out of the house. I don’t wear hoodies, but it was a good choice. I had to soak the hood in water every 10 minutes to protect my head. That’s how fast the heat dried it out.”

The rhinos seemed to take it all in stride. “They were just standing there,” says Peter, “watching the fire.”

When the smoke cleared, a few outbuildings and several vehicles had burned, but not a single animal was harmed, and sometime during the maelstrom a guinea hen hatched a brood of 15 chicks. Even the preserve’s 30 luxury overnight guest tents survived.

But through it all, Peter had no idea what had happened to his own house. Nancy had evacuated and there was no cellphone service. “When the firestorm had passed, I could look nurtures a family of exotic creatures at Lyon Ranch, has been hired as a conservation ambassador to carry the foundation’s programs to schools and the world beyond.

On October 8, Peter arrived at the preserve shortly after 10 p.m. and was soon ordered to evacuate, because Mark West Springs Road had turned into a tunnel of fire.

“I said, ‘Sorry, I’m not leaving.’ I got into a jeep and began driving, stomping out hot spots, laying out garden hoses attached to garden hoses attached to garden hoses. I got in the forklift and moved a couple stacks of lumber that would have burned. We would have had barbecued wart hogs. I moved a bunch of cars. I felt very lonely. There was nothing in the way of help coming up the road. Nothing.”

At one point, some Nyala antelopes got trapped in the corner of a fenced enclosure with the fire moving toward them. Peter climbed over the fence and chased them back through the fire to safety.

He was not exactly dressed for fighting fires. “For some reason I grabbed a hoodie when I ran out of the house. I don’t wear hoodies, but it was a good choice. I had to soak the hood in water every 10 minutes to protect my head. That’s how fast the heat dried it out.”

The rhinos seemed to take it all in stride. “They were just standing there,” says Peter, “watching the fire.”

When the smoke cleared, a few outbuildings and several vehicles had burned, but not a single animal was harmed, and sometime during the maelstrom a guinea hen hatched a brood of 15 chicks. Even the preserve’s 30 luxury overnight guest tents survived.

But through it all, Peter had no idea what had happened to his own house. Nancy had evacuated and there was no cellphone service. “When the firestorm had passed, I could look up at the horizon to the east, and I had a pretty good idea it was gone.”

Four houses and two barns on his home property were destroyed, along with what Peter describes as “a world-class mineral collection, African artifacts, California art. Gone, all gone. Including stuff my dad collected in the Congo in the 1950s. It’s amazing how gone it can be. But it’s all stuff.”

Even worse, says Peter, “We had 12 employees lose homes. You know, you go through ups and downs. There are some weak moments. But as long as you keep other people’s problems in mind, our problems seem minimal.”

The fire has done nothing to discourage Peter and Nancy from reopening. “Our determination,” says Peter, “is to open it better than when we closed. I’m in the spirit of moving forward, but then, I’ve got something to move forward with. I remind myself of that multiple times a day.”

Safari West reopened to the public for day tours on November 20. Overnight stays in the luxury tent cabins will resume March 1.

Safari West is located at 3115 Porter Creek Road, Santa Rosa. 707.579.2551. www.safariwest.com.

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