Firefighter lives his wild dream

Saturday, September 10th 2005, 11:31 am
By: News On 6

TUTTLE, Okla. (AP) _ Oklahoma City firefighter Bill Meadows is a lucky man. He has two loves in his life. He loves both his job and his hobby of caring for exotic animals.

Meadows, 45, acted on his dream three years ago to open a rustic exotic animal park. The progress since Tiger Safari opened two years ago this month amazes Meadows, the park's creator and director.

``I've always loved animals,'' Meadows said. ``This is a dream come true.''

The not-for-profit park nestled on 45 acres in Grady County seems to be growing daily.

His dream began turning into reality when he scanned an aerial photograph of his land and designed cages, a pavilion and log fences with his computer.

Today, phase one of Tiger Safari looks ``pretty darn close'' to what Meadows envisioned on his computer screen.

``It is a relaxed, rustic theme here,'' Meadows said, pointing across the park while riding a four-wheeler. ``It is a place where people can come and relax.''

Rajah, a Siberian tiger, is one of the biggest attractions at the park. Rajah has been the Tuttle High School Tigers football mascot since the days 2003 Heisman Trophy winner Jason White played there.

A tiger feeding station is one of the newest attractions at the park. For $2, visitors can buy a piece a raw chicken to feed Rajah through the fence using barbecue tongs.

There is no personal contact with Rajah or the 10 other cats at the park because of new federal rules enacted after illusionist Roy Horn, of Siegfried and Roy, was severely injured by a tiger in 2003 during one of their famous Las Vegas shows.

Meadows has no plans to leave the fire department where he has worked for 10 years _ no matter how many people visit the park.

``I love my job at the fire department,'' Meadows said. ``There is no career like it. None other.

``You never know what you will be doing. One day you might be in the trenches recovering a lady and the next day you're trying to get someone out of a house fire.''

Meadows combines both facets of his life when children visit Smokey the Bear, a year-old North American black bear.

``I do a little fire prevention here,'' Meadows said while the bear played in a cage behind him. ``I tell them not to play with matches.''

Then the children can feed the bear grapes through a long pipe that runs into the cage. Once a week, the bear gets doughnuts.

Smokey was originally a pet belonging to Sandy Brooks, the ex-wife of country music star Garth Brooks.

Children also use a 10-foot pipe to feed chicken pieces to two alligators swimming in their own pond.

A royal white tiger cub, 11 weeks old, will soon move to the park after being at the State Fair in Oklahoma City.

Another new attraction, a grizzly bear, is supposed to arrive from out of state in a couple of weeks.

Meadows and other volunteers are building the bear a home, one that looks like Fort Knox, he said.

The cage will include a 100-square-foot brick house where the bear can take refuge from the heat and the cold, Meadows said.

Meadows knows he couldn't do all this without his volunteers. Faithfully, a crew from his team of 20 volunteers shows up every weekend, and some days during the week, to help with the animals and give tours to the guests.

Artist Keri Gunter is at the park three to four days a week painting and drawing animals and birds.

``I love the animals,'' Gunter said. ``You would have to be out here.''

A banquet room, gift shop and rest rooms are the next projects to be finished before work begins on phase two, which will include developing the entrance to the park with buffalo, elk, deer and llama.

Log cabins will one day sit on a field now only covered with grass as part of phase three. The 16-by-20-foot cabins will be rented for overnight stays. Visitors can spend the night at the park in their own tent or a tepee that sleeps 10 to 15 people.