Weaving his way past the trunks, tusks, and the very big toes of his elephant herd, Charlie Sammut looks right at home.
He is. The elephants — Butch, Mailika, Buffy, Paula, and Kristi — belong to his menagerie at Wild Things, a ranch in Salinas where he has rescued, raised, and trained exotic animals for the entertainment industry for 27 years at 400 River Road.
Next year, Sammut plans to open his 51-acre property to the public as a zoo.
Although daily tours and educational programs already run year-round at the ranch, the venue change is the best way to support the animals, Sammut said.
During the past five to six years the demand for trained exotics animal appearances has nose-dived, said Sammut. Without their jobs, the animals need another support system.
It isn't just financial support these animals need. They're used to being active and handled outside their cages, said Sammut. Without entertainment work, the animals don't get out as much, he said, and aren't as active.
The new zoo will give the animals more enclosed space to be active. Sammut pointed to a line of palm trees that will line a mini-jungle for the tigers. Once the big cats move, their cage space can be enlarged and enriched for smaller animals like the baboons.
It's all about relationships, for Sammut. Every species speaks a different language, he said.
Exotic eyes watch Sammut when he walks past. Ed, an orphaned hyena from Tanzania, stands on his powerful hind legs, posing for a chest good scratch.
His biggest thrill is when visitors walk away talking about Butch, instead of "the big elephant." If people don't know the animals' names, it means they "never got the gist" of who these animals are, said Sammut.
The exotics in his zoo aren't just examples of unusual animals. They're animals Sammut has trained, spent time with, and gotten to know. He wants people to get to know them, too.
The more personalized zoo approach will give people a relationship with wild animals, said Sammut. It's where they can get their "fix" for exotics, he said.
But, not all relationships work out, said Sammut. He points toward Lucas the lion. The big, maned cat made it clear that training him was too dangerous to continue, he said.
"How do you decide where what you offer them ends?" asked Sammut.
Unlike other zoos, Sammut intends to continue to train and work with the animals in a free contact environment, where the trainers touch the animals, as if they're still invited to participate and entertain. But he emphasized that only trained employees will handle the animals.
Although he got his start in exotics by adopting an abandoned cougar, and then bought a lion and a tiger through mail order, Sammut is now "adamantly opposed" to private ownership of wild animals.
Most people don't understand the hard work involved in caring for these animals, said Sammut. It's 24/7, and he's happy to get volunteers involved in the day-to-day tasks of running the ranch. Many people find the idea of an exotic animal career loses a little magic after long days of bathing elephants.
"Zoos are a captive form of insurance policy for the entire species. It was ignorant for us to lose the carrier pigeon," he said.
Sammut's Monterey Zoo would be similar in size to smaller zoos in Santa Barbara, San Jose and Atascadero. While these more traditional zoos may not agree with his relationship-based style, most support saving species diversity. The directors of these zoos could not be reached for comment.
One thing all zoos share is a concern for safety. It's one of his major concerns, said Sammut. The animal enclosures will be two feet higher than regulations require, he said. All the critters will be "locked down" every night, for the safety of man and beast. He doesn't want the headlines the San Francisco Zoo got when a tiger jumped out of its enclosure and mauled three men, killing one.
"We have the animals, the land and the permits. Now we need the community to embrace the idea of a zoo, here, " said Sammut.
Visitor fees cover the basic room-and-board costs for the animals. But Sammut needs sponsors to help finance the big exhibit spaces.
He looks toward a new enclosure waiting for water and the rehabilitated pelican that's coming soon.
"I've always wanted to learn pelican," said Sammut.
Elizabeth Devitt can be reached at ldevitt@montereyherald or 648-1188