Al Metz leaned back in his patio chair as sunshine warmed his wrinkled face on a bright Sunday morning.
The 91-year-old WWII veteran and former wild animal trainer ran a shaky hand through his white hair.
His gold rings shimmered in the sunlight.
Draping his leather bomber jacket over the back of his chair, Metz began to recount his extraordinary life.
Born on January 30, 1927, Metz spent his childhood in Rochester, New York. His father, Albert, served in World War I, which played a role in Metz’s decision to enlist.
While earning his high school diploma, the motivated 16-year-old surprised his parents with some unexpected news.
“I went to school one day. I came back and said, ‘Mom and dad, you’d be proud of me. I joined the Air Force.’
They said, ‘Why? You didn’t even get drafted! Why do you have to go?’
‘I’m going. My country’s calling me, and I’m going.’”
After receiving his pilot’s license and basic military training, Metz was deployed to France during the final years of World War II. He served in Germany, Italy and North Africa as part of Air Transport Command. This special unit delivered supplies, equipment and key personnel to various combat theaters during WWII.
Metz was responsible for maintaining communications between pilots and the places they flew to during the war.
“[I] didn’t see much combat. I was the guy who took care of the aircraft—kept it in the air. I flew when I could in France, Italy and North Africa.”
The retired Air Force Sergeant loved to fly. A cool breeze drifted by as Metz recalled what it was like to fly “so long ago.”
“Start the engines. Rev it up. Go to the takeoff area. Whoosh,” Metz said as he glided his hand upwards. “What a feeling.”
Metz served four years overseas before returning to the U.S. He looks back at his time in the military with sincere gratitude.
“I loved the military. I’d go back if I could, but I’m too old now.”
After returning from Europe, Metz pursued a degree in business at San Francisco State University, but soon realized that his passion was elsewhere. Metz was fascinated with wild animals from an early age, which fueled his desire to work with a variety of exotic animals later on in life.
For the second time, Metz surprised his parents with a new career choice. He recalled transporting a wild cat to his mother’s home to show her the large animal in person.
With several years of training behind him, Metz was offered a job with Ivan Tors Studios. The Hungarian playwright was known for his fictional films and television shows that featured exotic animals.
“I got a call one day. Ivan Tors wanted to make a new series called Daktari. He wanted me to handle the wild animals. Ivan was very serious about his animals.”
Metz worked with “Clarence, the Cross-Eyed Lion,” and a chimpanzee named Judy while on the set of the popular 1960’s drama series. He believed in humane training methods throughout his career.
“I never mistreated the animals. I always treated them with love and affection. Patted them on the head. Good boy, good boy.”
Metz spent 25 years training animals for numerous productions including “Flipper” and the “Gentle Ben” series. He traveled the United States with lions, tigers and monkeys in tow.
Even with his experience and talent, Metz was attacked several times by some of the animals he trained and loved.
“Oh, yes. It’s their nature. I’ve been bit in my arms, in my hands. Occupational hazard. They’re animals, but I love my animals.”
Metz went out of his way to cater to his cats.
“I remember one time, we ran out of cat food. So we had to go to the grocery store. Went to the meat market and grabbed bunches of prime rib,” Metz chuckled. “My cats ate prime rib steak.”
Near the end of his career, Metz brought a bear to Coeur d’Alene for a local show and instantly fell in love with the area. He eventually retired from animal training. He’s a proud father of three children: Greg, Scott, and Suzette.
According to Metz, the warm summers drew him to the area. He leaned his head back once again, soaking up the sunshine with a smile.
“Breakfast or lunch, I want the sun,” Metz said.