BANDON I stood in the middle of the West Coast Game Park near Bandon, unsure of what to pay attention to first: the baboon doing acrobatics in a nearby cage, the baby possum being thrust into my arms or the persistent pygmy goat nudging my pocket for a handout.
The walk-thru safari was more than I ever imagined.
For years I had driven past the park without any inclination to stop. It appeared on the outside to be a tacky roadside tourist trap. At best, I thought, it would have a few decrepit cages containing pathetic, old animals.
Boy was I wrong.
I paid my $10 entrance fee and 25 cents for a cone full of corn and food pellets for the animals.
Heres a tip: Keep the food stashed out of sight in a pocket. If you dont, the herds of deer, goats and ducks will zero in on you like a magnet and never leave you alone.
I know this because I witnessed a woman who became surrounded the minute she entered the complex. Twenty minutes later she yelled out in exasperation and tossed all the food away from her to escape an animal mob.
At the same time, a man standing outside an exhibit was making weird grunting sounds and flapping his arms around in a poor imitation of a chimpanzee. The primate simply stared back at him from the other side of the fence.
I wasnt sure who was more entertaining: the animals or the humans.
The park is a maze of dirt trails that wind around numerous caged exhibits featuring large predators such as Bengal tigers, African lions, snow leopards and bears. The park also features herds of big-hoofed animals such as zebras, elk, reindeer and camels. Many of the animals are endangered species born and bred in captivity.
The park, an employee told me, has been supported entirely by entrance fees and donations since it opened 33 years ago. Money is also generated by the gift shop.
The park boasts more than 450 animals and birds spread out over 21 acres of woodlands. About 15 acres are fenced off from the public as a wildlife refuge.
One of the more interesting animals are the llamas, taller than the average person, wandering around the park. A sign on one fence warned visitors the llamas can spit. They would show up unannounced, usually looking over ones shoulder for a handout.
The male peacocks walking on the trails would occasionally spread their rainbow-colored tail feathers, vibrating them in the direction of a female, who usually ignored them.
A family of Hmadryas baboons a large male, smaller female and her baby delighted visitors with their antics. The female, who snatched food from the ground when the male wasnt looking, was always protective of her baby, which clung to her belly like velcro.
The park also has several bison and ostriches, but those animals remained in far away corners or a feeding trough far from the viewing point.
The highlight of the visit was holding and petting three of the parks youngest animals. The opportunity to do so was scheduled every hour or so and announced over a loud speaker.
There was Chips, a 7-month-old bearcat, Asias closest relative to the wolverine. A 4-month-old apricot skunk, descented of course. And a 3-month-old lion named Zaire.
Animal caretaker Wendy Bostin placed each animal into the arms of spectators, explaining the creatures habits and history.
The lion cub was kept on a short leash and visitors were instructed to pet him from the neck down and keep their hands away from his face. He gets a little feisty sometimes, Bostin said.
Several of the young animals, such as the lion cub and a pair of Bengal tiger cubs, were nearing the age when they would be transported to another park or breeding program, she said.
I could have wandered through the park for hours, but my cone was empty and the goats were becoming more insistent.
I had been amazed and entertained by the variety of wildlife at the park. I regretted waiting so long to check it out and look forward to visiting it again soon.
West Coast Game Park is located seven miles south of Bandon on Highway 101. Winter hours vary. Call (541) 347-3106 for information.