Live Animal Shows Deliver Unique Learning & Interaction Experience
Photographer: Amy Payne
Amazon John (as he’s known to the residents of Hendricks County) has adored working with animals for as long as he can remember. In his youth, his dream was to become a veterinarian. Then he got a job working at the zoo doing live animal presentations and a passion was born. After awhile, however, “they left my cage open and I ran,” he jokes. In May 1997, John launched Silly Safaris with a mission of creating positive human animal interactions that inspire responsible pet ownership and wild animal conservation.
“I remember telling my wife, Emma, that I didn’t know if this idea would work, but we’d give it five years and see,” John says.
He knew that people craved opportunities to get close to nature. The problem is that while one can obtain great information at the zoo, they can’t interact with the creatures. And while pet stores may provide a chance to hold a snake, ferret, or bunny, the educational component is often lacking.
“Silly Safaris falls somewhere in between as it’s the perfect blend of facts and fun,” John says. “The phrase the industry uses is ‘edutainment’ because we are both educational and entertaining.”
What started in their guest bedroom with a chicken, snake, ferret, dog and hedgehog has grown so substantially that John and Emma ultimately had to purchase a six-acre farm to hold all of their critters, which now totals more than 100. Such animals include reindeer, rabbits, ferrets, frogs, skunks, snakes, crows, crabs, turtles, tarantulas, alligators and alpaca.
“As the business grew, our collection of animals grew along with it,” John says.
For a time, the couple ran a summer camp, but it became a bit much to manage, especially since things get so hectic in June and July — their busiest months of the year. Thankfully, they have teachers and college students who join the staff during the summer to help out.
Silly Safaris is well-known in Hendricks County as they regularly present at schools, churches, libraries, clubs, parks, birthday parties and annual events like the Heritage Festival. They customize each presentation for the audience they are addressing. For instance, a show at a church is a creation celebration. At a public school, however, the focus revolves around the life science curriculum.
“We make every show fun and interactive because audiences don’t want somebody who is going to read the encyclopedia of animal facts to them,” John says. “We provide the audience with a sense of wonder in a safe, guided experience.”
By utilizing an improvisational approach, the audience better engages with the presenter.
“The back-and-forth with the crowd is like a volley of fun,” John says.
Nevertheless, they still follow a framework — always bringing to each presentation a mixture of mammals, reptiles, birds and bugs that will make an impact with people. For a birthday party, for instance, they may bring a lizard, a baby alligator, a chicken and a 3-ft. snake. For a bigger format birthday party, they may bring a 10-ft. rather than the 3-ft. snake and an owl instead of a chicken.
Crowd favorites are the fox, the anteater, and the adorably cute kinkajou that will eat a gummy bear from the hand of an audience member. One of their kinkajous even pulls a blanket up over its head because in the wild they make their beds out of banana leaves.
The “wow” factor of these animal shows is undeniable.
“It’s hard to deny the crowd reaction you get when you pull a 10-ft. python out of a cooler,” John says.
All of the presenters have selected different silly names for themselves. Besides owner Amazon John, there is also Eagle Emma, Ryan the Lion, Lion Libby, Coyote Chris, Rainforest Randy, Rhino Ryan, Carly Chameleon, and Angicat. In December, they revise their names to reflect the festive season —e.g., Jingle John, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Ryan, Christmas Carly, Rooftop Ryan.
John hires his staff not based on their history with or study of animals but rather on their people skills.
“This isn’t an animal business. Obviously, the animals are the marketing part, but we succeed because we hire people who can make connections with other people,” John says. “Anyone can Google three facts about skunks. What matters is the human part of the interaction.”
If someone expresses an interest in joining the Silly Safaris staff, the first thing John does is invite them to observe a presentation.
“It takes the place of a job interview, basically. That’s how we vet people,” John says.
Before he hired Coyote Chris, for instance, Chris donned a Silly Safaris vest and rode along to a church event. During the program, John spotted Chris sitting in the audience with a gaggle of kids huddled around him.
“He was joking around with them and I was like, ‘Yup, this guy is gonna work out,’” John says. “I’ve had others fall asleep during the program or spend the whole time staring at their phones. Those are not good fits.”
Silly Safaris is unlike a talk you’d hear at the zoo or a nature center. Silly Safaris is also not an animal rehab center even though they support such places like A Critters Chance.
“We don’t have to rescue animals to be relevant. And we don’t use injured animals in our shows for a reason,” John says. “If we show an owl that’s missing an eye, that’s what kids would remember. We use animals that will be safe and effective for teaching.”
One thing they don’t do in a show is try to prompt the startle effect.
“We’ll never instruct an audience member to close their eyes so that we can place something in their lap,” John says. “To me, that’s just not responsible.”
Following each show, they hold a meet-n-greet so audience members can touch and see the animals up close and take pictures with the giant python or the fuzzy bunny.
The feedback John most relishes is when he hears that those with special needs have enjoyed the presentation.
“I’ve seen non-verbal autistic children who become calm and even approach us after a show to say something,” John says. “Sometimes they’ll even talk about the animals on the drive home. That’s pretty special.”
For more information on Silly Safaris, call 317-862-9003 or visit them online at sillysafaris.com.