Thanks to reality TV and the public's insatiable appetite for watching people who are just barely famous embarrass themselves in public, D-list celebrities have become a staple of American culture. They're lucky enough to be able to sell nearly anything they do - straight-to-TV movies, product endorsements, sex tapes - to the adoring, or at least morbidly curious, masses. But what about their animal counterparts? Has anyone been keeping tabs on Tank, the rhino with the domineering stage presence in the Blue Cross/Blue Shield commercials?
In September, a local news station in South Carolina ran a piece on Hollywild Animal Park, a family-run nonprofit that houses aging and retired celebrity nonhuman animals. The park is currently under investigation by the US Department of Agriculture, which cited it for 15 violations back in February. According to the Greenville News, visiting inspectors found "rotten carcasses, animals held in unsafe enclosures, a repeated lack of veterinary care, and other violations".
The park's executive director and owner David Meeks told the paper, "We probably had the most deficiencies we've ever had". After that wake-up call, these caretakers of the stars managed to clean up their act; they had no violations from April until June. During their most recent inspection in July, however, they received four citations for accessorising a capuchin monkey with a chain belt.
"Animal Parks are a work in progress. Hollywild continues to grow and develop better habitats for the animals and better educational opportunities for the public," Meeks declares on the Hollywild website. The park boasts a collection of "over 500 animals from around the world," a large community to monitor and maintain to be sure - but how much "development" does it take to avoid having animal corpses stinking in the sun?
Recently I paid a little visit to the star-studded park to see how they treating the celebs on the animal world, and if they had improved their level of care.
The parking lot was a cleared acre of red clay, an inauspicious start to a star-studded tour. I paid $12 and looked for the distinguished members of the marginally famous community, all clearly marked by Hollywild plaques that mimic the star tiles on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
Past an empty zebra enclosure, two camels hung out in front of a mural depicting Native American life on the prairie. An electric fence prevented the stars from getting too close to the common people. "Wow no plaque. Must not have done anything too cool," a passing tourist remarked. She was right.
The park encourages a high level of human-animal interaction. Twenty-five-cent vending machines filled with corn kernels were everywhere. This is the stuff people were feeding to the park's bears, gorillas, tigers, and seemingly endless supply of goats. This didn't make for charming scenes when I was there: I saw a kid who must have been around seven screaming, "Eat up stupid!" as he flung a handful of edible shrapnel at an eager-looking deer he called "Rudolph."
"Someone should get that kid outta here," a woman said aloud to no one. She then asked me to turn the vending machine lever for her on account of her "bum hand".
No one really knew which animals they were feeding, either. Some enclosures were mislabeled and some had no plaque at all. A gorilla was referred to as a Hamadryas baboon and a Siberian tiger was napping in what was apparently supposed to be a lion's den.
A safari ride was included with admission, so I assumed my place in line and waited for my turn. A couple park-goers forked over $6 for a plastic shopping bag filled with old hamburger buns and stale slices of Wonderbread that would be used to feed the exotic animals we were about to encounter.
Our ride finally pulled up - a rusted school bus with a cracked windshield - and we got in. The safari guide opened two fences and we made our way into the daring landscape: a cow pasture, where domesticated creatures of the wild approached to beg for dumpster bread.
We soon left those beggars and approached a shanty that supposedly houses Tank, the one-great rhinoceros heir to Blue Cross/Blue Shield fame, but he was nowhere to be seen.
As we made our way back to the gates, an emu managed to slip right past our guide and out through the gate. "Eh, animals escape sometimes," he said.
So, obviously, Hollywild is not a great place for either animal performers or the tourists who want to burn a few hours contemplating the cruel, arbitrary nature of fame and life itself. I don't know if having the chimpanzee from the Banker's Trust commercials begging me for freeze-dried handouts is a violation of any law or regulation; all I can tell you is that it doesn't feel good to watch.
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