SKOWHEGAN — Staples Safari Zoo is all about peace, love and harmony.
When Brian Staples, a third-generation zoologist from Spokane, Washington, who runs the traveling zoo, says that he means it for all creatures – even the world’s cast-off animals.
“We have a collection of secondhand animals,” Staples said. “We’ve got a camel with an overbite, a tiger that’s been de-clawed, emus that were slated for an oil cannery. We take in a collection of animals that have special needs and we do educational programs to really focus on the fact that everything, whether it’s a special-needs creature or a regular chipmunk in your backyard, everything has a voice and everybody fits into the scheme of things.”
In its first year at the Skowhegan fair, the zoo occupies 250 feet of space along the south side of the midway and includes dromedary camels; a huge 80-year-old African tortoise; monkeys; parrots; a Siberian fox and his pal, a border collie; and a black leopard that lives in the same pen with a 9-foot-long white Siberian tiger.
Staples said nearly all of the animals in the show have been rescued from zoos and wildlife sanctuaries or from private collections whose owners were forced to give them up because of bad health or other reasons.
The show features a free petting zoo and 20-minute educational programs on stage three times a day during the fair. Staples said the animals in his show will never be seen doing circus tricks. They don’t jump through hoops of fire or walk a tightrope to make people laugh.
“In our educational shows we are teaching peace, love and harmony,” he said. “We come out and we do a routine where animals display natural behaviors and show a very clear relationship with the handlers and each other where we re-emphasize that it’s important for us to take care of the planet and each other.”
Staples, with his son David, 23, who is fourth-generation on the circuit, said the business began with his grandfather in the United Kingdom.
“He was an animal trainer. He was one of the original horse whisperers with the Chipperfield Circus, probably in the 1920s,” Brian Staples, 43, said. “They came to America just after the second world war.”
Jeffrey Bragg, who has been coming to the Skowhegan State Fair for most of his 50 years with his mother, Joyce, 75, of Sabattus, said camels nuzzled him and his mother Saturday in the petting zoo.
“We love the animals,” Jeffrey Bragg said. “I love petting the animals. This is the first time I’ve been that close to a camel. One of them gave her a hug, and he leaned right in on me.”
Young Cody Cyr of Madison agreed.
“I think they’re pretty amazing. I’ve never seen anything like them,” he said of the vast array of exotic animals.
Staples said the show travels with eight employees to about 18 fairs four months of the year, crisscrossing the United States from coast to coast.
There are Katahdin sheep from Maine, a Scottish Highland bull, a baby water buffalo, potbellied pigs, alpacas, a black swan, Capuchin monkeys from South America, kangaroos, rare African crested porcupines, African baboons and a kinkajou – a rain forest mammal related to the raccoon, known as the “honey bear,” with a prehensile tail that can grasp objects.
“Amazingly, they all get along together,” Staples said. “When we travel, they all load up together like Noah’s Ark.”
Families of ring-tailed lemurs, primates from Madagascar, with their deep black eyes and long black-and-white tails, were the big hit Saturday at the zoo. They feasted on grapes offered by visitors.
Rob Arris of Hallowell said the number of animal species at the zoo surprised him.
“I like the ring-tailed lemurs the best. They’re cool. They reach out to grab stuff with their hands,” Arris said. “I think the show is awesome.”
His girlfriend, Angie Henderson, agreed.
“I like the lemurs. They grab at the grapes with their little hands,” she said.
The 196th edition of the Skowhegan State Fair continues Sunday. Gates open at 7 a.m.
The Kennebec River Woodsmen Championship and pulpwood and chain saw contest are scheduled for 10 a.m. in the coliseum at the far end of the fairgrounds. The 4-H Day parade starts at 11:30 a.m., with betting windows for harness racing opening at noon. The midway, featuring rides and games by Fiesta Shows, opens at 1 p.m. The Staples Safari Zoo has shows at 2:30, 4:30 and 6:30 p.m.
Parking for the fair is $4 per car. Gate admission Sunday is $10. Ride bracelets cost $15 for each day.
The fair runs through Aug. 16.