Lions and tigers and bears, oy vey!: Animals add purr-fect touch to safari bnai mitzvah parties

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On the day of her bat mitzvah, 12-year-old Rebecca Merenbach went from draping herself in a tallit and embracing the Torah to cradling a 16-foot-long python, staring into a kangaroo’s eyes and running her hand over the leathery contour of an alligator’s back.

No, Rebecca didn’t recite her Haftorah at the zoo. And no, the creatures weren’t slithering, jumping or creeping onto the bimah.

The animals were part of Rebecca’s “African Safari” bat mitzvah party, held March 28 at the Pacific Athletic Club in Redwood City.

“It made the theme a lot cooler with the animals there,” Rebecca said recently. “Getting to touch all of them was really cool. I liked the kangaroo — you could pet it and it kissed everybody. [The kiss] tickled, and was kind of gross and wet, but really cute.”

The man who helped transform Rebecca’s bat mitzvah party into a jungle is Menlo Park–based party planner Rick Herns. He works with a vendor (someone he will only identify as “Gabe the animal guy”) who rescues critters that people mistakenly thought they could keep as pets.

Gabe maintains a shelter near Lake Tahoe with a staff of veterinarians and animal keepers, according to Herns. In addition to the aforementioned animals, he also has birds of prey, a porcupine, a hedgehog, a lemur, a spider monkey, baboons, hissing cockroaches and plenty more. He’s even got a tiger, a zebra and a full-grown giraffe.

He’s given the term “party animal” a whole new meaning.

Rebecca Merenbach (fourth from left) and her friends grasp a 16-foot python at her African safari bat mitzvah party. photo/maggie mae/kids on location photos

Usually 12 to 15 animals are brought to each appearance, with Gabe transporting them in an air-conditioned trailer (the giraffe, of course, has special transportation). The animals stay in their cages until it’s time for them to come out.

Gabe and his trainers stay in full control of the creatures. If it’s possible to touch them, the kids — and maybe even a few brave adults — swarm.

There’s often an element of surprise when Gabe’s truck arrives at a venue. Animals being animals, Herns said, there’s no guarantee that the zebra will want to show off its stripes, or the porcupine won’t be prickly with partygoers.

Still, the giant python and the tame alligator almost always make the guest list. Throw in a hedgehog and some creepy crawlers, and everyone “on safari” has a wild time.

Rebecca’s mom, Lisa Merenbach, got just the reaction her family was hoping for.

“This was the last bat mitzvah on both sides of our family,” said Merenbach, whose family belongs to Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo.. “We had guests from many parts of the country, and we wanted a special celebration where people could enjoy themselves.

“[Rebecca] really wanted the animals. They added to the theme and excitement, and made the party just a little bit more unique.”

Added Herns: “[Gabe] is knowledgeable and tells guests about each animal — where it’s from, what it eats and its behaviors.”

Bar mitzvah Ethan Clement gets a “welcome to the jungle” from a zebra. photo/courtesy of diane clement

The average cost to book Gabe’s thundering herd is $1,500, according to Herns. Requests for more exotic animals (such as the giraffe or tiger) can increase that price. Typically, the animals stay at an event for three hours. Want more time? That’ll cost you, too.

Less expensive firms in the Bay Area offer smaller animals, such as reptiles or parrots, Herns said, “but no one that I know of does the full gamut of animal species like Gabe.”

Of course, almost no one would “invite” so many species to a party without planning some sort of safari theme. “Therefore, while you may only spend $1,500 on the animals, you’re going to spend thousands on the theatrical atmosphere,” Herns said. “That’s why the animals are there.”

At Ilana Gordon’s bat mitzvah celebration earlier this year at the Crowne Plaza Hotel in Foster City, friends and family also partied safari-style. After making a list of possible crowd-pleasers, Ilana’s father, David Gordon, said the idea to have live animals “seemed perfect.”

Gabe brought the alligator, kangaroo, python, hedgehog and “some kind of large lizard,” Gordon said, noting that he was so busy at the party that he hardly got to pet any of the animals, all of which were brought inside the hotel.

The kangaroo even hopped around the dance floor.

Bat mitzvah Ilana Gordon (center) cautiously approaches a hedgehog at her safari-themed celebration. photo/courtesy of david gordon

“People loved it,” said Gordon, whose family belongs to Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. “It was unusual and worked out well. The animals got everyone involved, though I’m sure there were people who didn’t go near them.

“No one had a problem — not even my mom, who’s really afraid of animals. It was a pretty unique vendor to have.”

While it’s one thing to have wildlife traipsing into a banquet hall or other rental facility, things can be quite a bit more nerve-racking when the party is on your own turf. Just ask Diane Clement.

“Initially, I was concerned,” said Clement, who, with her husband, Bert Clement, hosted her son Ethan’s bar mitzvah ceremony and celebration, “Welcome to the Jungle,” in their Saratoga home two years ago. “But the animals fit Ethan’s personality, so we went ahead with it. He’s my wild child and truly loves animals.”

Like Gordon, Clement was busy for most of the party, and didn’t even realize the animals (alligator, kangaroo, zebra, lemur, owl, baboons, porcupine) had arrived until she heard people scream, “There’s a zebra in the driveway!”

As the party progressed, Gabe brought out the animals a few at a time, and despite having a kangaroo on the dance floor and exotic birds perched on the shoulders of guests, Clement said it “wasn’t an over-the-top, obnoxious scene.”

Moreover, the animals actually helped bring people together, which sometimes doesn’t happen at b’nai mitzvah parties.
“Usually you have the separation of the kids and adults,” Clement said. “But we were all in one place.”