Everyone knows that a dog is a man’s best friend, but Charlie Sammut of Salinas stood that notion on its ear. For many years, his best friend was a lion. Yes, a lion. As in “King of the Jungle.” His name was Josef.
Sammut has always loved exotic pets. The son of hard-working Maltese immigrants who built and operated the Laurel Inn on North Main Street, he’s maintained a menagerie of uncommon creatures since boyhood. Boas, pythons, sharks, parrots, alligators and rats, in addition to more mainstream pets such as cats and horses, tried his parents’ patience. In fact, caring for animals was his first vocation choice: he studied Animal Health Technology at Hartnell College while working at a veterinary clinic.
However, his career path took a different arc. He adopted his first big cat while employed as an officer with the Seaside Police Department. “Sam was an older cougar,” Sammut recalls. “His owners didn’t want him and he was living in a garage. I made arrangements to adopt him.” That was the beginning of what would for Sammut become yet another career change.
Soon after Sam came along, Sammut adopted a lion cub, the one named Josef. “Josef was a very special cat,” he says, “very safe to be around. My kids could—and did—ride him.” The collection of animals grew, and Wild Things animal sanctuary was created as a way to educate the public about these precious creatures. One day, a friend who was an animal trainer for film and TV asked if Sammut and Josef would like to appear in a television commercial to be filmed in the Grand Canyon in Arizona.
“I was getting paid to play with my best friend in a warm sunny place,” Sammut says. He launched a new career as an animal wrangler for film and TV. Wild Things morphed into Wild Things Animal Rentals, Inc.
Several years of high-profile work alongside a Who’s Who of Hollywood ensued. “As much as I loved it, it was hard work,” says Sammut. “Working with animals as big as bears, lions, tigers and elephants is tough, physically. Plus, there’s a lot of travel involved. I wanted to be here with my family.” He decided to come home for good to the 51-acre spread he had purchased in 1995 to house and showcase his menagerie.
Nestled in the shadow of the Santa Lucia Mountains on River Road, the compound is home to 180 animals. Children of all ages stream in for upclose and personal viewings of these critters, ranging from the big cats to elephants, a hyena, porcupines, a kangaroo, ferrets, a capybara and camels, to name just a few.
Wild Things has now become the nonprofit Monterey Zoo. Foremost in Sammut’s mind is that the animals in his care are treated humanely and are provided with the best quality of life possible. “We eventually want all our animals out of small cages,” he states. The first step toward that goal was completed this year with the opening of a brand-new, open-air tiger enclosure for the zoo’s four tigers: females Moksha, Rajani and males Hobbs and Indy.
The tiger pen is impressive, a 12,000 square foot space surrounded by 16-foot-high chainlink fencing anchored by 4-foot footings. “It would take a month for a cat to dig out,” Sammut jokes. “We’d definitely notice that.” The pen contains what is quite possibly one of the world’s largest examples of cat climbing furniture, a 30-foot high structure with convenient, shady lazing spots high above the ground.
There’s also a big pond for the tigers to splash around in. “It’s bigger than we intended,” the owner chuckles. “I got carried away with the backhoe.” Next up in the planning is a similar, 16,000 square-foot enclosure for the lions.
Construction began in early October and it’s slated to be open in later 2015. But all this costs money. “A zoo would typically spend $4 to $5 million on a tiger enclosure like this,” Sammut says. “Because we did the work ourselves it came in at much less.” A local animal lover helped with funds for the tiger structure, but further improvements will need help from the local community. A crowdfunding campaign has been launched to help with that. Details are at www.gofundme.com/montereyzoo.
Charlie Sammut owes a big debt of gratitude to his best friend. “We wouldn’t be where we are today if it hadn’t been for Josef,” he says. “Before he passed away, I promised him that I would give the animals that are in my care the space they deserve.” Sammut has every intention of making good on that vow.
For more information or to make a donation, visit www.montereyzoo.com.