Vision Quest Ranch B&B at the Monterey Zoo
Spend a few days with the family where you can feed and be fed by elephants!
We awoke in the darkness to the sudden fury of a rainstorm unleashed on our tent. Rain pelted furiously and a strong wind whipped around us as we snuggled deeper into our warm beds. Later, as the storm abated, the nearby roar of lions signaled the encroaching dawn. With the first rays of sunlight touching the tall, golden grass in our compound, we carried steaming cups of coffee to the overlook to watch the elephants getting their baths while the kids played tag with Fred—the friendly, neighborhood ostrich. Another morning on the Serengeti Plain? Hardly. We were guests of the very interactive and educational Vision Quest Ranch B&B at the Monterey Zoo, and this was another morning in Salinas, California.
Scenic Monterey County, California, has long been one of my favorite getaways. My husband and I have been coming here for years, but once we had kids, our go-to list of quaint B&Bs was replaced by hotels with available cribs and in-room microwaves for heating bottles. Monterey, we thought, was shelved until the kids were off to college.
Fast-forward a few years, and our now teen-aged children are perpetually travel-ready and eager for action. With our husbands safely armed with to-do lists and stocked refrigerators, my sister-in-law and I loaded the minivan with snacks, videos and our three daughters for a girls’ weekend road trip and headed up the California coast. We found a lot more than wine-tasting and art galleries when we were in the midst of an amazing family travel adventure.
There’s So Much To Do At The Monterey Zoo
The Vision Quest Ranch in Salinas, California’s Salinas Valley is perhaps best known as The Salad Bowl of the World—producing more than 80 percent of the world’s lettuce, and as the birthplace of writer John Steinbeck. Wild Things Animal Rental Inc. was launched in 1986 by former police officer, Charlie Summat, as the serendipitous offshoot of his love (and growing collection) of exotic creatures, and the demand of the movie and television industry for trained animals. Summat’s beloved companion, a lion named Josef (known for his roles in George of The Jungle, The Lion King, and many others) was key in Summat’s decision to include an educational component to the Monterey Zoological Society.
His 51-acre ranch is now home to more than 100 animals, and includes a Safari B&B, an equestrian center, and a boarding facility. In 2000, Summat opened Elephants of Africa Rescue Society, or EARS, dedicated to “supporting projects aimed at securing a safe habitat for wild African animals, and dedicated to providing a sanctuary for their captive cousins with a special focus on elephants.” Five African elephants now call Salinas and Vision Quest home: Butch, who stands 10-feet tall at the shoulders, and is buddies with zebra Jasmine, the inseparable BFFs Paula and Kristi, Buffy and little Malika, who suffers from food allergies which have left her quite petite in comparison.
We arrived at Vision Quest just in time to take part in the 1 p.m. tour. Zoologist and trainer Kelly Fergusen started off by showing us a short video on the history of Vision Quest Ranch, and the animals that are a part of it. We then set off on a guided tour of the grounds, pausing at each enclosure where Fergusen told us the animal’s name, how it came to be at Vision Quest, and information about the breed. For example, Peanut, a small black bear, joined the Vision Quest family after it had been discovered in the backyard of a home in Sacramento. Severely emaciated and unable to survive in the wild, a call to Vision Quest resulted in a new home for Peanut—who got her name from a fondness for the peanut butter sandwiches she ate on the ride to her new digs. Olympic black bears are native to the Pacific Northwest and Northern California, and despite their name, are not necessarily black. Peanut, for example, has a deep, rich chocolate coat, with honey-blonde highlights at her shoulders, befitting the California girl.
The kids, Sydney, Libby and Schuyler, animal lovers all, have sadly been restricted by their parents to the more common domestic pets (think dogs, cats and small fish). This was heaven. It was the closest they’d ever been to wild animals—far closer than they’d ever been in a zoo, and could discern the fine details unique to each animal. For example, Ed the hyena showed us the bi-directional growth pattern of his fur, which gives him an advantage in running both forward and backward with speed. Fergusen took time to answer each of our questions and we learned far more than we ever had in many trips to zoos throughout California. No small plaques to squint over or large groups of people jockeying for a glimpse of the Bengal tiger hiding behind the shrubbery. At Vision Quest, Bengal brothers Indy and Hobbs eagerly trotted over to Fergusen, rubbing their heads up against her hands as she gave them a scratch behind the ears. The kids were enthralled.
Our Safari Accommodations
Once the tour was concluded, we registered for our overnight stay, received our “room” key, and made our way over to the gated compound where we would spend the night. The kids quickly surveyed the amenities in our two-bed tented bungalow, declared them much better than any tent they had ever slept in, and promptly ran outside to survey the surroundings.
The trainers regularly take the animals out for walks, and when guests are present, visit and tell us about them. Head trainer Kristy Ingram came first with Doc, a binterong, or Asian bearcat. Six-month-old Doc is a member of the civet family, a rodent-eating carnivore that lives in rainforest trees, hanging from his muscular prehensile tail. Fergusen came next with Gabby, a baboon baby that had been abandoned by its mother in a Reno zoo. Gabby goes home with Fergusen every night, and sleeps in a crate at the foot of her bed, to keep her out of mischief. (Fergusen, like many of the other Vision Quest trainers, lives on the premises.) At 4:30 p.m. we made our way down to the heavily gated animal enclosure, where we would begin the night’s festivities by feeding the big cats. A light rain began to fall, gradually becoming heavier, but the inclement weather was quickly forgotten as we got down to business.
Time To Help With The Feeding
The big cats are fed Nebraska—not the state, but a specially prepared mix of horse and cow meat. Kristy Ingram placed a small amount of Nebraska on the cement in front of the cage, and the participants pushed it underneath using a large metal rod shaped like the letter L. She also gave each cat special treats of chicken necks as she explained their native hunting and feeding methods. Now this was excitement! The kids repeatedly lined up for their turns at the push rod, lighting their smiles and laughter on a cloudy day. We witnessed firsthand how the hunting styles of each cat influenced its feeding habits. Jacob, the male lion, was impressive in his aggressiveness. He lunged at his food, clawing at the cage and growled at anyone who looked at him. In vivid contrast, Indy, the Bengal, waited patiently, carefully eating his food and neatly licking up any scraps. He gently took his chicken neck treats from the hands of the trainer as gracefully as any house cat. Ingram explained that since lions lived in prides, fighting for their food was ingrained behavior. Catching it was just the beginning—they have to fight off the other pride members in order to eat their fill before the others got their share. In contrast, tigers live a life of solitude. Once they bring down their prey, they are able to eat it more or less at leisure.
The grounds surrounding the animal enclosures are surprisingly immaculate and well-maintained, and the requisite, um, animal smells were minimal. I’ve never seen a zoo or animal park this neat and well-cared for. We were escorted on our feeding rounds by Gracie, a Maine Coon cat of the domestic feline variety (and the only cat there actually born in the wild). She was amazingly nonplussed by her much-larger-sized brethren (and they with her), and quite at home with us strangers.
Feeding and Putting The Elephants To Bed
It was time to put the elephants to bed. We stepped gratefully into the large, heated elephant barn and shook off the wet, while the trainers began to bring them in. There are three elephant barns (Malika, due to her food allergies, is necessarily separated from the others). Butch came in first. His enormous size is awe-inspiring up close, though we were told he wasn’t particularly large for a male. Best friends Kristi and Paula came in next. Suddenly Paula began trumpeting and stamping, swinging her head from side to side. Kristi looked over anxiously to see what the problem was while the trainers worked to calm the animals. Apparently Gracie had slipped into the barn with us, a slight movement which Paula caught out of the corner of her eye. Elephants are not afraid of cats (nor of mice, as it turns out), but due to their bulk, their ability to whip their heads around to check out small sounds or motions is limited, so they are quick to warn their fellows. Better safe than sorry. The enormous sound and vibration of trumpeting elephants in an enclosed space is simply indescribable. Another treasure.
Each stall was filled with a measured amount of hay, and once each elephant was in its stall—trunks raised and foot lifted—they were given a bowl of elephant kibble. Butch and Kristi immediately dumped their bowls out on the floor and began eating. Paula, the grande dame at 45, preferred to eat delicately out of her bowl, only dumping out the contents as it got low. Even then she carefully gathered the kibble into a small pile with her trunk before she resumed eating.
Being Served Breakfast By An Elephant
After dinner, a hot shower and heated beds were all we needed to weather the dark and stormy night. The bungalow’s bathroom was thankfully large enough to hang our wet clothes, and the space heater kept us comfortably warm. The kids slept soundly through the night, but unfortunately for us grown-ups, were up by 6 a.m., letting in a blast of chill air and eye-watering sunshine. Their excitement was palpable as we readied for our breakfast, delivered by none other than Butch himself. Butch had already had his morning bath when he started lumbering up the path toward our “tent.” His trainer walked beside him with a cart containing our own breakfasts. To the kids’ delight, Butch was still warm and damp as we petted him. We marveled at his long eyelashes (at least 6 inches!), and fed him a few more apples and carrot sticks before it was time for him to move on to the next tent and its overnight guests. Sadly, it was time for us to move on as well. With a final farewell from Fred, who escorted us back out of the compound, we left with promises to return soon.
Vision Quest Ranch is open to all ages, though kids must be older than four to stay overnight—with good reason. There is simply too much for them to get into unless they themselves are on a leash. But it’s perfect for school-age children (elementary through high school) who can appreciate the animals and welcome the learning experience. As part of its educational mission, Vision Quest Ranch holds community outreach programs as well as seasonal animal shows to raise funds. They even hold summer camps (would that we lived closer)! Kelly Fergusen left us with a reminder of the importance of education: “When a child SEES an animal, it makes all the difference. It’s not just a lion or a tiger at that point. It’s THAT lion or THAT tiger. In fact, our Wild Things motto is ‘We will conserve only what we love; we will love only what we understand; and we will understand only what we have been taught.’” Vision Quest delivers on all points.