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Thursday, February 20, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Saving animals becomes life's work for Oregon man

The Associated Press

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Wildlife Safari is three miles west of Interstate 5 in Winston, Ore. (Exit 119, 6 miles south of Roseburg). Open daily except Christmas, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.

Admission: Adults $14.50 ($11.50 for 60 and older), children 4-12 $8.50, 3 and younger free. Admission allows two drive-throughs in one day. No pets inside the park; free kennels available.

Primitive campground available March-October.

More information: 541-679-6761, Ext. 200, or www.wildlifesafari.org

Closer to home: For a drive-through game park in Western Washington, visit Olympic Game Farm at 1423 Ward Road, Sequim, on the Olympic Peninsula. Open daily 9 a.m.-3 p.m. 800-778-4295 or www.olygamefarm.com

WINSTON, ORE. — When Frank Hart opened Wildlife Safari 30 years ago, the 600-acre estate was enveloped by a swamp. The restaurant was just a hot dog stand, and the outdoor amphitheater didn't exist.

Now this home to about 80 species of animals, just off Interstate 5 in Southern Oregon, is a national tourist attraction, visited by about 5 million people since its inception.

It's become famous for the successful breeding of cheetahs, and its personnel continually strive to educate others about the value of wildlife. This metamorphosis makes Hart most proud.

"How lucky can I be?" said Hart.

A 79-year-old World War II Army veteran and California native, Hart said his obsession with Africa was inspired through reading books by Ernest Hemingway and John Gunther.

As soon as he could afford the journey, he packed his bags, said goodbye to his wife and four daughters and took some time off from his California real-estate firm to go on a safari in spring 1963.

Africans struggling for survival, Hart said, grabbed his attention. Devoid of education and a means to better themselves, they often resorted to selling the skins of zebras, lions and cheetahs to pay for food and shelter. This worried Hart, and he wanted to do something to stop it.

"By my third trip, I knew the animals were in trouble," he said. "The poaching was terrible. It came to a point where you'd be lucky to find these animals in the zoo."

Determined to save the beasts from extinction, Hart opted for a change in careers — a decision that came as a jolt to his spouse.

"This was a case of something very adventurous. It surprised me and it surprised him," said Barbara Hart, Frank's wife of 55 years.

Barbara said her husband was bored with his old job, and he became overwhelmed with a renewed sense of purpose.

"This was fun, something different and exciting. And of course we always considered it temporary," she said.

In the early 1970s, Frank Hart assembled a committee to research the feasibility of establishing an animal sanctuary in the Northwest — a place where exotic animals could roam and where tourists could watch them up close.

Ultimately, Winston was chosen because the price of the land was right and the conditions were ideal for the animals.

"Oregon looks so much like Africa," Hart said. "The mild weather, the snow, the mountains, it's very similar."

Wildlife Safari opened its doors in 1972, initially with about 30 species of animals.

Larry King, vice president of the safari, said some people doubted the park would last through its first year. At the time, few people visited the safari because the country was facing a gas shortage. Through Hart's perseverance and help from some area believers, though, the park not only survived, it grew.

Frank's wife said her husband succeeded in infecting those around him with his enthusiasm.

"He is very creative, and I think he inspires creativity in others," she said. "He's got a wonderful vision of things, and he's always had ethics."

Although about 80 species now occupy the park, the one that's always sustained Hart's fascination is the cheetah.

"They're beautiful, they're endangered, and for hundreds of years, nobody knew how to breed them," he said. "They're a totally fascinating animal, and they could easily disappear if people aren't careful."

These cats were the first animals to arrive at the safari, and its successful breeding program is largely responsible for Hart recently receiving the Significant Achievement Award from the Cheetah Conservation Fund.

To date, more than 130 cheetah cubs have been born at the safari.

"Cheetahs need space to wander a bit, and they can't be too familiar with one another," Hart said. "The females have to like the situation. I think we know how to breed cheetahs, but it takes a lot of time and money."

Hart served as president of the safari until the mid-1990s, and during that time, he converted it into a nonprofit organization. He brought new animals to the safari, and he made Winston his permanent home.

Hart also continued to travel abroad, sometimes to hunt. This pastime, however, is something in which he no longer participates.

"I'm not against it," he said. "Hunting is a necessary part of managing wildlife. I just don't do it anymore. I'm trying to save the ones we've got."

He's visited Africa nearly 50 times.

During one trip, he pitched his tent near a watering hole, only to be greeted by a herd of charging elephants. Luckily, he didn't get hurt.

These adventures, Hart said, are what he tried to emulate at Wildlife Safari, only in a more controlled and safe environment.

Every year, Hart said, experts from around the world are brought to the park to share their knowledge with others.

The park offers camping opportunities for visitors, and the people who work there are given the freedom to explore new ideas to improve the tourist attraction.

Seeing people on a quest for knowledge gives him a feeling of satisfaction, Hart said.

"The key to knowledge is to make it fun," he said.

"That's what we try to do, and people never seem to get enough."

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