It started as a promise from a dedicated man to his best friend in the world: a dying lion. In July of 2008, as Josef the “celebrity” lion took his last breaths on the grounds of Vision Quest Ranch in Salinas, Charlie Sammut promised his 500-pound companion that his legacy would be forever celebrated with a zoo. Not just a bigger ranch, or a wild animal park, but Monterey County’s first accredited zoo. He promised it would be a zoo that would have been fitting for Josef, who had appeared on the silver screen in countless movies and videos, including “The Lion King.”
Sammut’s vow is now becoming a reality. Across the vast savanna where Highway 68 meets River Road at the foot of the Santa Lucia Mountain range, animal instinct must be kicking in among the furry tenants that change is in the air. Change for the better. After tackling endless regulations, plenty of red tape and one adorable white tiger, the property known to many locals as home to “Wild Things” is being expanded into the Monterey Zoological Association, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The pet project of longtime animal trainer Charlie Sammut and wife Heather, director of Wild Things, was approved by the state in August, and the facility passed its first inspection in September. Sammut’s extensive crew of exotic animals now inhabits five acres of the 51-acre parcel. Soon, the same number of animals will be spread out over 30 acres, and will be a “large open-style exhibit.”
Sammut says preparing those 30 acres for his animals defines the term “labor of love.”
“I’m building this zoo by hand, the same way we built this private compound,” he explains. “Our biggest task right now is punching holes in the ground, cutting pipe, and putting the pipe in the holes to build a mandatory perimeter fence. The fence has to be 8 feet tall and must be made of nine-gauge chain link for the public’s safety. As soon as this is done, we will build our first exhibit, which will be for tigers. We are starting now, and we so greatly hope the community embraces this zoo and comes on board to help.”
For Sammut, community involvement is second only to safety. Following regulations to the letter of the law will be priority and he wants to stay ahead of the pack. “A normal zoo requires a 14-foot fence around a tiger enclosure,” he says. “We are going to build ours to be 16 feet. We want to be ahead of the curve in everything we do here. We are taking a look at all requirements and will go a step above all of them.”
The Monterey Zoo is a dream come true for Sammut and for his extended family, the animals, many of which had careers in front of the camera. “The gradual decline of film work for animals in California didn’t afford us the ability to support them anymore with just that kind of work,” Sammut says. “We had to do something different so they’d be able to come out of their enclosures more often. This whole project is to give them more space to play, to live.”
Anyone who knows Sammut and Wild Things knows that rare and endangered animals roaming this bucolic slice of land is a common sight. Careful attention is taken by all of the staff to get creatures out of their cages as often as possible. The ranch has everything from claws to paws and trunks to humps. Three camels graze the grounds, as do bears, reindeer, hawks, zebra, buffalo, monkeys, tortoises, sloths, lemurs, kangaroos, and hyenas…and that’s a partial list.
Sammut’s newest “teacher’s pet” is Doc, a male Binturong, also known as a Malaysian Bearcat. Doc, who looks somewhat like a badger, drapes his lanky frame over Sammut while resting in between two other adorable new additions: adolescent Bengal tigers Moshka and Rajani. Golden Tabby Rajani is the softer, mellower, and surprisingly, rarer of the two female cats. Royal White tiger Moshka with her piercing blue eyes, exotic markings and rascally behavior, is actually more common worldwide. Both are still unusual and remarkable to see so close to home, and are breathtaking in person. The tigers were given to Sammut as gifts by a benefactor who knew the Monterey Zoo would be a great permanent home for both animals. These rare cats can be experienced up close now by contacting Wild Things and booking a tour.
It’s not just big cats that will make the zoo so amazing. The Sammuts started the nonprofit organization EARS when he got his first elephant, Akili. EARS, an acronym for Elephants of Africa Rescue Society, is one of the Monterey County’s most well supported nonprofits, with locals generously donating to keep Sammut’s five beloved giants fed, sheltered and loved.
Visitors who stay at the on-site bed and breakfast are awakened by an elephant coming by their porch for a good morning visit, if they already haven’t been stirred out of their sleep by the majestic early morning roar of the lions.
Sammut’s obsession with wild animals began when he was a Seaside police officer involved in a drug bust in the early ’80s. The drugs went to the police station, but the cougar that was found in the home was adopted by Sammut.
“The guy who got arrested had a couple of days to get his affairs in order before he went to jail,” Sammut says. “I thought the cougar was the coolest thing I’d seen in the world, and offered to take him. I brought him home in the back of a pickup truck with a camper on it. I did some research and took good care of him.” Next, since it was legal at the time to do so, Sammut ordered a tiger to keep on his property. Serendipitously, a lion arrived instead. It was Josef. Sammut kept Josef, and when the tiger ultimately arrived, he kept the tiger, too. A zoo was born.
Fast-forward 30 years, and Sammut is living his fantasy. “I feel Monterey is worthy of a real and beautiful zoo,” he says. “San Francisco, Oakland and Santa Barbara are the closest zoos to us. I feel the kids in our community deserve it, especially those who might not otherwise be able to travel that far to see a zoo.” Sammut adds that the zoo will surely compliment the allure of the world famous Monterey Bay Aquarium.
“There will be nothing like it in the United States,” Sammut adds. “Visitors will have free contact with many types of animals under a controlled safe environment.”
Before the zoo is open to the public in 2013, tours remain available daily through Wild Things, where folks can interact with lynxes—primates, including Capuchin monkeys and baboons—and get a dose (or spray) of bathing elephants. Exclusive packages are offered and tailored to guests’ desires. One tour allows guests to walk with all the animals, choosing which ones they want to spend personal time with, and at the end of their magical day, they depart with personally logo-ed shirts and hats.
Sammut had worked as a police officer and an animal health technician before heading to Hollywood an as an animal trainer. He spent 20 years honing his magic touch on sets of movies, television and music videos. His more recent résumé includes being at the helm of Vision Quest Ranch Safari and Bed & Breakfast, the V.Q.R. Equestrian Center, Wild Things Inc., Oxton Kennels & Pet Resort and as the executive director of EARS. But it’s the zoo and the promise to Josef that he wears like a jewel in his crown.
While Doc the bearcat and Moshka and Rajani the baby tigers rough and tumble in their soon-to-be-expanded empire, the spirit of one special lion is most likely satisfied. Josef is buried under a red rose bush at the entrance to the ranch. People stop there daily to sit and take a photo. Surely, this proud lion, the one who started it all, has a smile on his face.
Wild Things and the Monterey Zoological Society are located at 400 River Road, Salinas. For more information, to book tours, or donate to the building of the zoo, go to www.wildthingsinc.com, or call 800/228-7382.