The Worst Way to See Wildlife This Summer

A South American Rhea feeds through the window of a car as tourists drive through the Virginia Safari Park. Jim Watson / AFP / Getty Images

Have you always wanted to feed a buffalo but are too lazy to get out of your car? Do you love nature, but your normal routine of feeding squirrels is jacking your adrenaline? Well, you’re in luck! American drive-through safaris offer a unique experience, combining the excitement of a traffic jam and a PBS documentary.

The first free-roaming wildlife attraction opened in 1953 in Boca Raton, Florida. The aptly named Africa USA spanned 300 acres and boasted more than 20 types of African animals, like cheetahs Mojah and Mbili and a frilly-dress-wearing chimpanzee named Princess Margaret. Other wildlife safaris followed, including a series of Lion Country Safaris in the ’70s and ’80s, where a pride of curious lions might mount your Volkswagen bug or a flock of ostrich might cut in front of your Ford Pinto. These days, the remaining dozen or so drive-through safaris across the country combine the action-packed fun of a petting zoo with the high probability of getting rear ended by a nearsighted tourist. At the Virginia Safari Park in Natural Bridge, if you drive along a three-mile gravel road with your windows rolled down, a hungry llama might stick its head in to gobble up the bucket of feed that came with your $20 admission fee. Or you can opt to maneuver your air-conditioned Nissan Sentra through the Texas-style African Safari at New Braunfels, Texas’ Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch and risk getting nuzzled by a frisky zebra. Your tree-hugger friends will be impressed that you spent an entire day of your life that you will never get back just to watch a goat crap in the woods.

This was not the African safari on anyone’s bucket list. There are no majestic wildebeests thundering through Tanzania, no elephants commingling with elegant gemsboks at the watering hole, and definitely no bloodthirsty cheetah chasing down its prey.

Viewing these creatures in such a controlled environment made me crave for a little more wild from these wild animals. Are they suffering from food coma, after being relentlessly fed by gullible visitors? Has Bill Cosby been buying them drinks? Possibly they just pipe NPR throughout the park whilst the animals sleep. One thing’s for sure: I was in very real danger of falling asleep at the wheel.