Although Hollywild Animal Park first opened in 1973, its origins go back almost two decades before, when founder David Meeks was growing up on his family farm in the hills of northern Spartanburg County.
His parents, James and Daisy, raised Nubian goats and collected an array of indigenous animals, including raccoons, squirrels, bobcats, cougars, foxes, and other wild animals. The family’s backyard menagerie steadily grew, especially with the acquisition of animals from Spartanburg’s Cleveland Park Zoo after it closed.
When the Meekses relocated to Wellford in 1962, their neighbors would ask for tours of the family’s animal collection. The visitors were so persistent that the Meekses started charging an admission fee, hoping to discourage the many visitors. But it didn’t work.
In 1970, the family applied for and received a license through the U.S. Department of Agriculture to display their animals to the public. They opened M&M Zoo several years later and started collecting more exotic animals, including lions, monkeys, and tigers.
During this time, David, a graduate of Carson Newman College, continued to work as a teacher at Byrnes High School and then as a cost accountant for a local construction company. On the side, he worked to collect animals from zoos and even circuses.
In 1985, David married his wife, Lucia, and purchased his parent’s share of M&M Zoo, including the house, animals, and land. The couple dissolved the business and opened their own zoo, naming it Hollywild for the animals’ involvement with cinema.
For years, David Meeks operated an animal talent agency and used his zoological collection for advertising campaigns, brochures, films, art exhibits, and nativities. One of the park’s cougars, for instance, appeared in the 1992 film “The Last of the Mohicans.” And Chewy, an African lion, was used as a model for Disney animators for Scar from “The Lion King.”
“People already love animals. There’s no doubt about that. But they love them even more if they know they starred beside Kevin Costner or Glenn Close,” David Meeks said.
Hollywild grew exponentially as more and more people started hearing about its famous creatures. Before long, more than 100,000 people were frequenting the 17-acre park each year, pressuring the Meekses to expand.
In 1990, the couple purchased an adjacent property, adding 70 acres to their park. The area was fenced in; free-roaming animals were introduced; and school buses were reconfigured to take the public on a guided tour that became known as the Outback Safari ride.
The 30-minute bus ride allowed visitors to not only touch but also hand-feed various animals, including zebras, bison, donkeys, and emus. But the Meekses were oftentimes criticized for allowing the public to interact with animals.
“The experience we were trying to create by allowing contact was successful yet somehow controversial. We knew there were zoos who frowned upon our approach. But it’s really what made our park unique,” David Meeks said.
Although attendance continued to grow with the development of new experiences and an expanding animal collection, the needs for additional finances continued to be a constant source of pressure for the park, according to Lucia Meeks.
“The revenues generated by admissions were never sufficient to keep the park financially solvent, so David continued working in the movie and commercial industry and pouring that income into the park,” she said.
In 1999, the Meekses started brainstorming a succession plan for Hollywild as their three children decided to pursue other interests. The couple eventually decided to establish the park as a nonprofit organization.
Over the years, the park continued to expand with the addition of an education center and animal hospital. The Meekses also turned their focus toward conservation and started implementing breeding programs to boost the numbers of endangered species, including the Syrian brown bear, which has already been declared extinct in the wild.
But Hollywild quickly became a target of animal welfare groups, like People for Ethical Treatment of Animals, or PETA, which repeatedly called for the park’s closure due to multiple violations against the Animal Welfare Act.
Between September 2012 and July 2014, inspectors with the U.S. Department of Agriculture said they found animals held in unsafe enclosures, a repeated lack of veterinary care, and multiple other issues at Hollywild. In 2015, the park agreed to pay $19,000 in fines following a two-year investigation.
“There will almost always be imperfections in a report, because the inspector comes out on a random day and basically writes down everything that he or she sees wrong. It only tells you what you need to improve,” David Meeks said. “They don’t write down everything else that you’re doing right.”
Meeks added that Hollywild was never in any danger of losing its USDA license.
In 2015, the Meekses retired from Hollywild, named a new executive director, and made plans to move out of the park and into a new home once the nonprofit reached its financial goals for the year.
But those goals were never met.
Hollywild took a financial hit in 2015, when its attendance decreased from 200,000 to 100,000 visitors, causing the park to fall $150,000 short of projected revenues. Park officials blamed the decrease on a barn fire that had killed 27 animals earlier in the year.
On Jan. 9, 2015, a worker arrived at Hollywild to find smoke in a barn where some of the animals lived. A malfunctioning overhead light had sparked and caught a portion of the barn on fire, David Meeks said. The fire put itself out, he said, but not before burning insulation released a toxic smoke, killing the animals in their sleep.
According to Meeks, the following animals were found dead: two capuchins, four chimpanzees, two baboons, eight lemurs, two mangabeys, a bear cub, an African crowned crane, three tortoises, four wolf hybrid puppies, and one barn cat.
Survivors included five tortoises, a wallaroo, two baboons, a dog, two wolf hybrid puppies, a ring-tailed lemur, and two bear cubs.
Many park patrons and community members voiced sadness and disappointment about the loss of so many animals. PETA even called upon federal authorities to shut the park down and revoke its license. But the USDA conducted a full inspection after the fire and cleared the park after finding no compliancy issues.
Last year, Hollywild launched a campaign to raise $250,000, saying the money was essential to remain open and fund basic operations. But the fundraiser failed, and as a result, the board dismissed the staff and closed the park to the public in March.
Upon dismissal of the staff, the Meekses personally assumed responsibility for the park’s finances and hired their own staff to oversee the care of its wildlife collection, which now includes four lions, two tigers, and more than 300 other exotic animals.
“The animals have been the beneficiaries of this shift, as there are zero distractions from providing for their well-being,” Lucia Meeks said. “Managing the public component of the park required that we delegate the care of the animals to others, so, by necessity, we constantly missed out on what ultimately has always brought us the greatest joy.”
Lucia Meeks added that while the park’s future remains uncertain, it does plan to briefly open this winter for its 27th annual Holiday Safari Lights Benefit.
The event, which was launched in 1990, allows visitors to drive through the open area of the park while it’s decorated with more than 300,000 lights. It also features a deer forest and nativity with live animals.
A sneak preview of the event will be held on Nov. 10 and 11. It will then open nightly from Nov. 17 to Dec. 31. Hours will be 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. with extended hours on the weekends and holidays. Money raised during the event goes to care for the park’s animals throughout the year, according to Lucia Meeks.
For more information, visit hollywild.org.