Native songbirds skirted a sycamore and gathered in a poplar as the warming sun dulled the chill of a recent late winter morning in the hills of northern Spartanburg County.
Underneath, a leopard’s black spots were visible through wire fencing only in the right rays’ light. Exotic calls rang to break the drone of a busy tractor.
All around, work was underway for a pivotal year. This will make or break Hollywild Animal Park.
Some would miss it dearly. Some would say good riddance.
Never miss a local story.
Along with thousands of Upstate residents who’ve visited over generations and cruised through displays of Christmas lights decorating the home of striking wild species, they’re watching while the nonprofit, unorthodox zoo musters all the support it can in an effort to remain open.
By time for the next Christmas lights to go up, the future will be clear.
If $500,000 isn’t raised this year and $250,000 more isn’t secured for next year, beyond what the park collects in admission, closure will come.
“It would break my heart,” said executive director Kim Atchley. “I don’t even want to think about what that would be like.”
For those who haven’t visited, it may be difficult to imagine what Hollywild is like. The grounds in Wellford aren’t manicured like Greenville or Riverbanks zoos. It’s more like an organized safari. Lions, tigers and bears stalk enclosures sprawling over 100 acres around a former home that serves as the park office.
A stage is set within an amphitheater for presentations to teach local schoolchildren a few yards away from a petting and feeding area.
Spartanburg County School District One Superintendent Ron Garner is among those who’ve stepped forward to join calls for support.
Greer resident Patrice Humphries has visited with her children and grandchildren over the years.
“The experience is up close and personal,” she said. “On one trip a goose kept untying my daughter’s shoelaces. She was about 5 years old and thought it was hilarious.
“Many years later my father-in-law passed away in the months right before Christmastime, so my mother-in-law and I drove out to see the Christmas lights. At 80-something-years-old, she ooh-ed and ahh-ed over the beautiful exhibits and shared how much her spirits were lifted. In the dark I turned to look out my driver's side window only to see the outline of an enormous animal, maybe a bison, with his head almost in my car! I didn't scream but really wanted to.”
Other visitors’ reactions have run the gamut, passionately.
“It’s gross and nasty,” said former Inman resident Sam Price.
“All zoos are exploitative and thwart wild animals’ natural behaviors, but Hollywild is in a violent class of its own,” said Greenville native Leslie Armstrong, an animal-rights activist who believes a pattern has emerged of park officials promising upgrades in the face of U.S. Department of Agriculture sanctions over unfit conditions. “The people who support Hollywild are really turning a blind eye to what’s going on over there. I can’t imagine that people who say they love animals would feel like this is a good place for these animals to be.”
An electrical fire in a primate barn last year led to the smoke-inhalation deaths of 27 animals as the park fell about $150,000 short of projected revenue. Earlier this year, following a two-year investigation, officials agreed to pay $18,964 in fines for 15 violations of the Animal Welfare Act.
Other violations have been found in years past.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has called for the park’s animals to be removed.
“I’m hoping they aren’t able to raise the money and they’ll hopefully find reputable facilities to turn the animals over to,” Armstrong said. “It needs to be shut down.”
But park officials say inspectors’ concerns have been corrected. They’re preparing a better future, and they’re banking on local support to make it happen.
Help will have to come for the grizzly Honey Bear to appear to wave at visitors who wave toward him. Sophie the cougar needs the park to win more financial resources to remain in the home she’s known since being rescued from a facility that closed in New York state.
The rare white lion Mandela, his partner Ices, and Raja the Bengal tiger would face relocation – somehow, somewhere – if the bank account isn’t fattened.
Wildebeests played chase in a pen near an educational barn as their long-term future remained uncertain.
Ramses the Syrian brown bear paced his enclosure with curious glances toward his admirers. The traveling circus that used to keep him became unable to provide his care.
Four juveniles born last spring – a camel whose mother didn’t produce milk, a lamb whose mother rejected it, and an addax and an eland whose fathers showed signs of aggression – appeared to trot without cares.
Atchley hopes they can always remain at what they know as home. She said the park’s transition from private ownership to a nonprofit organization 16 years ago provides it the opportunity to become a more welcomed and valuable resource for the area.
“Hollywild is an amazing place,” she said. “We have a place that families can come, connect with each other, learn about animals and experience the world in their backyard in a way they’ve never thought of before – and take a little bit of knowledge with them that can change the future, whether it’s how they simply care for their personal environment or they become activists and conservationists.”
“Acoustic Nights” featuring musical performers on Saturday evenings are among promotions being held this month.
The park opens daily in April with admission starting at $10 for students and military members, $12 for adults.
“Those of us who were here during and after the transition to a nonprofit didn’t realize we needed to ask for help from our community or even that we should and could,” said Mary Lee Rollins, an assistant director who worked at the park when it was owned by David and Lucia Meeks more than 16 years ago. “Our electronic generation of children needs to be able to experience the roar of the lions and tigers so close they feel it in their bellies like a bass drum in a parade. They need to be able to see, touch, hear and, yes, even smell the wonder that is all around them.”
Nicolai the European brown bear snorted musky breath as he smelled a person approaching his den one recent morning. He’s a world away from where his kind roam naturally, but for how long remains unknown.