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Sunday, March 23, 2003

Wild animal park's 50th honored

By Elliot Kleinberg, Palm Beach Post Staff Writer

Sunday, March 23, 2003

BOCA RATON -- The descendants of John Pedersen came Saturday to honor what his daughter called "a little boy's wish that came true."

On the edge of the lagoon that had once been a centerpiece of Pedersen's "Africa USA," his relatives and residents of the neighborhood that replaced America's first wild animal park gathered to honor its 50th anniversary.

John P. "Pete" Pedersen's daughter, Shirley Pedersen Schneider, helped dedicate a brass marker that tells the story of the park, which predated Lion Country Safari by 15 years and made the cover of Life magazine in 1960, instead of a California competitor named Disneyland.

Along with Debra Z. Kropornicki, an architect and president of the Camino Gardens Association, and Mayor Steve Abrams, Deputy Mayor Susan Haynie, herself a resident, read a proclamation honoring the park, which opened in February 1953.

Built on 177 acres, it drew as many as 2,000 tourists a day. Admission was free, but visitors paid to ride trams for a 6-mile, one-hour tour of Tanganyika Territory, the country Pedersen invented. Besides the hundreds of animals, there was a 260-foot "Zambezi Falls" waterfall and the Watusi Geyser. Their remnants are the only physical remains of the park.

Most of the 50 or so attending were Camino Gardens residents. Eight raised their hands when Shirley Schneider's niece, Ginger Pedersen, asked if anyone had attended the park, which closed in 1961, before she was born. Fighting development, zoning battles, and an animal parasite outbreak, Pedersen had sold off his animals and sold the land to developers, who created Camino Gardens.

Schneider told about 50 people her father had set three goals as a child: become wealthy, live past 100, "and find land that looked like Africa and let animals run free, not caged." She said her father died two months shy of 99 but met the other two objectives. And Ginger Pedersen said her grandfather, who had only a sixth-grade education, "was an extremely determined and motivated person who did not take no for an answer."

The Palm Beach Community College associate dean has kept her grandfather's vision alive through a Web page,

On Friday, she said, a woman who'd visited as a child wrote in an e-mail, "Thanks for helping me feel like I was six years old again."

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