Lake Tobias Wildlife Park was founded by J.R. Tobias as “just a hobby to fall back on in my retirement” and grew into a beloved local attraction over the decades. Originally, J.R.’s interest in wildlife and exotic creatures led him to consider agriculture and animals as a career, but he opted to join the U.S. Marines instead of going to college, enlisting in 1943. After leaving the Marines, J.R. Tobias went on to own multiple successful businesses, including a dairy, a cement block manufacturing company, a John Deere farm machinery business, and an excavating and grading company. The equipment and skills from these businesses came in handy when it was time to build the park. He constructed all of the stream-fed lakes that visitors enjoy today during visits to Lake Tobias Wildlife Park.
Before J.R. Tobias’ death, he transferred ownership and operation of the park to his children, and his six remaining children and four grandchildren run the park today. This self-sustaining family attraction welcomes more than 240,000 visitors a year. The park receives no state or federal funding, so revenue from the park covers all operating expenses.
One major innovation in zoo and wildlife viewing that began at Lake Tobias Wildlife Park is the concept of an open-air safari. In the early days of the park, J.R. Tobias developed the idea of taking old school buses and converting them into open-air vehicles to give guests rides through a landscape where exotic animals roam free. These open-air safari vehicles and the concept of giving visitors direct access to the animals has been replicated at zoos around the world since then.
Lake Tobias Wildlife Park has undergone some significant changes since its earliest days. New family activities have been introduced over the park’s more than 50-year history, and the facilities have been expanded and improved upon to provide an even better life for the animal residents and a better experience for park visitors. Custom-designed, expanded habitats for the park’s tigers and black bears were added in 2006, and the park’s African lion and baboon populations got a new facility designed by one of the current owners, Ern Tobias, in 2008. This facility received a Mid Atlantic BX Craftsmanship Award for the design.
In 2011, the custom-designed Reptiles and Exotics facility received rave reviews upon opening in the park, and the new, expanded Safari Station was completed in 2015. The J.R. Tobias Museum and Education Center, which also houses the park’s 500-gallon aquarium with stingrays, opened its doors in 2017. Upon its opening, it received the New Attraction of the Year award from the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitor’s Bureau. In 2018, our new Giraffe exhibit opened and was expanded in the 2019 season to include a feeding deck. And in 2023, the newest exhibit at the park—the African Lion and White Lion exhibit—was completed.
Guest services and associated facilities have also undergone extensive changes since the park opened. Our food service departments were renovated and updated in 2014 and the new Gift Shop was added during the 2023 season.
While many of the changes at Lake Tobias Wildlife Park have been the result of careful planning and exciting developments, some changes have been in response to challenging circumstances. A tornado hit the park in 1989, and destroyed structures had to be rebuilt after the storm. Fortunately, the animals at the park all remained safe during the event and their enclosures remained intact.
The discovery of bovine (animal) TB in a recently acquired animal in 1992 caused community concern, but the Department of Health determined that there was no risk to the public from the animal. Unfortunately, USDA regulations required that mammals at the park during the incident, including J.R. Tobias’ beloved lioness, had to be destroyed, and the park worked with the USDA to comply with this requirement. A new animal population was restored with help from the USDA in time for the 1993 season opening.