Willem Lange: On Safari in the Not-So-Wild Reaches of Quebec

East Montpelier

Mother had been teasing me for years to take her to Parc Safari up in Quebec, not far from Montreal. She has a thing for interacting with God’s creatures, and fancies herself an all-species whisperer. When she sees the wild turkeys in the back yard, she walks out onto the back porch with my turkey call and scrapes it at them. Then she can’t figure out why they disappear as fast as they can into the woods.

Animal Planet is her very early-morning channel of choice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve awakened in the twilight to the sound of wildebeests, leopards or rhinoceroses making love. She’s particularly taken with the characters on television who diagnose and treat emotional problems in mammals. Victoria the Dog Psychotherapist (who also treats the dog owners) is one of her favorites. And she adores the characters who’ve set up havens for troops of orphaned or abused chimpanzees (nasty brutes all) and orangutans (ugly, but sweet-hearted). If she had the sky miles, she swears, she’d travel to Borneo to cuddle baby orangs. And what I call the exploitation of misery for entertainment — video tales of rescues by shelter staff and control officers of horribly mistreated and dying animals — she finds as inspiring as a good sermon.

In Patagonia, she spotted a gray fox lying at the edge of a parking lot under a sign that translated, “Don’t feed or mess with the animals.” The fox looked friendly — or at least too tired to do anything aggressive — so she approached it, bending down and making her universal animal call, a sort of chirping. I photographed her just before the fox turned its head toward her and pointedly bared its teeth. She retreated swiftly, amazed at its lack of appreciation.

When we traveled each year to the Canadian Ski Marathon, she took a plastic bag of carrots and celery. While I was chugging my 50 miles up the Ottawa Valley each day, she drove to nearby Parc Omega, open year-round, to drive through and feed the animals. One of her favorite photographs is of our sweet old dog, Tucker, holding onto one end of a carrot, with an American elk, his head in through the window, chomping on the other. But an over-enthusiastic bison bumped hard against her van one day, and scared both her and Tucker into a hasty retreat.

Parc Safari is near Hemmingford, Quebec, only about two hours from here, according to MapQuest. So its siren advertising songs appear occasionally on our local channels. Mother knows that zoos and animal parks are not my thing, so it’s been only in the runup to our annual sentimental month (her birthday and our anniversary) that she’s begun to apply the pressure. This summer I finally gave in and said, yes, we’d go during October sometime.

But the fall got really busy, and the chance to go finally came down to the last days the park would be open, the weekend of our Columbus Day, and Canada’s Thanksgiving Day. I was not at all graceful in agreeing to go, so the trip was edgy from the start. Sunday morning we skipped church and hit the road north.

Canadian Customs asked us only questions whose answers they already knew, and made no inquiries about our destination or firearms. But I’d been careless in reading the travel directions, and crossed at the wrong spot. Within minutes we were stuck circling through a confusing welter of detours and closed roads. But finally, by chance or providence, we came across a family with perfect English (if you call a Long Island accent perfect) who pointed us in the right direction.

The entrance looks like the toll booths on Route 93 between Concord and Manchester. From there we followed a crowd of vehicles toward a narrow entrance to the park proper. Young ladies were selling boxes of animal kibble; we got one, and entered the main enclosure on a blacktop road just wide enough for two vehicles.

I don’t know exactly how Mother felt about the next two hours. Holding animal kibble in her hand out the window, she found that bison drool a lot when they lip up food, and ostriches peck like a trip hammer when they snap it up. I found that the Prius was ideal for this sort of thing: moving bumper-to-bumper at much slower than walking speed through an ersatz veld and ponds created by a very large bulldozer. The vans had both side doors and sun roofs open so kids could easily feed whatever stuck its head in (yaks) or down (camels). During the long halts caused by kids in cars ahead feeding elk or Highland cattle, the engine just shut off. So did I.

My old bias kicked in, the one that suspects wild animals don’t mind being left alone in the wild, in spite of its natural hazards, and can’t help but notice how grubby they get when they’re living in enclosed spaces, no matter how apparently spacious. But I kept my mouth shut; and about the third time the safari keepers drove the watusi herd down the road between the vehicles for treats, I could sense my bride was feeling the same. The animals were begging for treats; it wasn’t very pretty.

We got away at last and headed south on a lovely Sunday afternoon, on the right road this time. There was a jam at the border crossing, but we progressed at length to a very pleasant border guard. “Where ya been?” he asked cheerfully. Parc Safari, I told him.

“How was it?” Once in a lifetime experience, I told him, with some irony. He grinned.

Then from the passenger seat came affirmation: “Once in a lifetime!” she said.

Willem Lange’s column appears here on Wednesdays. He can be reached at will.lange@comcast.net.