Busch Gardens Tampa Trip Report: Heart of Africa Tour
This past New Year’s Eve (2014) I took the Heart of Africa tour at Busch Gardens Tampa with my daughter. It was an awesome experience that let us visit up close three sets of animals: cheetahs, lions and hippos. As a huge big cat fan – love cheetahs, tigers, black panthers, pumas, bobcats, snow leopards, and ocelots – I was very excited for this tour. As it turns out I was not disappointed. In fact it was one of my favorite tours under $40. Our Pass Member discount made it even more affordable. The tour is supposed to last 90 minutes but ours took 2 hours, and we were still talking with one of the tour guides even after that. There were about 12-15 people on our tour with us; although it is not private, it is a small enough number that you do get to experience everything.
So what is so special about this tour? It is how close you get to the animals. The furthest away we were kept was the hippo (about 6 feet), and we were only 1-3 feet from the lions and cheetahs!
First we visited the cheetahs. These animals are so graceful when they walk. I took a lot of pictures and videos so you can see how these animals interact with the trainers. We walked to the back area and there was a cheetah lying there next to a fenced in area about 40ft by 100ft. We were a few feet away watching the trainer. He would put his hand against the fence and the cheetah would mimic him. If he put it up high, the cheetah would stand on its back legs and reach up. He would get a treat if he did it successfully. The trainer would put his hand down at shoulder height for the cheetah and the cat would lick the trainer’s hand. The cheetahs almost always did what the trainer asked. These are not tricks that they are teaching the cats, but “husbandry” as they call it. Basically, they train the cheetahs to show different parts of their body in order to be inspected for any injuries or illness.
Then the trainer walked around the left end of the fenced in area and the cheetah followed. There he made hand signals for the cat perform specific tasks. One command was to get the cheetah to back up and stay. The cat did this quickly and very well. It was amazing how responsive the cat was. If only our cats at home would behave like this. A video of one of the commands is below.
Another cheetah saw the trainer and followed him along fence. It seemed very intent on being where ever the trainer was, even hopping over a dog house like enclosure to follow the trainer. It was locked on and not going to lose its meal ticket. Below is a video of that cheetah.
Next, we got to go inside and see their very large covered cheetah housing area. They had about 8 kennels about 10ft x 10ft, some of which were open so the cat would have 2-3 kennels to roam. They have 7 cheetahs that they constantly rotate among the back fenced in area, another area in the back, the display area, and these kennels.
Here they showed us several other commands. They would get up on the platform, and move from kennel to kennel, when given the signal by a trainer. Also the cats would chirp seemingly in an attempt to communicate or get your attention.
We walked to the back area along a long path where we could see the adult lions out in the display area: they were looking back at us from about 50ft. After meeting up with the keepers, we walked back to where the lions and hyenas stay, when they are not out on display. There were two enclosure/buildings, one for each. We did not see any hyenas but did get to see the four lion cubs. Ok, they are not cubs anymore but they are not quite adults either. They definitely were more energetic than any lion on display I have seen though. There were three females and one male who already had a good mane.
We were quite close to the lions: about a foot off the fenced in area. They were in a double fenced in play area so the pics are not the best, but that also meant we could see what they we were doing quite easily. After we surrounded their play area, the lions came bounding in very curious to see and smell us. All four came right up to the fence and were eyeing all of us, especially the children in the group. Their pen was about 40ft by 20ft and had been stocked with several items for enrichment. They had towers of blocks; cinnamon and chili powder sprinkled on various objects; branches and twigs; and some fruits and vegetables. Once they stopped checking us out, the cubs began to explore, rubbing the powders; knocking over the tower to get to what was on top; and investigating the food. One of the lionesses jumped up to the platform to check out a head of lettuce, and then proceeded to eat it like an apple. It was amazing to watch; they were so inquisitive. Someone from the group asked about the veggies and while they don’t need them nutritionally, it is good for cleansing their systems and provides them something new to try.
SeaWorld parks and most zoos are very serious about providing the animals they keep daily “enrichment.” Not only do they train them for health care reasons, they also provide a variety of games and toys, and regularly change their environments to minimize their animals’ boredom. Honestly, if you were kept in a small cage, fed and played with the same stuff every day, you would go crazy too. We saw this first-hand, when we did the elephant and tiger keeper experiences: on both tours we helped the keepers put together unique games and toys for the animals. For the elephants
, we filled big plastic containers full of apples, lettuce, corn on the cob, and grapes for the elephants find. They had to think about how to get the produce out of the Kong-like containers, which gave them mental and physical stimulation. We even scattered Skittles along the rock wall. The tiny treats were difficult to pick up, giving them another, highly reinforcing puzzle to solve. During our tiger experience
, we sprinkled baby powder and sprayed peppermint spray throughout their cage and the keepers provided a Christmas tree for each. Like the lions on this tour, the tigers entered the cages, investigated and rolled their bodies on the smalls. Much like a domestic cat with catnip!
The hippos were last and to be honest I thought they would be a bit of a letdown after the cool cats. To my surprise, they were actually pretty cool. When we walked up to the hippo area, the African herbivore was already out and waiting for us. He was behind an open area but held back by a few 6 ft tall cement poles spaced 2-4 ft apart. He would get between the poles and look out at the trainer and us hopefully. As it turns out, hippopotamuses in captivity are quite friendly; are responsive to training; and love sweet flavored drinks. Gatorade/ Powerade is one of those treats he loves, and he will perform many different “tricks” to get that Powerade. Our trainer had the Powerade in a spray bottle and would ask for a behavior like sticking out its tongue, lifting one of its feet, or showing it back end in order to get a few sprays of the flavored drink. While we were watching and interacting with one of the hippos, 10 ft away the other hippo pounded the fence and vocalized that it was jealous. We all jumped a little as these fellas are big and powerful. The pounding on the fence made quite a loud noise. These guys were attention hogs and would walk back and forth and do just about anything to get a treat. They were quite agile for such big and, frankly, fat animals. In addition to the Powerade, the hippo also liked fruits and veggies including sweet potatoes, performing different behaviors to get them. The trainers used a pole with a target and rewarded the hippos behavior when he moved toward that target. They reinforced the good behavior with a whistle followed up with a treat. While we were there, the hippo laid down, sat, showed it teeth, showed it tongue and moved all over the cage on command. He did all of this to get Powerade or fruits and veggies. It cracks me up seeing the videos below of the hippopotamus sticking his tongue out to get sprayed. Cute silly boy.
After spending 2 hours meeting these three animals I have to say the cheetah was my favorite. They were majestic and captivating, and they were quite engaged during training. In fact, they are one of the only mammals in captivity that allows the trainer to enter the enclosure and interact safely. I saw the cheetah walk along side of the trainers after there was a malfunction in the cheetah run (BGT uses a feather to lure the cheetahs into sprinting down the display area near its top speed, but the feather untied from the rope). The trainer had to get the feather away from the cheetah, and the cat just casually walked alongside the trainer almost like a dog. Having three cats of my own, I see a lot of them in these beautiful animals, but I doubt I could get one of them to follow me like this cheetah did!
While the cheetah may be my favorite, I will never look at a hippo the same way after our interaction: it was just so curious. I also look forward to seeing the lion cubs out on display. I have noticed that occasionally the hyenas and the lions swap display areas. I’m guessing the change of environment provides the animal’s novel sights and smells, adding to their enrichment. All in all, the tour was outstanding and really taught me a lot about these animals, while getting up close and quite personal. Watching these animals move and hearing them is something that you don’t get to experience just walking through BGT (or another zoo for that matter). In the end, it is a tour well worth the money in my book, but if you have not figured out, I love animals.
For more information, visit the park's website