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Safari West has been in the business of helping animals for nearly three decades. Now the exotic animal refuge needs some help of its own. 

With Sonoma County wine country becoming fire country the past few years — and COVID-19 closing the wildlife park’s gates for three months — Safari West is raising funds for its operation for the first time in its 27-year existence, while officially launching its new virtual experience, Safari West Live! 

“We always fundraised for our nonprofit, the Safari West Wildlife Foundation,” said Aphrodite Caserta, the refuge’s marketing director. “But this year we needed to reach out to let our supporters know Safari West needed help. For the owners, it’s been over 25 years since Safari West was founded, and they’ve never faced a challenge quite like this.” 

Luckily, the refuge’s request for help is being heard.

“The outpouring of generosity and support we’ve seen the past few months has been humbling beyond measure,” Caserta said. “While we have been critically impacted by adapting our business practices in the face of COVID-19, we were also once again, in the midst of another wildfire — the Glass Fire. We remained safe, but it was once again another challenge in an already challenging time. 

“We’re still here, surviving and moving forward, but we’ve got a long road ahead of us. You can’t simply furlough animals.” 

Safari West got its start in the late 1980s, when Peter Lang bought 400 acres of former cattle ranch land in the foothills of the Mayacamas Mountains, north of Santa Rosa, as a home for his growing collection of wildlife. He worked with local zoological foundations to establish captive breeding programs for varied and often endangered species.  

With his future wife Nancy Land, who worked for the San Francisco Zoo, he turned the oak woodland into a wildlife preserve — the “Sonoma Serengeti” as it’s been called. 

Best known for its “Sonoma Serengeti” tours and stays, the wildlife refuge has started offering “Zoomfaris” to guests. (Photo by Will Bucquoy)

Safari West isn’t a theme park into which one just walks. It’s a preserve for about 1,000 animals, with guided explorations of large, mixed-species enclosures meant to mimic the wild. Visitors come by appointment and reservations are required. Thousands of underserved school children typically visit each year when a pandemic isn’t keeping them home. 

COVID-19 closed Safari West in March, forcing it to furlough 110 employees, though it was back operating in June, with fewer guests and social distancing fully enforced.  

“This has not been a fun year,” said Keo Hornbostel, the refuge’s executive director. “The weather has helped, though it’s raining now. We’ve had 40 percent less capacity this year. We could take 12 people in a truck (tour) before, now we can do six to 10, socially distanced. We’re making it work.” 

The timing is good, however, for launching Safari West Live!, which gets an official kick-off Dec. 12 at the foundation’s annual Romp With the Beasts fundraiser. Instead of actually romping with beasts, guests can tour the park virtually, something that was already in the works before the pandemic. 

“This will allow us to go into school virtually,” Hornbostel said. “We’re doing the exact same thing; except you’re just not present for it.” 

As on real tours, a guide will take guests through the park in search of animals, offering information on the residents and where they live in the wild while taking questions. With various California counties falling back into more limiting COVID-19 restrictions, it’s a way for Safari West to stay connected to communities. 

Hornbostel said the first program, delivered last week to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Sacramento, went very well. 

“The kids were just bright-eyed,” he said. “They loved it. It’s a way for us to reach people we couldn’t reach before.” 

Vernon Pride, the producer and program manager for Safari West Live, said he already has another eight shows lined up with hospitals. 

“In a weird way, I’m the only person on the planet to benefit from COVID this year,” said Pride, who has gone from part-time tour guide to full-time producer. “Everyone is looking for this kind of content now.”  

The target audience so far is children in underserved communities and hospitals, through scholarships from the foundation. Safari West itself is a for-profit business, though 2020 was a rough year financially.  

The virtual tour is obviously different from the real thing, though a foundation member who served as an early test audience told Pride there were advantages to the virtual version.  

“She said she got closer to the animals this way than on the real tour,” Pride said, chalking it up to only having a few people out with a camera, instead of a vehicle full of families. 

Romp with the Beasts happens from 5-6 p.m. on Dec. 12. Not only will Safari West Live! be part of the program, organizers promise “wonder, wildlife and surprises galore.” There will also be an online auction. Register online, call 707-566-3651 or email info@safariwestfoundation.org. 

Safari West is still accessible in person, just to smaller groups.