Recently a reader known as “squeapler” left a series of lengthy comments on the post about Africa U.S.A. (The story of Africa, U.S.A. and its proprietors, animal trainer Ralph Helfer and Daktari producer Ivan Tors) regarding the floods which destroyed the compound. I decided to create a blog post to highlight these comments as they give a full story as to what happened.
My thanks to “squeapler” for this wonderful information!
Hello again. I found a little more information about the floods at Africa USA in doing my research for “Gentle Ben”, based on California newspapers from the 1960s I accessed through Newspapers.com. It seems like there were indeed two major floods. The first one, which is the one discussed in the Cleveland Amory TV Guide article, happened in Dec. 1965 and is the one that caused Bruno the bear (later the main actor in “Gentle Ben”) to be swept away. He returned on his own a few days later. Several other animals were also mentioned as missing but perhaps not drowned as the news articles mention that the chewed carcass of a cow was found, giving the impression that one of the big cats had eaten it.
The second flood occurred in January 1969 and seems to have been much worse. Prior to this flood, Tors was planning to open the compound to the public for tours and had sought a zoning variance to do so. However, when the flood occurred the water rose so quickly that apparently not all the animals could be rescued from their cages in time, and were shot to prevent them from drowning. The animals that were shot included 3 lions, a jaguar, two tigers, and one or two bears (not Bruno as he went on to appear in 1970s films).
Then on Feb. 25, 1969, there was apparently more flooding (the news article talks about there being two 100-year floods in 30 days) and two alligators and two hippos broke loose and were seen going down the flood-swollen Santa Clarita river. A spokesman for Africa USA was quoted as saying the animals were extremely dangerous and once the flood subsided, “big game hunters would attempt to destroy them from helicopters.”
Shortly thereafter, there was a $50,000 fire also at the complex, although no animals were hurt.
After this, Tors decided to concentrate on his planned “Torsland” park in Florida (which I understand from the documentary on him, never happened, although he did have a number of his animals at the Homosassa Springs Attraction in Florida through the 70s) and Helfer decided to abandon the Africa USA complex and move the operation to a new location near Fillmore in Ventura County.
It seems like in the “Beauty of the Beasts” account, Helfer (or some editor) conflated the two floods as the article talks about shooting “Gentle Ben” and then having Bruno wash away. “Gentle Ben” and “Gentle Giant” did not come out until 1967 which to me would mean that they were probably filmed during 1966 at the earliest (possibly even early 1967) so it seems unlikely that they were shooting “Gentle Ben” in 1965.
Here are some of the newspaper sources I used. There are lots more than this on Newspapers.com – the local California papers covered all of this in pretty good detail.
“All you need is a Coke and stout heart”, Redlands Daily Facts, Dec. 31, 1965, p. 2.
“Wild Animals on Loose – Swept away by Los Angeles Floods,” Eureka Humboldt Standard, Jan. 18, 1966, p. 2.
“Three Dead Lions Reported Stolen From Africa, U.S.A.,” Redlands Daily Facts, Jan. 31, 1969, p. 3.
“6 More Victims of South State Storm,” San Mateo Times, Feb. 26, 1969, p. 12.
“Africa U.S.A. Fire,” Long Beach Independent, Mar. 4, 1969, p. A-7.
“Tors Will Abandon Flood-Damaged Africa U.S.A.,” Fresno Bee, Apr. 13, 1969, p. 12-A.
“HELP – They Don’t Quit,” San Bernarndino County Sun, Feb. 20, 1970, p. B-5.
” ‘Africa’ Opening,” Long Beach Independent, Jan. 26, 1971, p. A-8.
Check out this post for the exact location of Africa U.S.A: Just where was Africa U.S.A.?? Now we know …