Jim Fowler, famed naturalist, says Chehaw Park should send visitors through the animals’ natural habitat in safe, open vehicles, providing a closer, more meaningful experience. Fowler has been involved with the Albany attraction since the early 1970s.
ALBANY — Famed naturalist and TV personality Jim Fowler is becoming more comfortable with his “new knee,” he said Tuesday — all the easier to feed and enjoy the exotic animals on his Albany plantation.
“I still wrestle alligators once in a while,” Fowler joked, “but only the old ones.”
As Fowler and his assistant, Antonio, inserted lengths of bamboo to prop the torn and sagging top over his jeep, he talked about Chehaw Park, his involvement with the site, its history and future as a regional attraction.
“I’ve been involved with Chehaw since the 1970s,” Fowler said. “They used to run me up to Tift Park to help out where the zoo was then, and I was a big part of the planning for the animal park at Chehaw.”
Fowler said the days of “concrete zoos,” as a way to experience nature are coming to an end. In fact, according to Fowler, the roles of animals and people should be reversed — allowing wildlife a much greater range and shuttling tourists through their natural habitat. Not only would that approach be better and healthier for the animals, it would provide greater education and “adventure” for park visitors.”
“People love adventure,” Fowler said. “And we could give it to them right here at Chehaw. Visitors would safari through wild domain, in vehicles that are open and safe. People love comfort, too, and the rides would have overhead fans and padded seats. Safaris connect people with the natural world in a way not possible in the traditional way.”
According to Fowler, there is currently no zoo in the country in a community as small as Albany that is working with the safari concept. Fowler calls the idea “powerful,” and says that implementing it at Chehaw would draw visitors from all across the region.
“I’ve been talking with Chehaw for 20 years about doing something really interesting,” Fowler said. “And the safari concept is the best thing out there. “We’re in competition with everything else, especially the malls. Safaris can bring the people in and educate them too.”
Fowler, dressed in his trademark safari jacket, lead a tour last week of his numerous African antelope, free-range ostriches and carefree Zebra.
“Now what could be better than this,” Fowler asked, in the heart of his wild kingdom. “This is what Chehaw should be doing.”
It was up close and personal to be sure — actually a step above what Fowler said he wanted for the public as he stopped in the middle of the animals’ stomping ground. The Eland, world’s largest antelope, were beginning to mosey closer; the ostriches were there already, looking for a handout.
“Put you watch in your pocket if you have one,” Fowler said, “and I wouldn’t stray too far from the jeep. Ostriches can be a little feisty.”
The Eland were more laid back, staying mostly to one side of the vehicle, enjoying the feed that had been scattered for them. Just the same, Fowler kept his eyes out for the bulls. There not called wild for nothing.
The massive birds centered on Fowler — probably because of the open bag of feed he carried. It was clear that Ostriches have little sense of propriety when dinner time has come. Learned from years of doing, the naturalist fed four or five of the feathered giants — sometimes straight from his hand — keeping a sharp eye toward their intentions. Ostrich kicks are to be avoided.
“Did you see him raise his leg, there?” Fowler asked, pushed back against the jeep. He tossed the remainder of the bag inside.
Fowler said that while animal adventure is important in making the public aware, coupling experience with education is equally critical to do service to the wildlife on our planet, much of which is endangered.
“There’s a difference in information and education,” Fowler said. “Information is what you get in college lectures. Its knowing how hot the stove is. Education is sitting on the stove and saying ‘I’ll never do that again.’”
According to Fowler, interest in plants and animals serves a purpose more critical than a Sunday at the zoo. In fact, lives depend on it. “Environment” is a term gone almost out of use in the sense of changing things, he said. In its place are terms like “sustainable consumption” — how long or whether what we do as a species can continue.
“Corporate CEO’s understand ‘sustainable,’ ” Fowler said. “The term is to the point, and more of our corporations are coming forward with green measures these days.”
“Naturally,” there is an absolute limit to the sustainabilty of anything, and that limit comes head to head with human population. Fowler sees the problem correcting itself in the future.
“Population controls itself in one way or another,” Fowler said. “If something doesn’t happen first, I can see a solid outbreak of drug-resistant tuberculosis coming up. If not that, then something else.”
According to Fowler, there are a number of ways to increase public awareness of the natural world, while promoting Chehaw Park. One good way is to reestablish the birds of prey park, which Fowler developed, he said, and has “just been sitting there unused.” Lecture programs should be implemented as well, he said.
Fowler called Chehaw Park “an incredible asset to Albany,” which could draw visitors from all over the region.
“Albany should know what we have here,” Fowler said. “There isn’t a city this size in the country with something like Chehaw. It has diverse eco-systems, a first-rate animal park, and its a wonderful place for a picnic.”