California Retrospective

When African beasts roamed Irvine's Lion Country Safari

A look back at when lions, hippos and other African beasts roamed Irvine

Irvine is often ranked the safest city in America. But it looked downright dangerous for the 14 years Lion Country Safari called it home. During that time, families drove their cars through the park — doors locked, windows up — encountering fierce felines and other creatures.

The drive-through, African-themed park opened in 1970. But low attendance plagued the park, leading to its closure 30 years ago this week.

"Scores of cars inched along the paved roadways inside the 100-acre preserve as drivers and passengers sought a final look at the exotic animals that will soon be sold," The Times reported.

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FOR THE RECORD:

Animal parks: An article in the Nov. 12 California section about closed Southern California animal parks said that Jack Dutton's Jungle Garden in Anaheim closed in 1993. It closed in 1974. —
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"Golden-colored lions dozed in the sun and seemed bored by all the fuss, but the ostriches ruffled their feathers at the unusual amount of traffic. A brace of giraffes stalked across the roadway at one point, jamming traffic in both directions. The long-necked animals looked wonderingly at the rows of cars and hundreds of gawking tourists."

Lion Country Safari created two true animal stars: Frasier the lion and Bubbles, a hippo escape artist.

Frasier the Lion

Frasier came from a bankrupt Mexican circus. He took over the Lion Country pride, sired several dozen lion cubs, and in the process became famous.

After the old, toothless, arthritic but virile lion arrived, the flow of sightseers to Lion Country jumped 10 to15 percent. Three secretaries answered letters from tourists who wanted assurances that he would be there.

"The gift shops sell Frasier T-shirts and postcards and a new line of Frasier watches has joined those featuring Spiro Agnew and Mickey Mouse. Frasier, father of 33 cubs and the human equivalent of 75 years old, appears unchanged," The Times reported. "He continues hobbling among his pride with his tongue hanging out, sleeping 18 to 20 hours a day, gumming his food, and ignoring the tourists in his territory."

Fraiser died on July 13, 1972.

Bubbles the Hippo

The 2-ton hippo achieved a measure of fame in 1978 when she managed three escapes from Lion Country Safari.

"Double shifts of rangers, backed up by a low-flying police helicopter, had failed at a late hour Tuesday to come up with any trace of Bubbles, the hippopotamus that has thrice broken out of Lion Country Safari in recent days," The Times wrote at the time. "Her disappearance on this third escape has given an entirely new meaning to the heretofore preposterous question: 'How do you hide a 2-ton hippo?' There is, in fact, an answer — and Bubbles obviously has it."

After hiding out for over two weeks, Bubbles died while being recaptured on March 10, 1978.

scott.harrison@latimes.com

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