Jagger struts and poses, elongates his neck and bulges his eyes. He obviously adores being the center of attention. When he leans down for the gift proffered by a female admirer, cameras click, and Jagger responds by flicking his tongue in that suggestive way he has.
Such a rock star.
Now Sonny and Buster hoof it over to the fence line, too, eyeing the acacia branches that visitor Kim Baumgarten of Stockton extends, and Jagger thunders off in a cloud of dust and fit of pique.
We, of course, are describing the antics of a young male Rothschild giraffe, not a certain aging rock ’n’ roll Lothario. But the resemblance, right down to those big lips, is amazing.
More amazing still is that we are viewing Jagger and his four mates not on the veldt of Kenya’s Rift Valley or on the arid plains of Sudan but only a mile or so from the Pacific Ocean on a 110-acre spread in Point Arena in southern Mendocino County. There are three species of zebra and herds of antelope, as well, in a rural milieu where the native ungulates usually run more toward horses and pigs.
The unlikely Dr. Doolittle of this operation, called the B. Bryan Preserve, is a rare breed himself. Frank Mello, along with wife Judy, once was a corporate executive for Sara Lee Corp. and living on a ranch in Mississippi. Judy had long harbored an interest in African wildlife, and Frank, after a visit to a friend’s Texas ranch where antelope roamed, soon became just as passionate. They stocked their ranch with endangered antelope and, when they decided to move west in 2004, brought the herd along to a sprawling ranch a half mile from Main Street in this fishing village.
Soon, the kudu, sable and roan antelope were joined by scores of Grevy’s zebras, Hartmann’s mountain zebras and common zebras. Less than two years ago, the giraffes arrived. Now, more than 80 endangered African animals graze the grounds. The Mellos take in animals from places such as the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, loan out part of the herd to zoos throughout the country, and breed their antelope and zebras to try to stabilize dwindling worldwide populations.
Not exactly what Frank originally had in mind for his post-corporate career, but he is able to call upon his doctorate in animal science and biochemistry to help maintain and breed these beasts.
“We are not a zoo,” he said. “It’s important that everybody knows that. If you want to see a menagerie, go to the Sacramento Zoo. We are not a sanctuary. What we are is a private breeding and conservation center for rare and endangered species. All our species are African. We’ve selected a few important species. What we do here is to give them a lot of space and breed them and sell them to private concerns and zoos. Our mission is to ensure the species we have will be around in 100 years. In the wild, they will be gone. That’s a fact. Sorry for the doom and gloom, but it is what it is.”
Part educational, part entrepreneurial, B. Bryan Preserve (named for Judy’s grandfather) offers twice-daily, 90-minute tours in which visitors climb into Frank’s pickup truck – or an open-aired jeep with benches, if it’s a big group – and watch him deliver the hay to the flock and distribute nuggets of information about these gorgeous, exotic quadrupeds who look so out of place in Northern California. For those wanting a more immersive experience, the Mellos offer three eco-friendly bed-and-breakfast cottages, where you can awaken to the thundering hoof beats of zebras outside your bedroom window.
The parcel is divided into five spacious fields separated by wire fencing, affording the antelope and zebra plenty of space to gallop and graze. The giraffes are housed in a newly constructed, solar-heated enclosure about 40 feet tall, with a balcony where the Mellos and visitors can meet the residents at eye level. And, with a press of a button, the barn doors slide open and the giraffes galumph out into the pasture. Most of the breeds are kept separated, but some intermingling occasionally happens.
“The other day,” Mello said, “I made a mistake and let (a roan antelope) loose with a giraffe. The giraffe got a little spooked and went through a fence. He was fine, not hurt.”
Mello is oozing with aplomb about the care and feeding of his charges. His knowledge of African animals is encyclopedic, his delivery is deadpan. With his longish, graying hair and mud-splattered dungarees, Mello is a cross between a taciturn farmer and absent-minded professor. It’s strangely endearing. (He was going solo on the tour on this day, with Judy away on business.) John Lucero, a curious tourgoer from Carmichael, tried to engage him.
Question: “How much hay do you go through?”
Question: “Have you thought of bringing in other types of animals?”
“No. Then you become a zoo. There are a lot of zoos around. We’re not a zoo.”
Question: “Were a lot of permits needed to bring the animals here?”
“This is California. You’d have a better chance getting Osama bin Laden into California than a zebra.”
You get the impression some of Mello’s reticence is for effect, as if portraying a “country character.”
He pointed to Jack, a barrel-chested 650-pound sable antelope with 40-inch horns and said, matter of factly, “You don’t want to go in that field. He’s one of the few animals that can kill an African lion one-on-one.”
Good to know. The group kept its distance. But then Mello reached his hand over and beckoned the beast.
“C’mere, Jack,” he said with rising inflection. “C’mere, pretty boy. Oh, aren’t you something? You just had your breakfast, didn’t you.”
Mello has named all 80 animals, some comically. There’s Elvis the preserve’s lone “common” zebra, Sarah, the grand dame of the critically endangered Grevy’s zebras, and the ornery Lois, a sable antelope who was playfully upbraided by Mello for trying to head-butt him. “Oh, Lois, don’t even think about it!”
In a field of 15 antelope, he can identify all by name without hesitation.
When the tour group expressed surprise, Mello shrugged.
“I see ’em every day,” he said. “Like being around people, you get to know ’em.”