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animal valley

In addition to a scenic coastline, great food and wine, and amazing hiking, the opportunity to see wild animals up close is one of South Africa’s main draws. We did not visit the world-famous Kruger National Park on this trip, a day in Addo being our only real safari of the vacation. However, upon entering the Garden Route, we discovered that we were staying in an “animal valley” of sorts, which offered a different kind of wildlife experience from the game drives we’ve come to love over the course of almost four years on the African continent.

Within a relatively short stretch of coastal highway, we passed signs for at least a dozen animal “sanctuaries,” specializing in everything from reptiles to raptors. There were several different havens for big cats, all of which had purportedly been rescued and rehabilitated; two different elephant parks; a wolf sanctuary; several places dedicated to birds; and a reserve for rescued primates. Some of these places had exotic names that evoked the wilds whence their inhabitants came, while others – like Monkeyland, for example – were over-the-top in their tackiness.

We debated long and hard about visiting. On the one hand, these places sold themselves as animal havens where wild animals that had been trafficked, kept as pets, or otherwise abused could live out the rest of their lives in relative freedom and comfort. On the other hand, it was hard to escape the zoo-like impression created by some of these establishments. Ultimately, we decided to give a couple of the sanctuaries a try, if for no other reason than that we thought Munchkin would enjoy seeing the animals up close.

The first place we visited – Birds of Eden – was arguably the best. The owners cleverly took advantage of the quirks of local topography by erecting netting around a wooded valley to create the world’s largest free flight aviary. In so doing, they managed to achieve two mutually exclusive aims at once. On the one hand, none of the birds were in cages; they were free to nest where they wanted and to fly around the 2.3 hectares of indigenous forest that comprise the reserve. On the other hand, they also could not escape.

Walking along neatly laid out trails beneath the tree canopy, it was easy to forget that the entire forest was enclosed by wire mesh. Because most of the denizens inside Birds of Eden had been kept as pets, the forest was resplendent with the most vibrant avifauna imaginable. There were at least half a dozen different turaco species, dozens of colorful parrots and parakeets, and all manner of other wildly exotic birds. S especially enjoyed the visit because she was able to admire up close birds that are often difficult to see in their natural habitats.

Our next visit was to the aforementioned Monkeyland, which also was fairly enjoyable. It was a bit harder to imagine that these primates were thrilled with their habitat, but not impossible. This sanctuary boasted 12 hectares of indigenous forest and, as in Birds of Eden, the primates could wander around the forest unmolested. The only problem is that, unlike many of the birds in the first sanctuary, virtually none of the primates in this forest were even native to the continent, let alone the country where they now found themselves. Some of the smaller denizens, like the South American squirrel and capuchin monkeys, seemed happy enough, munching on fruit and frolicking in the grass. The Asian langur monkeys, on the other hand, were positively dripping with melancholy.

Our last stop was Jukani, one of the wild cat sanctuaries, and we realized that we had made a mistake in going there almost as soon as our tour began. Naturally, one can’t let big game predators mingle with tourists, so the zoo-like atmosphere was impossible to escape. Whereas with the monkeys one could at least imagine them being happy to live in a forest rather than a cage, however ill-adapted they may have been to their new habitat, no amount of self deception could obscure the fact that the Siberian tigers, among others, were absolutely miserable in the South African heat. The tour was to last an hour and a half and we were part of a larger group, so we enjoined our guide to radio for another guide, who took us through the maze of enclosures in about a third of the time – literally as fast as we could walk with Munchkin and Junebug.

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