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Heart of a Lion

Monterey Zoo’s Charlie Sammut

When Life Gives You a Lion, Make a Zoo!

When Charlie Sammut arrested a suspect in 1983, he had no idea it would set him on the path to opening
a zoo. Back then, he was just a police officer in Seaside who also happened to love animals. He already cared for dogs, cats, horses, pythons, parrots, skunks, and many other animals, so when the suspect told him he had a pet mountain lion that needed a new home, adopting it was a no-brainer.

“That was back in the day when it was legal to do something that foolish,” Sammut clarified. He recognizes that owning a wild animal requires experience, proper facilities, and the financial means to provide adequate care, and years later he would sit on the Fish and Game Advisory Committee to make
owning wild animals as pets illegal. But at the time there were no laws in place to prevent him from adopting the mountain lion, who he named Samson.

When Sammut discovered how much he loved caring for Samson, he decided to adopt a baby African lion as well. He named the lion Josef and the two formed a strong bond. “He was a very special mind in the body of an African lion. He was very calm and he had an extremely safe temperament,” Sammut said. Sammut founded the company “Wild Things,” where he trained and handled exotic animals for the entertainment industry, and Josef ’s easy going temperament made him the star of the show. He was featured in many commercials, shows, and movies, including as a live model for the artists of the original “Lion King” movie.

The longer Sammut was in the entertainment industry, however, the more he became bothered by the treatment of the animals. “I wasn’t particularly fond of how the animals were received and how they were treated afterwards,” he explained, “It just wasn’t a place for the animals after the film was made, and that didn’t sit right with me.” When it became clear that the industry wasn’t going to change its treatment of the animals, Sammut left and began exploring the idea of turning Vision Quest Ranch—the home for all of his animals—into an actual zoo.

Vision Quest Ranch is also the home of Vision Quest Safari Bed & Breakfast, where guests can stay in an African tent style bungalow with lions and tigers roaring just yards away, enjoy continental breakfast, and meet and great the “Wild Things.” The road to making the zoo wasn’t easy, but Sammut was fortunate to have the support of the Monterey and Salinas communities, who made generous donations and also contributed their time, labor, and materials for the animal exhibits. In February 2020, the Monterey Zoo officially celebrated its grand opening.

Sammut describes the completion of his zoo as bittersweet, not only because it opened just in time for Covid lockdowns, but because they were immediately attacked by extremist groups. He has battled with an onslaught of misinformation and accusations over social media, and because validating information on social media is often difficult it has become a bit of a full-time job correcting erroneous claims. “The extremists that are attacking us have never been here or seen the zoo. They’re attacking the word ‘zoo’,” Sammut said.

It’s hard to know when exactly the word “zoo” developed a negative connotation, but Sammut can see why. “If you go back in history and look at the biggest zoos in the country, historically their facilities were cages,” he explained, “But zoos have evolved like everything else in our world. How the animals are kept, what they’re housed in, how they’re brought into zoos, that’s all changed.” He thinks zoos waited too long to evolve, which added to their bad reputation, but he’s determined to help repair the term.

As natural habitats continue to be destroyed by deforestation, urbanization, pollution, and poaching, Sammut sees zoos as an insurance policy for endangered species. “If animals are left to just the wild, as the extremist groups think it should be, we will continue to lose these species,” he said. Ideally, Sammut
would love to see animals return to the wild, but until countries find ways to curb habitat destruction and poaching, he thinks it’s irresponsible to leave animals alone to solve a man-made problem. In the meantime, his zoo will continue to take in rescued animals from sanctuaries and give them good homes.

Ultimately, Sammut hopes his zoo will inspire others to love and appreciate animals. He admits that if a place like the Monterey Zoo existed when he was younger he probably wouldn’t have gotten so many animals, and he hopes his facility can be a place where people can enjoy animals without needing to own them themselves. Sammut also thinks sharing the animals with the public will boost conservation efforts. “I don’t think you can embrace the species until you’ve embraced the individual. That’s what we hope to accomplish here,” he said.

Although Sammut didn’t know he’d one day build a zoo, he’s proud that he has. He has dedicated his life to the animals at the Monterey Zoo and he’s certain anyone who visits will see that for themselves.

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