Going wild at Zoobic Safari!

By Kristine Servando, abs-cbnNEWS.com/Newsbreak

Posted at May 26 2009 10:50 PM | Updated as of May 28 2009 01:11 AM

You've bought the stuffed toys, seen the Zodiac, or watched them on animal documentaries, but have you seen tigers up close - almost close enough for them to bite you?

This is the experience that the Zoobic Safari in Subic Bay Freeport Zone tries to offer.

Bringing African overland adventures to the Philippines (minus the hunting activities), it features thrilling outdoor tours and boasts of "the only tiger collection" in the Philippines. Opened in 2006, the safari has also been home to many animals either acquired or transferred from the mini-zoo at the Tagaytay Residence Inn, owned by Henry Sy.

Although it is located far from the downtown district, the remoteness only adds to the seemingly authentic safari vibe that finds its way even to the tiny tricycles inside the compound, which are painted in orange and black tiger stripes.

Each adventure begins with an orientation at a busy reception area, designed like a wooden loft, where excited visitors converge after purchasing tickets for P499 each. Children who are shorter than 3 feet get a discount of P100.

The tour around the 25-hectare property starts simply enough, with a brisk walk through an aviary and farm, featuring animals like hornbills, peacocks, golden pheasants (Ibong Adarna), and a cassowary (which can crush a human skull with its beak). There are also lions, bearcats, goats, camels, monkeys, deer, sheep, and some lions.

Some of these animals, especially domesticated ones, can be petted and are seen roaming around the area for this purpose. The zoo also sells a variety of farm animals at a makeshift pet shop at the heart of the aviary/farm, including Siamese cats, mice, and wild pigs. They also sell empty ostrich eggs for P500.

This is followed by a tour of "Rodent World" and the "Serpentarium." The latter houses a variety of snakes and lizards. There is reputedly a "Rodent Salon" somewhere in there, where guinea pigs are groomed. Expect the tour to be brisk, with very little time to ask questions or stay and watch the animals in their cages.

There are vendors or food kiosks selling ice cream and refreshments strategically positioned at the end of some attractions, however, their goods are priced higher. Ice creams, for example, can go from P40 to P60 a pop so it would be good to bring drinks with you beforehand. Food is not allowed to be brought in by guests.

'Close encounter'

To get to the next stop, guests are asked either to bring their cars or ride a special train for P50 per person. This will bring them to the highlight of the entire tour - the Tiger Safari. After a brief stop at the Tiger Cafe and designated waiting huts, 3 or 4 groups ride jeepneys painted with tiger stripes and are brought into a small and muddy enclosure. Here, a group of tigers are seen sitting on rocks or reclining under the shade of trees.

Zoobic Safari Budget Estimate (for the full experience)
 Entrance Fee (adult)  P499
 Banana for bearcats  P 10 each
 Milk for goats  P 30 each
 Train ride  P 50
 Chicken for Tiger Safari  P200
 Chicken for crocodile  P 50
 Refreshments/food  P100

You can opt to buy raw chicken for P200 (or split the cost with the group) which will then be fed to tigers through slots on the jeep's windows. The thrill comes from watching a tiger gorge on the chicken just inches away from your face. Portions of the chicken are also thrown onto the vehicle's roof so that a tiger can jump on top of it and ride there for a few seconds. An employee then pokes the tiger with a steel rod, prompting them to get down from the jeepney.

This awes most visitors who think that it is just a chance occurrence instead of a routine. "You can say they're already trained to do so, but they still retain their wildness," the tour guide said.

After the bumpy ride, we were brought to the "Tiger Close Encounter", where guests can walk through a narrow hallway next to several cages, each containing four tigers grouped accordingly so they do not fight amongst themselves. They come out to the "Tiger Safari" enclosure in shifts so that each tiger gets to have their day out.

In the meantime, they just pace their cages listlessly or sleep. Sometimes, the tour guide said, they spray urine on guests who are forewarned to duck when they see a tiger's tail point straight up. Those who don't duck in time may end up smelling like tiger pee for days.

In justification of what seems to be a very unexciting and routine life within the safari, away from their natural habitats, the tour guide said that tigers live longer in captivity (up to 15 years) than in the wild because it protects them from human poaching. The cages are also tacked with helpful tiger trivia like the correct terms for their paws (pug marks) or their life spans.

In keeping with the "safari" theme, there is the "Savannah" attraction, a quick 5-minute drive around a fenced enclosure that looks more like an abandoned construction site than a savannah. Here, wild pigs and more than 40 ostriches roam around, sometimes crossing in front of your vehicle. People are strongly discouraged from walking around the savannah, lest an excitable ostrich runs after you at more than 40 miles per hour.

Our next stop, the bone Muzooeum, housed in an old war bunker, contains the bones and mounted models of dead animals preserved by the zoo's taxidermist. The largest of the collection are a bear from China which died of pneumonia and a tiger which died from a snake bite during Typhoon Milenyo in 2006.

Like many buildings in the safari, the museum was converted from one of 357 war bunkers left by the American and Japanese military in Subic after World War 2.

Aetas Trail

A few feet away from the Muzooeum is the Aetas' Trail, perhaps the most piquing part of the tour. This is composed of a small pavilion at the edge of a stone path lined with a few nipa huts and large stone statues.

Here, guests are treated to a brief showcase of some of the Aetas' robust cultural dances like the "Sayaw ng Tutubi" (Dance of the Dragonfly), "Sayaw ng Unggoy" (Dance of the Monkey), and "Sayaw ng Pagbabayani" (a choreographed war dance with bows and arrows) - all performed by a group of young Aetas from Zambales, clad in royal blue loincloths, to the tune from a guitar strummed by the group's leader, "Kuya Eric."

This reportedly is a sort of accommodation for the Aetas, who settled and hunted on Subic grounds long before it was converted into a military base. As Kuya Eric said in an interview, the marginalized Aetas under the Subic Bay Metropolitan Authority (SBMA) were not completely booted out from their ancestral lands, but were asked to assist US soldiers on jungle-survival training or were given employment opportunities via agencies.

Today, many Aetas are employed at the Zoobic Safari as members of maintenance staff, as tour guides or as performance group members like those in Kuya Eric's small band of young "Aeta brothers." To them, this is one way to "preserve their way of life" and introduce aspects of Aeta culture to mainstream society.

"[Ito ay] para makilala din kami sa lipunan. Kapag pinag-uusap-usapan, sino nga ba ang Aeta? Parang makita ng mga bata, lalo na ‘yong nag-aaral, na makita nila kami sa personal kasi iba ‘yong tinuturo sa mga textbook. Para hindi mawala yung aming kultura, paniniwala, para hindi mawala yung way of life," Kuya Eric explained.

He said that he came to the Zoobic Safari and formed the dance troupe after years of working with organizations like the Project Development Institute and the National Commission on Indigenous Peoples. Some employees live at the safari compound, while some opt to go home to their families in Zambales. The group also dances during Zoobic promotional tours in SM Malls around the Philippines.

Closing time

The end of the tour is the "Croco Loco" where you get to walk through a steel footbridge, offering a view of piles of crocodiles resting below. If you see some of them with their mouths open wide, it just means that they're trying to cool down in the extreme heat. For those who want more action, you can buy raw chicken meat suspended from a bamboo pole for P50 each. A hungry croc is sure to get a big bite of that.

If you still have energy at the end of the official tour, Zoobic hosts animal parades and variety shows (featuring a famed singing pig) both in the morning and the afternoon. There is also a restaurant and the Montezuma Cafe where most weary safari-goers (and safari-goers' parents) can relax and eat.

Guests can also peruse the stuffed toys and knick-knacks at the Zoobic gift shop, or have their pictures taken with a 5-month-old tiger, who spends most of his time looking bored and listless on the floor of a spacious foyer outside the Zoobic administration office. In a cage nearby is their most recent acquisition, "Snowy", a large Siberian tiger whom, despite the inordinate amount of noise blaring from megaphones or speakers, still remained fast asleep in its tiny cage.

The zoo closes early at 4 p.m., so that the animals (and staff) don't feel too worn out after a busy day. There are 19 tour guides in all, each averaging 2 to 3 tours a day, with each tour group consisting of about 50 people or less. The Safari train carries up to 10 batches of 30 people every day (more on weekends), while Safari vans shuttle up to 20 people back and forth an average of 20 times a day.

At the end of the experience, though, you're sure to have learned and gained something from the Zoobic Safari - be it animal facts, animal rights issues, historical tidbits, tribal culture, a nice tan, or simply a better appreciation of the beauty and power of the animal kingdom.

For more information, visit www.zoobic.com.ph, fax (+6347) 252-2272, or call (+63) 929-7072222.