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Now you can handle Busch beasts

St. Petersburg Times

Original Article »

December 14, 2007

TAMPA - Ever wonder why those Busch Gardens animals cavorting on TV talk shows with Jack Hanna or Julie Scardina are rarely seen in the theme park?

Wonder no more. Busch Gardens Africa is installing a public home for them, enabling park guests to get up close and personal with critters like the skittish David Letterman and Jay Leno do.

Busch staffers are busy training about 30 animals to get used to being handled by humans at what's called Jamba Junction. By June, the collection that ranges from anteaters to lemurs and skunks will top 60.

Half the animals come from captive breeding programs. The rest come from animal rescue shelters, often after a family that wanted an unusual pet learned they adopted a wild animal.

One of Jamba Junction's first residents, for instance, is a coatimundi whose previous owner had it defanged and declawed.

The place is part of a low-budget $250,000 revitalization of the old petting zoo and the animal nursery that once showed off park newborns behind windows. The petting zoo was closed in 2001 after officials decided goats were too rambunctious for kids and too close to livestock for a zoo. The park's breeding programs shifted to a larger animal hospital and a more bucolic setting at the Busch Animal Outpost in Pasco County.

The project has been shrouded by the hype building for the April opening of Busch Gardens' new $40-million Jungala. Crews are sculpting the rock and other theming at the 4-acre Asian jungle that includes habitats for orangutans, massive bats and 11 tigers, plus a restaurant and new family rides that cater to tweens.

Except for a few animal encounters, Busch has been charging up to $35 extra for behind-the-scenes VIP tours.

"I have one of the coolest jobs in the world," said Bill Street, park director of zoological education who oversees a staff of 100 full- and part-time workers. "So we're inviting people to come in to see and participate in what we do here. Help us prepare meals for the flamingos. Feed the birds. Pet our Australian cuscus." (It's a lemurlike possum.)

The nine Busch parks maintain a backstage menagerie of about 100 creatures for educational and promotional programs. Most of the year the animals are on the road with a 35-foot RV equipped with a built-in stage delivering programs to school and civic groups.

With Hanna, who syndicates his own TV show, and Scardina, director of animal ambassadors for the Busch and Sea World parks, the animals also make the morning feature news show circuit including the Today Show and Good Morning America.

"I've spent many a night sharing my hotel bed with Harry the sloth," Street said. "The animals always travel first class."

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