TAMPA — As curator of mammals for Busch Gardens, Tom Hayes was used to the double takes.
He once pulled into a weigh station bound for Tampa with a cargo of giraffes.
He ferried gorillas to dentist appointments, raised lion and tiger cubs at his home, and once jumped on the back of a white rhinoceros to see if he could get away with it.
He even appeared on Captain Kangaroo, scrubbing an elephant with soap and water.
Mr. Hayes, who was among the park's first employees, stayed through successive growth waves as Busch Gardens transformed from an aviary to a zoo, then a theme park.
The work suited his free-roaming sensibilities, allowed him to work with animals he understood and with a tight-knit crew.
Mr. Hayes, who acquired many of the animals that drew tens of thousands to the park every year, died Nov. 12, of congestive heart failure. He was 71.
From the earliest age, he could not imagine a tied-down lifestyle.
He was born in Grassy Cove, Tenn., and ran away from home at age 15.
He wound up with a circus in Washington state, then traveled with it to Florida. Busch Gardens was expanding, and bought its first elephant, Sally, from the Clyde Beatty-Cole Bros. Circus, in 1962. Mr. Hayes helped as Sally walked off the truck and was tied to a stake in the ground, said Tom Hayes Jr., 47, who is Mr. Hayes' son and the husband of Times staff writer Jean Hayes.
"Then the guy said, 'Hey, wait a minute, we don't know how to take care of this thing,' " his son said. "They offered him a job on the spot."
The job came with lots of latitude, including where to house the lion and cheetah cubs until they were ready for life in the park. Mr. Hayes brought them up in his Temple Terrace home. A monkey stayed outside in a cage.
Mr. Hayes acquired other animals, once flying to Switzerland for a pair of white rhinos. He admired them all, but never let them forget who was boss.
"An animal is not dumb," his son said. "It's almost like raising a kid. 'That's right, that's wrong.' You've got to have a strong hand with them."
He survived a few scares and some injuries. He tore up his knee trying to help a stranded gazelle. An antelope once drove its curved horn through the fabric of his pants. It went in at the knee — and out his pocket — but otherwise left him untouched.
"Talk about a close call," his son said.
The circus long behind him, he still tried his hand at occasional tricks for small audiences, notably when entertaining then-park owners August "Gussie" Busch Jr. and his son, August Busch III. One such visit inspired him to leap aboard the unsuspecting rhino like a nimble rodeo clown. Another time, he taught a zebra to pull a harness buggy.
People were more trouble, but he somewhat enjoyed them also. He liked working outside with a small crew, men with inside jokes and good-natured barbs that grew richer with history.
Meanwhile, the park itself was growing. The monorail above the 70-acre "Serengeti Plain" got upstaged by the Serengeti Express railroad. The Stanley Falls Flume plunged screaming tourists into a watery trough.
A roller coaster, the Python, was added in 1976. His zoo had turned into a Disney World with animals. He had dozens more employees to supervise, and an administrator's position above him that hadn't been there before.
"Busch Gardens was growing at such a rate, he was spending less time with hands-on and more time behind a desk," his son said. "And that definitely was not his style."
Mr. Hayes left the park in 1978. He started a lawn service business with his wife, Suzanne. The business lasted many years. They lived on rural land east of Brooksville. His wife died of cancer in 2000, and Mr. Hayes' body began to weaken from cardiomyopathy.
Friends and family will remember him in a private gathering in the woods. They will grill venison and break out the all-terrain vehicles.
"Tip a few beers, tell some stories," his son said. "Celebrate his life. To hell with funerals."
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.