In which my cousin graduates from college, and I get sprayed by a tiger…

So this past weekend was a bit exciting…and unusual. Jacob and I somehow managed to pack in Mother’s Day with both our moms, my cousin Jimi’s graduation from SEOSU, aaaaand a visit to an exotic animal park! That last part I didn’t really expect. Jacob has been practicing being spontaneous, and it shows!

My cousin’s graduation was in Durant, Oklahoma, which is approximately 2.5 hours from OKC. We drove down in really efficient time, and it was a good thing, because the place was packed. SEOSU is a small college, probably around 400-450ish graduates total, but we had to save seats for about 10 people, so I was fighting tooth and nail to scrounge somewhere to sit. But once we were seated, the ceremony morphed into your typical graduation, complete with crying babies, air horns, and a commencement program bulletin that we followed to the letter–this proved later to be our one source of entertainment, until the keynote speaker pulled something unbelievable–waiting impatiently for Jimi to walk the stage. As I thumbed through the bulletin, I laughed out loud at some of the names I found in its pages. Here are some highlights from the bulletin that I think you’ll enjoy as much as I did:

Rowdy L. Peacock, graduated with a BA in Theatre Acting/Directing. (We cheered so loud for this guy. The only theater major in the school!)

Jones J. Jones, graduated with a BS in Recreation. (What kind of classes do you take to pass this? Hammock Lounging 101? Advanced Chair Napping? And also, once you graduate, do you get paid to have fun?)

Paul J. Peepers, graduated with an MS in Occupational Safety and Health. (I think we can all rest assured knowing that Paul’s got his peepers focused on our health and safety!)

She’ Love, graduated with a BS in Elementary Education. (Do you think she’ll teach her students the art of spelling?)

But probably the highlight of this graduation ceremony was when the keynote speaker, Dr. Jerry Buchanan, launched into a lengthy discussion of how his son was one of the Navy Seals who helped take down…wait for it…Obama Bin Laden. OH YEAH. That happened. He said OBAMA BIN LADEN. He was silent for a good 3-4 seconds while everyone in the audience just sat there trying to decide if he’d really said it or not. But then his face got bright red, and his head fell to the podium. Then this ripple of laughter erupted across the gym, and everyone seemed to realize at once 1) Yes, he did say that. 2) If we didn’t all laugh at this faux pas, we might be targeted by the Secret Service later. 3) There was no way he was going to weasel his way out of having said that. He sort of just stuck his tongue out at himself and said something like, “It’s so tough to be this smart.” He eventually finished his speech, but everyone who graduated from SEOSU is going to remember their graduation day and say, “Yeah. Obama Bin Laden. I remember that.”

Anyway, Jimi graduated with a BA in History, and we celebrated with hot dogs at her house afterward. Here’s Jimi in her regalia:

Here is Jimi and her husband, Stephen, who will be graduating from SEOSU in a year and a half with a double major! He’s so smart. They’re moving to Virginia for the summer, where Stephen has an internship with NASA!

Finally, here are my cousins, Juan, Jimi, and RJ, doing what they do best.

So after we Jimi was sufficiently graduated, we made the long trek back to OKC. Being in a moving vehicle and having gotten up at 6:30, I fell asleep pretty much instantaneously, thinking that we were headed home. But when I was jolted awake by the car bumping on a pothole-filled road, I knew we were not headed home at all. I tried to pry my eyes open and figure out where we were, and Jacob announced that we were going to GW Exotic Animal Park. My mind was not processing this statement, and I didn’t really understand what was going on until we were in the parking lot.

For those of you who don’t know, GW Exotic Animal Park is in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, and it’s an animal sanctuary with a ton of tigers, ligers, lions, leopards, monkeys, parrots, bears, camels, the list goes on. They’re all rescued and rehabilitated animals from circuses, people who’ve bought them as pets, and other dangerous situations. The park is run on donations, and most of the animals are sponsored by people who have visited the park and want to help. The animals are extremely cool to see, and you get to have an interaction time with them at the end of the tour of the park.

I will admit, however, that this place is shady. The employees were all smoking during our tour–admittedly, we were outside, but seriously? They shouldn’t smoke near the animals. Also, our guides were definitely not professionally trained to work with animals. It was obvious they had been trained in some capacity to work with them, but there were only a select few employees who worked with the big cats and actually knew what they were doing. The rest of the workers were there to feed the animals and lead us around. There were anti-PETA stickers everywhere, which struck me as odd, but then I looked them up online and found out that they had been investigated by PETA in the beginning stages of building the park, back when they had some sleazy employees and bad business practices with the animals. They did not comply with USDA standards for breeding/caring for exotic animals, but they have been in compliance for a while now, and everything seems to be on the level. You  should look up the park for yourself before you go and make your own decision about your feelings regarding what constitutes an “animal sanctuary.” For me, these animals were all rescued and purchased from terrible situations, and now they have a good life in a park, and that seems like a good deal. Yeah, they could be doing better in terms of their employees and cleanliness of the park, but these animals wouldn’t survive in the wild, and they have a good place to stay now. PETA is a good organization, and I’m not saying they’re wrong about GW Exotic Animal Park, but their review is really harsh and unforgiving. Bottom line: the owner of the park has his heart in the right place. The animals seem happy, and that was good enough for me. Besides, where else are you going to play with a baby tiger?

But that’s all I have to say that’s bad. The cages are huge–the animals have plenty of room, and they get good treatment from the workers. They’re well fed and watered, and they all look really happy to be there. On our tour, we saw a baby gator rescued from Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, somewhere in the neighborhood of 35ish tigers/ligers/lions, an arctic white wolf, and some really beautiful leopards. We played with a wolf pack, which was really fun, because they’re essentially big dogs and just want to run around and chew on things. There was a camel named Cletus, who was trained to eat camel treats out of visitors’ mouths…no I did not do that. On the tour we learned that ligers (which are the product of a lion and a tiger) are born without growth-stopping genes and just keep growing until they die (which is about 20 years). We saw a four-year-old liger who already weighed about 900 pounds, and stood about 9 feet tall on his hind legs. It was crazy. During the tour of the tigers, Jacob and I passed by one of the many cages, and suddenly  I felt something wet on my shirt and hair. I looked over at Jacob, and he was looking down at his shirt too. I looked back, and everyone was laughing, and the tiger’s water dish was moving around. The guide said, “Oh, looks like he might have sprayed.” I, being totally naive, thought she meant he sprayed the water from his dish at us. (I guess I thought he was an elephant?) About 5 minutes later I realized that the tiger actually PEED on us. Low point.

But of course the highlight was the interaction time! We gathered around this little pen with benches, and the guides brought out different animals for us to pet. We started out with a 6-foot boa constrictor, which I got to wear around my neck. (Believe it or not, that is not the biggest snake I’ve ever had around my neck.) Then we moved on to the little bunnies, which were very sweet but scared. After the bunnies was a giant tortoise that weighed about 60 pounds. Then the coup de gras: tiger cub! The tiger cub was on a leash, and they let him roam around us while they talked about him. He was only 6 or so months old, and he was penned in with a baby bear, which we weren’t allowed to play with because he had something called “displaced anger.” I’m pretty sure I have that now and again and everyone’s allowed to play with me! But anyway, the baby tiger did this really adorable thing that the guides called “stinkyface.” Apparently tigers smell through their mouths, not their noses. They open up their mouths, take the scent in, and push the scent to the top of their mouths near the sinus cavity. There it is stored in their memory banks forever, and they never forget a scent. But what’s funny is that when they take in the scent like that, their faces scrunch up like they’re smelling something stinky…hence the stinkyface! It was really incredible to pet the tiger, play with him, and just watch him romp around and pounce on the poor tortoise, who wasn’t really bothering anybody.

The one final thing that you should know about the park is that you can’t take pictures if you do the two-hour interaction tour. Instead, they have a photographer who comes around and takes pictures of the animals for you and of you playing with the animals. After the tour, they sell you discs of the photos for $25. It’s honestly a better way to enjoy the animals because you’re not worried about the camera getting messed up or getting a good picture or whatever. You just focus on being there and experiencing everything. We were surprised that it cost $35 to get in, and so we didn’t really feel like paying for the pictures. Instead, I just snuck a couple when no one was looking:

This weekend? Exotic.

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3 thoughts on “In which my cousin graduates from college, and I get sprayed by a tiger…

  1. I feel conflicted about this kind of animal park in the same way I feel conflicted about the zoo. I know that it is ultimately good, and that without captive breeding programs some species would already be extinct, but I can’t help but feel sad for the animals having to live in cages. Even nice, clean cages. I hope the exotic animal park eventually raises enough money to hire professional zoologists to care for the animals.

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