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Wild times at Vision Quest Ranch

The service is elephantine (in a good way). Say hello to the animals.

March 22, 2009|Jay Jones

SALINAS, CALIF. — Even though he's 30 years old and has been delivering meals to guests for quite some time now, Butch still lacks the grace and manners you would expect at an upscale lodging establishment. As I looked on, he repeatedly dropped the canvas tote bag containing breakfast before managing to deliver it. Fortunately, there weren't any eggs in the hamper.

Yet no one ever complains about the sometimes sloppy service. Guests understand that Butch is preoccupied with getting food into his own belly. That's precisely why there's a bucket of apples waiting for him on the front porch of the guest bungalows.

"Just take the fruit and hand it out to him," says Christy Ingram, who's accompanying Butch on his morning rounds. "He'll grab it with his trunk and put it right in his mouth.

"Keep it coming, he's a big eater," she adds, stating the obvious.

Weighing in at 10,000 pounds, Butch, an African elephant, is indeed a big eater. The apples hand-fed to him by delighted visitors are mere morsels. Every day, he devours more than 200 pounds of food.

And, like a lot of California hotel help, Butch used to be in showbiz.

After years of giving rides at carnivals, Butch is now retired, except for the task of delivering breakfast to overnight guests at Vision Quest Ranch, an animal reserve surrounded by the Salinas Valley's seemingly endless fields of lettuce and other vegetables. Home to dozens of critters -- lions and tigers and bears, and more -- the ranch invites folks touring nearby Monterey to take a walk on the wild side. Visitors have a variety of options, including a short, guided tour and a one-on-one encounter with Butch or another beast.

"To us, it's just introducing people to our friends," says Charlie Sammut, who in 1983 began providing exotic animals for roles in movies, TV shows and commercials. The tours and the B&B business came later when Sammut found Hollywood producers turning to overseas locations, where animals -- and their trainers -- work for considerably less money.

"The bed-and-breakfast idea fell in line with my family's history of being in the hotel-motel business," Sammut says. His father, brother and sister have run hotels in Central California.

About six years ago, Sammut bought four canvas-sided bungalows -- like those used on safaris in Africa, where they were made -- and placed them well apart from one another on hillsides overlooking a basin in which several elephants reside. He named the cabins (Cat House and Giraffe Manor, for instance) and decorated them accordingly. There are the usual coffeemaker and TV, plus a VCR with a collection of wildlife films. The beds are surrounded by mosquito netting, just for effect.

Overnight guests are encouraged to arrive by midafternoon so they don't miss the daily "meet-and-greet" at 4 o'clock. That's when trainers bring various animals to the bungalows to visit.

During a visit last fall, head trainer Ingram introduced me to a lion cub named Lucas. At the time, he was 6 months old and weighed about 60 pounds. He's now pushing 100.

"He'll weigh upward of 500 when full-grown," Ingram says, adding that Lucas is gaining about 10 pounds a month, transforming the cuddly cub into a colossal cat.

Next, employee Aja Kase stops by, holding a 4-year-old baboon. Babs, I'm told, has made a couple of television appearances with Jay Leno.

"We really try to show people our relationship with our animals -- without suggesting that they make good pets," Sammut says.

Sammut doesn't deny that the animals are indeed captive, but he tries to squelch criticism from animal rights activists by pointing out the genuine bonds his longtime employees have forged with their four-legged friends. He says their frequent interaction with humans provides much-needed mental stimulation.

"Having the animals participate and work in the program is far healthier than what you might find in many zoos, where there is a certain stagnant mentality," he says. "The only thing they [zoo animals] have to look forward to is the hay pile every day."

His visitors tend to agree.

"I don't feel badly, like I'm exploiting animals," says Sarah Bishop, a visitor from nearby Carmel Valley.

"These animals look really well cared for. They seem happy. They're really responsive to people," Bishop says.

Sammut hopes all his visitors will leave with such impressions, whether they've come for a quick tour or for bed-and-breakfast -- with Butch as their butler.

"We want them to walk away remembering Butch not just as an elephant," he says. "We want them to see and learn the uniqueness of the individuals and that they are, in fact, individuals, and therefore deserving of anything any other individual would get."




If you go


The ranch, (800) 228-7382,, is just off California Highway 68 about 20 miles east of Monterey. Guided tours are offered at 1 p.m. daily except Thanksgiving and Christmas. Admission is $10 for adults and $8 for children. For bed-and-breakfast, the winter rate (through March 31) is $195, double occupancy. Children 12 and older are welcome Sundays through Thursdays.

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