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THE BEST...THE BEAUTIFUL...AND THE BIZARRE | NOCTURNAL
NOSHING | SO SOCAL

Guess Who's Coming To Dinner?

July 12, 1998|Darrell Satzman

"Hmph . . . Brroooooooar!" comes a low-pitched symphony from just beyond the trees.

"They are in cages, right?" a man asks, only half joking.

Stepping off a shuttle van, he is one of 50 or so Wildlife Waystation guests greeted by the cacophonous bellowing of what must be dozens of cats. Really big cats.

"Don't worry, they're just saying, 'I'm over here. This is my territory,' " says Waystation founder and director Martine Colette. "It's an after-dinner conversation. Sort of like our social hour."

The Waystation's "sunset" and "starlight" safaris, $50 summertime fund-raising tours, are the only way to visit the internationally acclaimed animal refuge during evening hours, when the air is cool and the nocturnal creatures are stirring.

Located in the Angeles National Forest five miles northeast of Lake View Terrace, the 160-acre ranch offers sanctuary for wild and exotic species: nearly 1,200 animals--many of them sick, abandoned or abused--range from black bears to boa constrictors, caymans to cockatoos. As for those kitty cats, the Waystation shelters jaguars, leopards, bobcats, cougars, tigers and, remarkably, more than 50 African lions.

The two-hour tour begins with a box dinner--marinated chicken breast and wild rice (a vegetarian meal is also available)--that we nibble while Waystation handlers introduce residents Drifter, a young Siberian tiger declawed by his previous owner, and Temejuin, a one-eyed golden eagle.

Soon our group is summoned. With the light softening over the San Gabriel Mountains, we wander through the tree-lined canyon with Dave Welling, a Waystation board member. Two volunteer "backups" accompany us, Welling says, "to make sure I come back with the same amount of people I left with." Our first stop is a set of enclosures housing not only lions and tigers but ligers as well--a result of some bizarre crossbreeding between the two species. Along the way, we meet dozens of creatures, most of them alert and many as curious about us as we are about them, including Tiger, a South American ocelot; Aleka, a spotted leopard; black bears Yogi and Boo Boo; and Conan, a showbiz lion that Welling confesses "didn't take too well to direction." He is quick to describe the numerous tales of human folly that keep the Waystation's cages full.

"This is not Disneyland with fur, these are real animals," Welling says. "By allowing people to get up close and personal with these animals, we try to get them to think."

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For reservations to the next Wildlife Waystation dinner, call (800) 540-2373.

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