Wilder Kingdom

A legendary animal showman says he's going to reinvent the zoo. Too bad his vision sounds a lot like the circus.

    Photo: Illustration by Kevin Hand

ASIDE FROM THE ODD tiger mauling, zoos are sleepy places. Jim Fowler, 78, the original reptile-wrestling action figure from Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, honorary president of the Explorers Club, and 150-time guest on The Tonight Show, hopes to change that. Next month, Fowler starts construction on a 1,200-acre animal park near San José, Costa Rica (with a similar one slated to break ground near Tallahassee, Florida, in early 2009) that turns the traditional zoo on its head. Instead of relying on glass-walled habitats to entertain visitors, Life in the Wild calls for amusement-park-style rides that let people interact with animals roaming free in giant, fenced pastures. Domestic safaris have been done before, but not with the Disney-style theatrics Fowler has in mind. "I learned this from Johnny Carson," he says. "People want unpredictability. You don't get that by putting a gorilla behind bars like it's the fifth century. You put the people behind bars." Above is a sneak peek at Fowler's vision for the zoo of the future.

1. PREDATOR EXERCISE TUNNEL
Big cats like cheetahs and lions will stay fit by chasing a lure pulled at speeds of up to 55 miles per hour through a 200-foot tunnel.

2. PREDATOR FEEDING TUNNEL
Visitors will be ushered into a doughnut-shaped steel cage, then animals like bears, leopards, and wolves will climb over it to be fed by a trainer in the center.

3. MOTORIZED VIEWING CAGES
Guests can drive their own battery-powered, caged golf carts into areas filled with smaller, free-roaming animals like foxes, emus, and bobcats. Feeding them approved treats is not only allowed but encouraged.

4. SAFARI EXPEDITION RIDE
Guide-driven Hummers, outfitted with cages, will ferry people into pastures and pull up beside jumbo creatures like rhinos and elephants.

5. CANOPY RIDE
Visitors, harnessed to a zipline, will race through the tree canopy, passing over different animal enclosures.

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