Lawrence “Jungle Larry™” Tetzlaff
He Always Loved People and Animals
Born in Kalamazoo, Michigan, Larry Tetzlaff was the son of a contractor who remodeled businesses and homes and a stay at home mother who was formerly a school teacher. Larry’s childhood interest in reptiles flourished as he reached his teens. To share his wonder of the animal kingdom with others, he rented a building in his hometown and opened a reptilium to the public. Revenue from this allowed Larry to attend Western Michigan University. Following the publication of Larry’s scientific paper on the care of snakes, famous animal collector Frank “Bring ‘em Back Alive” Buck contacted Tetzlaff during his sophomore year and he left college to work for Buck at the historic 1939 World’s Fair in New York City.
Around this time, Larry headed south to Florida where he explored the swamps and wild areas of the state, worked on alligator farms including Ross Allen's Reptile Institute, and even doubled for Johnny Weissmuller in the famous Tarzan Finds a Son film. During World War II, Larry worked as a civilian on MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa doing fire/rescue using experience he had gained as a volunteer fireman in Kalamazoo. He also milked thousands of venomous snakes for Wyeth Labs. The U.S. government had contracted the pharmaceutical company to make medicine from the deadly serum.
Following the war, Larry moved back to Michigan. His animal work temporarily on hold, Tetzlaff sold vacuum cleaners and worked at Muir’s Drugstore in Kalamazoo and was later transferred to their store in Lorain, Ohio. Larry lived in Vermilion during this time and began rebuilding his animal collection. He soon started offering educational presentations with his animals at schools and civic organization meetings. Larry also made guest appearances on numerous local Cleveland television programs including Mary Ellen’s Fun Farm, Freda Champion’s Pooch Parade, Bill Gordon and Dorothy Fuldheim’s One O’Clock Club, and most memorably on Ron Penfound’s Captain Penny shows.
In the summer of 1957, Larry established an animal attraction at Puritas Springs where he met his wife Nancy Jane. They were married on December 1 that year with Ron Penfound as their best man. Nancy became not only wife, but also his partner -- and forever afterwards known as Safari Jane. Although Larry went solo on his scheduled reptile collecting trip to Australia in September of 1958, Nancy ventured out with him on many expeditions including the following year’s trek to South America including Trinidad and what was then British Guyana. Upon their return, they made a presentation at the Toledo Zoo. The event’s popularity generated great interest and the following year The Toledo Blade newspaper sponsored a safari to the same areas. Along with Larry, the safari included Toledo Zoo Director Phil Skeldon, Curator of Mammals Danny Danford, and Toledo Blade Sports Editor Lew Klewer. Their return was greeted by well-wishers lining the road from the airport to the zoo and, according to the newspaper, some twelve-thousand visitors filled Toledo Zoo for the welcome home program.
Viewing the Tetzlaffs' films and animals was an exotic experience for many Midwesterners in this era before National Geographic specials were on television. It has been humorously noted that even typically truant students were often seen to show up when schools brought in Jungle Larry and Safari Jane. The Tetzlaffs moved their exhibition from Puritas Springs to Chippewa Lake Park in 1959 and finally to Cedar Point in 1964 where over a million guests a year toured Jungle Larry’s Safari Island.
The following year, Larry and Nancy made a photo safari across Mexico from the Pacific to Gulf side finishing at the ruins in the Yucatan peninsula. Then in 1966, Larry and Nancy and young son David set out into the West African country of Liberia to collect and film animals. Their conservation ethic and caring style on these trips was often a surprise to guides who had worked with other safaris. On one expedition, guides were ready to chop down an entire tree filled with bird nests. Larry stopped them and climbed the tree personally to retrieve just six of the nests. Their 1960s program, The Vanishing Everglades, highlighted their concern for domestic conservation as well as the international need.
In the late 1960s, the Tetzlaffs began seeking out a warm winter location so the animals could be outside all year. In 1969, the Tetzlaffs began leasing Caribbean Gardens in Naples, Florida from the estate of Julius Fleischmann of Fleischmann Yeast fame. The Florida attraction was renamed Jungle Larry's African Safari and remained open year round while a portion of the animals spent summers at Cedar Point. Larry set out on safari again in 1972. Nancy stayed in the U.S. with their youngest son Tim due to contractual obligations with Cedar Point while Larry and eldest son David guided a tour through East Africa. In addition to traversing Kenya and Tanzania, they were also one of the last safaris to go through Uganda before Idi Amin plunged the country into years of strife.
During the 1970s and early 1980s, the Tetzlaffs expanded their programs and animal collection at both locations. Larry served as president of the Florida Attractions Association and also served on the Governor’s Wildlife Committee for Florida in an effort to better the lives of animals at countless roadside attractions. Tetzlaff continued speaking engagements and worked with big cats in the arena until 1982 when he retired from that part of his life and allowed son David to take over with the big cats. Larry was inducted into the Explorer’s Club in 1983. Larry Tetzlaff passed away in 1984. Without hesitation, his wife and sons were determined to continue his legacy and Cedar Point eagerly welcomed them back that spring.
As Naples grew large enough to support the zoo without subsidy from their Ohio operation, the decision was made to focus all their efforts in Naples. After a successful thirty year run, Jungle Larry’s Safari at Cedar Point finished its last season in 1994.
Since that time, the Florida zoo has flourished and is now known as the nonprofit Naples Zoo at Caribbean Gardens. Using all their parents taught them, sons David and Tim, zoo director and director of conservation and communications respectively, led the zoo through the arduous task of achieving accreditation by The Association of Zoos and Aquariums, the international organization that sets the highest standards for zoos and aquaria. Today, Naples Zoo supports international conservation field projects and participates in Species Survival Plans® for some of the world’s rarest animals – all to carry on the dreams of a young boy from Michigan who loved animals and who taught millions of others to do the same.