In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Gary Pettit rolled toward New Orleans with one pressing concern on his mind. The cats.
The hurricane had made landfall weeks prior, but New Orleans remained devastated with access restrictions in place. Extinguished city lights plunged the once-bright metropolis into eerie darkness.
Pettit knew it would be difficult getting in and out of the city. But he had to evacuate the big cats from the Freeport-McMoRan Audubon Species Survival Center.
He stopped at a blockade on the outskirts of town. “Where’s your permit?” a police officer asked in a heavy Brooklyn accent.
Pettit knew it would take months to get a permit. The cats didn’t have a month.
After a whole lot of convincing, the cop acquiesced, “Go ahead. Get out of my sight.”
The Nebraskan convoy to rescue African cats trudged onward. Pettit led with a heavy-duty animal transport vehicle following. They relied on GPS as the storm had wiped out street signs. They drove past a sign warning, “We shoot looters,” boats on the interstate, and destroyed buildings.
Finally, Pettit and his crew of two other men arrived at the Audubon Center. With forecasts of another storm on the horizon, they needed to act quickly. He sedated the African wildcats and lions, performed physicals, and crated them.
Loaded down with exotic wildlife, their vehicles departed the decimated city at a snail’s pace. Meanwhile, caravans of military and emergency vehicles barreled past.
“I never got flipped off more,” Pettit recalls with a laugh.
In the end, it paid off. The lions had a new home at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, while the wildcats roamed at the Wildlife Safari Park in Ashland.
“Working with animals is always an adventure,” says Pettit, superintendent of the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari (located in Ashland). He has overseen the 440-acre enclosure since it first opened in 1998.
Pettit, 53, landed his first job at the Omaha Zoo right out of college in 1988. He earned his bachelor’s degree in wildlife biology, but his plan of becoming a game warden with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service changed after applying at the zoo. He found his passion. Pettit even fell in love on the job, meeting his now-wife, Linda. (She still works at the zoo, too, as supervisor of the dietary kitchen for feeding animals.)
Pettit worked as a keeper specializing in birds, cats, ferrets, and bears. He learned animals can be unpredictable. How do keepers have the courage to work with lions who weigh between 265 and 420 pounds?
“We don’t,” Pettit says, chuckling.
It is always wise to keep a close eye out for any giraffes who might be in the mood to play a little joke, he adds. Pettit has firsthand knowledge of this after one snuck up behind him to kick him into a pool of water while he was giving a talk in front of hundreds of people.
Ten years later, the zoo planned to open the Ashland conservation and safari park. Pettit jumped at the chance to be involved since he understood land management from his previous work with the Nebraska Forest Service.
The park formed under his rough callused hands—with help from a small crew of colleagues, “his rocks.” Pettit built roads, cut down trees, and bulldozed. He continued working part-time with the bird crew at the zoo until he earned a permanent spot as the safari park’s superintendent.
At first, the Ashland acreage was not meant to be open to the public. It was for research, conservation, and breeding—a quiet spot with little human contact, conducive for resident animals trying to get busy.
The scene might be familiar to human users of dating apps like Tinder. A male will walk down “lover’s lane” to meet a female, Pettit says. She gets to decide to swipe right (by purring or rolling on her back) or left (with defensive body language). This way, cheetahs have a lot of options in the dating pool. Plus, it doesn’t waste an entire year of breeding season. The formula has proven successful, with the rural Nebraskan park producing 90 percent of the cheetahs in North America. Construction has already started for on-site tiger breeding, which should be finished by the end of 2018.
Another portion of the safari park off-limits to the general public is reserved for veterinary care for raptors. No, not the dinosaur variety—hawks, owls, and bald eagles.
Most of the animals are trained to walk next to the fence into a tube so it is easier to administer shots—which is much easier on them than knocking them out.
The safari park’s conservation mission is part retirement home as well. Two female cheetahs hang out together in one cage. Tearmark, the oldest cheetah in North America at 17, paces the floor (a mixture of compost so it is easier on the joints). She flashes her teeth and shows off her tawny, black-spotted coat. Her companion, 13-year-old Sukari, observes with her amber eyes from the shadows during a hot summer day.
Slumbering in another part of the park is a 500-pound black bear named Starsky. He grew up on garbage and was confiscated from a private individual who had him illegally in eastern Nebraska. Because of illness, he is blind.
After opening, half of the park transformed into a North American drive-thru where people could see wolves, bears, and bison roaming the tall grasses of the prairie.
It became apparent the zoo would need someone at the growing park 24/7. Pettit would get calls in the middle of the night to check out an “elk” hit by the side of the road, only to learn it was a deer. Or someone needed to bottle-feed the babies.
So, Pettit built his house right in the safari park with support from his wife. Their three kids grew up playing ball in the parking lot. Pettit drinks his morning coffee while watching wild elk at sunrise. His “backyard” is full of critters.
“I don’t have a typical day,” Pettit explains.
Pettit builds fences or assists his employees with the animals. During a drive around the park, he waves to visitors. When Pettit stops to chat, he shares stories about the animals as if they were members of his family. After all, they are.
White pelicans (who love to block traffic) are a recurring nemesis for the keepers of the safari park. As soon as the flock hears the four-wheeler coming, they waddle over to the side. Pettit then points out some freeloading geese who stopped by to enjoy the wetlands.
He has to watch for animals who try to sneak into the park. Amorous bachelor elk traveling down the Platte River Valley are not welcome rivals for the resident males. Neither are unexpected human visitors.
At night, along with his trusty terrier sidekick, Cooper, Pettit rides his four-wheeler to ensure everything is running smoothly.
On such a frosty winter morning years ago, Pettit took his spotlight out to check out the animals. He could hear someone faintly calling out from a remote part of the park. Pettit flashed the light on a man who was hanging upside down, pants down, with no shoes on. The man, obviously on drugs, told Pettit he had been sleeping with the ostriches. Although it keeps him on his toes, Pettit wouldn’t change his “ranch-style” life.
“This fits me. The wide open space, sharing it with my family, it’s a wonderful place,” Pettit says.
After a long day out in his wild office, Pettit loves to sit around the fire pit with his wife at night. Wolves howl, cranes call, and elks bugle in the distance. Cooper paces back and forth. He barks back, reminding them all who the real superintendent of the park is.
Visit wildlifesafaripark.com for more information.
This article was printed in the November/December 2018 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.