Calistoga Attractions: Safari West
A gazelle bounds gracefully across the expanse of brown grass. Nearby a scimitar-horned oryx, seemingly oblivious to the marvelously curled hardware on his head, wanders in search of a playmate, while a reticulated giraffe peers down with her Angela Lansbury-eyes and fixes you with a curious stare. If you took a photograph and showed it to a couple of world travelers, they might nod and say, “Ah, yes, I remember Kenya.”
But this isn’t a scene out of Africa. It’s Safari West, the Serengeti of Sonoma, where hundreds of wild animals romp in near-freedom on more than 300 acres. One of only six private zoos accredited by the American Zoological Association (AZA), Safari West was established 20+ years ago by a couple who had been involved with animals on a professional level for decades.
“I’ve owned animals since I was 13 years old,” says Peter, who describes himself as “the original rehabber,” drawn to rescue any animal that “flew or walked, if it was hurt or wounded”. Nancy, his wife, was the general curator of the San Francisco Zoo before moving to Sonoma and establishing this private preserve.
Between them, they have gathered more than 350 exotic, endangered and extinct-in-the-wild African mammals and birds. In the early 90’s, the Langs opened their preserve, in the hills northeast of Santa Rosa, to the public. Visitors can take three hour jeep tours throughout the property.
The intent of Safari West has evolved over the years, according to Peter Lang. At first, the main focus was on education. The Langs worked with several regional schools, and they still do, to introduce schoolchildren to the joys of wildlife. “We didn’t just want a touch-me, pet-me kind of experience,” he says. “We incorporated subjects such as math, English, history and art.”
You won’t see any boa constrictors, or elephants or tigers, but you will see zebras, gazelles, eland, antelopes, lechwe (another horned and hoofed animal), bongo (from the Congo, the largest rain forest antelope) and herds of wildebeest and Watusi cattle. These enormous animals are considered the mother herd of all cattle; they are bigger than Texas longhorns but seem quite gentle.