The Maplewood attraction lets you meet animals you’ve never seen up close (and maybe even heard of)

Sustainable Safari is the place to go if you want to smell an anteater. Or stroke the fluffy fur on a baby kangaroo’s head. Or be overrun by parakeets. Or wrap a boa constrictor around your neck and feel the snake tighten its grip slightly, as 16-year-old Wyatt Love of Farmington did on a recent visit.

“You can feel the muscles moving, it’s a weird feeling,” he said happily as the snake twisted around his throat.

To Sustainable Safari, at Maplewood Mall, you can interact with over 25 species of exotic animals, including a few you may never have heard of and probably never seen up close. At the Safari, you can observe them from a few centimeters away, touch them, feed them and hold them in your arms. (For some holding experiences, there is a surcharge on top of admission of $14.50.)

There are kangaroos – on a recent day two baby feet popped out of the pouch of a lying kangaroo mom. The porcupines have spread their decorative black and white striped quills to reveal what’s underneath – the most menacing black quills that can pierce flesh. Visitors carried seed-covered wooden sticks into the aviary and suddenly found themselves extremely popular with dozens of brilliantly hued parakeets.

There were goats, foxes, deer, alligators, prairie dogs, marmosets and cute (yes, cute!) little armadillos. There were less familiar species such as the coatimundi, the greater grison, the kinkajou, the binturong and the capybara — the largest rodent in the world.

A slender anteater, slightly out of its cage, deliberately crossed the floor, seemingly intent on inspecting a chair.

“We let them run around a lot,” said Melissa Gallup, the Safari employee responsible for monitoring the animals’ health. “I love anteaters. I also love their smell.” (The latter is a minority opinion).

All the animals have names, many of which involve whimper-worthy puns: the boa constrictor is Rocky Balboa, a porcupine is Don Prickles, a kangaroo is Marilyn Monroo.

The experience is meant to be fun, sure, but it also has a serious purpose. The hope is that after bonding with the animals in the Safari, visitors will leave wanting to help protect their counterparts in the wild.

Non-boring animals

Bob Pilz, founder and owner of Safari, never liked pets like dogs, cats or goldfish.

“It’s too normal – one dog is boring,” Pilz said, although he now has three and finds them “adorable”.

As a child growing up in White Bear Lake, he would bring quails and geese into the house, telling his mother they were for a school project. He grew up and became a firefighter, living at the White Bear Lake station where he kept a pot-bellied pig hidden in the basement. When his bosses discovered the existence of the resident pig, they gave Pilz a choice between his job and the pig. He left the fire department.

In 1998, Pilz and his wife moved to a 10-acre hobby farm in Scandia and quickly filled it with farm animals – chickens, ducks, a donkey. His wife, Mishelle, came home one day and discovered that Pilz had acquired goats. She was okay with that.

“He’s got a really great wife,” Dave Harvey, president and CEO of Safari, said with a smile.

Pilz’s animal collection became more exotic in the early 2000s, when someone brought camels to town over the holidays to appear in an event. While in Minnesota, the camels had a baby. Pilz gave the camel a home.

He gradually started collecting wildlife, trying to avoid anything Minnesota native. For a time he showed them at county fairs and city festivals. But the business was seasonal, and bad weather was a frequent inconvenience. Pilz decided to try setting up an exhibition in a warm, dry shopping mall that was open all year round. In December 2019, Maplewood Mall, struggling like many malls these days, welcomed Sustainable Safari.

Pilz has rules: he has never had anything dangerous, like lions, tigers or bears. He acquires all of his young animals from USDA approved facilities. They grow comfortable with people.

None were captured from the wild – a dangerous practice even if the animal is a baby, Pilz said. A little raccoon brought from outside may be cute for a while, but when it matures it will become, well, a wild animal, likely to attack its owners and destroy their home.

“Three years maximum,” Pilz said. “Then it will backfire on you.”

But that’s not quite wild enough – an animal that has been kept in a home, dependent on humans for food, cannot be returned to its natural habitat. “There’s a good chance he won’t survive,” he said. These animals should be taken to natural facilities that can train them to be released back into the wild, Pilz said.

Most of the animals on Sustainable Safari rotate indoors and outdoors, alternating time at the attraction with time at the Pilz farm (a few seem to prefer the mall). They eat well and their health is closely monitored. Thanks to the protection against diseases and predators, the animals in Pilz are likely to outlive their wild counterparts. Their cages are cleaned daily.

But this can be a problematic word – cages. Some animal lovers believe no animal should ever be kept in a cage.

“We’ll get a bad review from time to time,” Pilz said. “This person came here specifically to hit us.”

His counter-argument is that when people can come into contact with animals in person rather than just knowing them from photos taken in another part of the planet, they become more aware of the importance of protecting the wild counterparts of animals.

“Most of the guys we have here are ambassadors of their species,” Harvey said.

“I’m not someone who exploits animals for money,” Pilz said. “A lot of research shows that zoos make a big difference in the health of the planet.”

Best job ever

Gallup went to work at Sustainable Safari for her own health — her sanity, which was under strain after 18 years as an emergency medical technician at North Memorial Health Hospital. She once loved her job, but as violent crime and drug addiction escalated, the daily treatment of victims of gunshots, stabbings and overdoses took its toll.

“There was a lot of anxiety about going to work,” Gallup said. “It just got worse and worse. It was just hard to come in and know that all these young kids are going to come in and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Then she heard about Sustainable Safari.

“I was looking for something to give me some balance,” she said. “I begged Dave to join me.”

At first, Gallup thought she would take a temporary hiatus from her EMT job, she said. She spent time picking up poo and playing with animals. In the summer of 2020, she began working at the Safari full-time, utilizing her medical background in the role of Animal Health Officer. Her job is to look after animal welfare, schedule vet appointments, and keep track of animal health records.

She had tried other stress treatments, but nothing helped her relax like Sustainable Safari. She can still care for others, but in a happier environment.

“Animals are just nicer than people — they really are,” she said. “This is the best job I’ve ever had, hands down.”

Keith P. Plain