Billionaires, Ballet and Big Cats

In this special bonus content post, Episode 2 guest James Serpell tells Erika about his visit to one of the most opulent private zoos in America, and the surprise guests who attended.

A prima ballerina and a zoologist walk into a bar…

Sounds like the beginning of a joke, right?

Believe it or not, that was the scene that Professor James Serpell walked into when he attended a one-of-a-kind science conference in the late 1990’s. The meeting took place at White Oak Animal Conservation Centre in Northern Florida, a private zoo owned by the late paper magnate, Howard Gilman.

White Oak is a palatial $154 million estate featuring not only expansive enclosures for over 400 exotic animals, but also a conference centre, a nine-hole golf course, and the Baryshnikov Dance Studio. Serpell, now a professor of Animal Welfare at the University of Pennsylvania, was one of the many esteemed academics invited by the owner of White Oak to discuss the ethics of keeping animals in captivity. When you’re being hosted by an eccentric billionaire however, philosophical musings aren’t the only thing on the agenda.  

Serpell retells his experience at White Oak with fantastical reverie:

“There was something like 70 captive cheetahs down there living in these huge enclosures… and while we were staying there, the core of the New York City Ballet was also there with Mikhail Baryshnikov, training for their next performance and we were treated to a private performance by the New York City Ballet in this customized theatre. It was quite an extraordinary conference, unlike anything I’d ever been to. The food was delicious, no expense was spared”

In episode two of Anthropomania, we painted private zoos as the ultimate collection for the ube-rich who used exotic animals as a tool for commanding dominance and attention. What better way to show you’re the “king of the castle” than filling that castle with wild and dangerous animals?  So, was Gilman simply another domineering billionaire, collecting both exotic pets and ballerinas?

Not quite. According to Serpell, Gilman shied away from the spotlight and rarely interacted with the animals he poured so much of his personal wealth into:

“The owner of White Oak seemed to be quite detached from the animals, he seemed rather aloof from it, more interested in the ballet than the animals. I mean, he had oversight as to what happened but he left it largely in the hands of his experts, an army of keepers and veterinarians”

Perhaps it was Gilman’s personal detachment that has allowed for White Oak to run one of the few successful conservation programs within a privately-owned zoo. Those 70 cheetahs that Serpell saw during his visit we’re actually South African Cheetahs, a vulnerable species that are critically endangered in Asia and North Africa. Cheetahs are notoriously tricky to breed in captivity, and White Oak is one of the few places in the world where they can be reliably and ethically bred.

Just like the exotic pets they own, private zoo owners come in all shapes and sizes. White Oak is an example of private zoo ownership “done right” at least, in some instances. All you need is an army of veterinarians and a cool $154 million to ethically house these exotic animals.

Simply put: if you don’t have Mikhail Baryshnikov on speed dial, maybe consider buying a hamster instead of a cheetah for your next pet.

Erika Siren is a co-host of Anthropomania podcast. She is a science-communicator and biomedical scientist based in Vancouver, Canada.