5: Best Thing Not There Anymore

A film by Greg Stacy

[African veldt. Daytime. Open with huge closeup of a wrinkly-faced rhino, ears a-wiggle. He is feasting on grass as a bird pecks at bugs on his scalp. There is a crunching sound nearby, and the rhino looks up, his piggy little eyes focusing. There is a figure approaching through the brush. It is Greg Stacy, dressed in a safari outfit, complete with pith helmet. Stacy speaks to the camera, and as he does, the rhino moves slowly toward him, snorting warily.]

GREG STACY [sotto voce]: Oh, sure, lots of people can say they've been charged by an enraged rhinoceros —but how many can say they've been charged by an enraged rhinoceros in Irvine? My near-trampling happened at Orange County, California's now-defunct Lion Country Safari, a drive-through animal preserve that shall forever hold the distinction of being the Dumbest Idea in the History of Everything.

[Exterior: Lion Country Safari. Daytime. Greenish, faded footage of the park in its 1970s heyday. The air shimmers with heat as a gray Volkswagon bus containing young Stacy and his family drives through a park filled with exotic, fierce-looking animals.]

STACY [voice-over]: I visited the park one unspeakably hot day in the '70s. I was 9 or 10 years old, stuffed, along with my entire family, into the cramped quarters of my aunt's VW bus. The park had rules forbidding you to roll down your car windows—a sensible precaution, given the fierce creatures prowling the neighborhood —and my aunt's bus had no air conditioning, so the inside of our vehicle probably didn't smell that different from the gibbons and antelopes outside.

[Inside the bus, young Stacy looks about ready to pass out. Then he looks out the bus's window and suddenly sits bolt upright in his seat.]

STACY [voice-over]: I'm afraid my heat stroke rendered most of the afternoon a blur, but I do remember the moment when I looked out the side window and saw a large African rhino looking back at me as he stomped up a thick cloud of dust and bellowed like Godzilla.

[We see the rhino charge the bus and chase it for some distance.]

STACY [voice-over]: I don't blame the rhino for trying to kill us. Rhinos are aggressive and territorial, sure, but they are also really stupid and can't see well. Squaring off against my aunt's bus, the rhino would have seen a big, beige, boxy thing, just about the same color as—and only a bit larger than—himself. The bus had a bad transmission, so its engine made a deep, rumbling sound—not unlike the growl of a pissed-off rhino. Our vehicle was as rhino-like as a vehicle could possibly be, and when that rhino rushed us, the poor bastard simply thought he was defending himself from a belligerent rival. Had he crashed into us, he probably would have killed himself . . . and us. At the very least, he would have tipped the bus over and badly bruised his horn. As it happened, he veered off at the last possible instant, probably hoping like hell that he'd proved his dominance and that we'd run away. If so, he was right. I can still picture the rhino's smug expression in the rear-view mirror as he receded into the distance. He probably still tells his buddies about that one.

[Freeway intersection. Daytime. Present day. Stacy is standing in the middle of a busy freeway intersection, cars whizzing all around him. As he speaks, we can occasionally hear the furious yells of passing motorists and the squeal of tires as they try to avoid hitting him. The Verizon Wireless Amphitheater sign is visible in the background. Stacy has to shout a bit to be heard.]

STACY [loudly]: The current intersection of the Santa Ana and the 5 freeways was once occupied by miles of perfectly fine barley fields. That changed with the arrival of a young South African attorney named Harry Shuster, who opened Lion Country Safari in June 1970. Shuster was—and is—a supremely colorful character with more than a touch of P.T. Barnum in him; he was able to bring in an impressive 1 million visitors during the park's first season with his rather kinky star attraction, Frasier the Sensuous Lion, an elderly former circus feline who fathered 30 cubs in 18 blistering months. Sadly, attendance began to slide after Frasier died in '72, and it continued to drop throughout the 1970s. The park closed in '84, and Shuster's United Leisure Inc. filed for bankruptcy two years later. The Verizon Wireless Amphitheater and the Wild Rivers water park now occupy the land, and nothing remains to mark the spot of the former SoCal Serengeti.

[Water park. Daytime. Stacy is standing in the shallow end of a crowded pool at Wild Rivers, wearing loud trunks and a very dorky bathing cap. In the background, a small child can be seen urinating into the water. Stacy continues to speak, much to the annoyance of the swimmers around him.]

Stacy: Shuster himself has stayed in the public eye with such ventures as children's camps and daycare centers, cigar clubs, and the Love's restaurant chain. (You remember: "When you're in Love's, the whole world's delicious.") He waged an ugly, lengthy legal battle with the Irvine Co., charging that the giant Orange County real-estate developer was attempting to prevent him from starting profitable new businesses on the former Lion Country Safari site. The suits and countersuits raged for 12 years, until the two parties finally settled their dispute in late 1998. But in May of '99, Shuster was back in the courts when a federal grand jury charged him with taking part in offshore stock deals. If nothing else, the man is guaranteed to provide Orange County journalists with colorful copy well into the new millennium.

[Interior. Love's Restaurant. Evening. Stacy sits at a table, messily devouring a huge plate of ribs. Barbecue sauce covers his hands, his clothing and the table. Every so often, he flings a bone over his shoulder, and we hear it land just out of shot. A waitress paces anxiously in the background.]

Stacy: Nowadays, it is difficult to imagine that such a place as Lion Country Safari ever existed. After all, there was so much about it that could have gone very, very wrong. Despite the park's sternly worded warnings about keeping your windows rolled up, there was really nothing to stop some publicity-seeking, suicidal teen from getting out of his car and feeding himself to a Bengal tiger. Besides, as my own little encounter proves, a rolled-up window is scant protection from a charging rhinoceros. One is reminded of the scene in Jurassic Park in which Jeff Goldblum's character dryly observes that the chief distinction between the dinosaur park and Disneyland is that the Pirates of the Caribbean don't eat the guests. Lion Country Safari had the constant potential to become a real-life Jurassic Park, and while my family's experience seems to be the closest any guests came to getting killed, one of the park's chief zoologists was crushed by a rampaging elephant.

[Stacy flings a rib over his shoulder, and it lands with a noisy clatter on the plate of the diner in the booth behind him. The diner stands up, furious.]

DINER: That's it. I'm kickin' this sorry bastard's ass!

WAITRESS: Please, sir—I've already called the police!

[African veldt. Daytime. Stacy is being chased through tall grass by the now-enraged rhino from the opening scene. Slightly out of breath, he continues with his monologue as he runs for his life.]

STACY: Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Lion Country Safari is that a version of the park still exists today on North American soil. Go to www.lioncountrysafari.com, and you will find the website for a Florida version of the park. Go hop on a plane right now, and within a few hours you'll be nose-to-snout with lions and tigers and rhinos like my friend back there. . . .

[Stacy arrives at a gray VW bus. He hops aboard and speeds away from the rhino just in time. As the bus vanishes into the distance, we hear Stacy's voice one last time.]

STACY [voice-over]: If you do go, just remember to keep those windows rolled up. And for God's sake, before you go, get that transmission fixed.

[Fin.]

The festivities continue...
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