Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:32 pm
Tom Bentley’s day job is running The Bentley Co. construction firm in Milwaukee, but when he gets the chance, he trades in his hard hat and dons a rifle and a camera instead.
The fifth-generation contractor knows he is blessed as an executive to have the wherewithal to go on extreme wildlife adventures in Alaska and Africa.
For Bentley, the more exotic the animal, the better. He likes to have one-on-one encounters with wildlife.
"I want to see animals up close, especially the scary ones," Bentley said. "The ones that make your heart beat faster."
Bentley said his passion for hunting does not exceed his passion for photography, and he has won several awards through his safari club photography contests. Bentley’s office and one of his conference rooms is decorated with photos he has taken on various trips. He has had encounters with giraffes, zebras, impalas, bears, lions and rhinoceroses that could equal the adventures of professionals showcased on the National Geographic Channel.
On his third trip to Africa in 12 years, Bentley decided to go straight for the gold star in his book: Zambia. The country is the former northern Rhodesia and one of the poorest and most diseased nations in the world. About 86 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to the Central Intelligence Agency’s world factbook.
Bentley, 58, went to Zambia last summer with his hunting partner, Stuart Hagen, from Eau Claire. The trip, which lasted from July 4 to August 9, began in South Africa with their wives, before they headed off to Zambia on July 16 for the 21-day hunting, camping and photography trip.
"We waited two years to book the trip because Zambia was closed while the government redesigned the hunting," Bentley said. "Seventy village chiefs bought into the plan, and 30 percent of the hunter fees go to the chiefs to use for medical supplies or food for their villages."
Bentley said hunting is essential to save certain species and to feed the villagers.
"We were hunting to preserve the area," Bentley said. "The game park serves as a buffer to keep poachers out of the Kafuee Refuge Park, and the animals we killed we gave to the starving villagers and children."
The Kafuee Refuge Park is the area where most of the exotic animals live. Part of the redesign of hunting in Zambia included a 1 million-acre hunting ring around the Kafuee.
Throughout most of the year, natives do not live on the land. According to Bentley, only seven hunters per year are allowed to hunt the area, and poachers are killed or arrested for trespassing.
"It is pretty ingenious," Bentley said. "They are already seeing animal populations recover."
Bentley said he was surprised when he met the villagers of Zambia. English is a second language for them, and Bentley said they always seemed jovial.
"They don’t know how poor they are because they don’t have television, radios or the Internet," Bentley said. "All they know is that their economy will increase 8 percent this year and they see that as life getting better. It is sad to think about all of the things we complain about in America."
Bentley said he felt so sorry for them that as he was leaving, he gave 70 percent of his luggage away to the villagers.
Bentley and Hagen stayed in a camp with 30 workers who were paid $1 per day for their services, plus $1 for food.
"Zambia is more exotic than the trips I have gone on in Africa previously," Bentley said. "It is very remote with many dangers like diseases, poisonous snakes like the black mamba, and the average life expectancy is 45 years old. The danger starts before you bump into the natives or into the lions or leopards."
Bentley said the dangers of a Zamian safari were appealing to him.
"The big five most dangerous game animals in Africa are the rhino, elephant, leopard, lion and Cape buffalo. Four out of five of these animals were on the property – the leopard, lion, Cape buffalo and elephant. Poachers have killed all of the rhinos."
Bentley said he was more scared of the poisonous snakes that can come out of nowhere and bite people than the animals that tend to charge at the sight of an armed human. The black mamba, the fastest and most deadly snake in the world, is native to countries in eastern Africa, including Zambia. If bitten, a person dies from the venom within 15 minutes.
"I am running bigger risks all of the time," Bentley said. "It is kind of like a new high."
In September, Bentley went on a fishing trip to Katmai National Park in Alaska, where he took photographs of a mother bear and two cubs that were swimming toward him. He was knee-deep in a river and had no protection.
"I was standing in the water with bears in the same place two people had just been eaten by bears. If they want to kill you, you’re dead," Bentley said.
Bentley continues to seek the next destination for his ultimate outdoor adventure.
"If I don’t feel my life is in danger, then I feel I have not gone far enough, that it is not a risky or exotic enough place," Bentley said. "Danger could be the weather, the plane I am riding in or animals. It makes you appreciate being alive."
October 29, 2004, Small Business Times, Milwaukee, WI