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There was a time when John Roberts was hand-raising Lilly — a blue duiker who still loves meeting human visitors at Safari West — when it was common for him to spend evenings watching movies with the tiny, sweet-faced antelope.

Likewise, he'd sometimes have a young Indian crested porcupine or two hanging out at home, their off-exhibit enclosure directly beneath Roberts' window so he could keep close watch and pass them snacks at night, a colleague recalls.

Roberts, who died of cancer Sunday at age 59, worked for 20 years as animal manager and naturalist at the 400-acre exotic animal preserve near Santa Rosa. He lived on the premises for 15 years, helping to care for more than 400 creatures at the complex.

He had a special bond with the giraffes that he tucked into heated stalls each night with the occasional baby antelope or any other special needs mammals sleeping in the barn at a given time.

"He loved to do barn checks at night," Safari West Registrar Kimberly Robertson said. "That was John's special time. He loved to go in and check on all the animals in the barn, check on the giraffes, say good night to everybody and turn out the light."

While he was clearly dedicated to the animals, however, Roberts was not a sentimentalist, friends and colleagues said. He brought a rancher's sensibility to the work, forming attachments to certain animals but understanding they were largely untamed creatures ruled by instinct.

His often amused expression, kindness and wry sense of humor belied a straightforward, practical approach to handling the animals, some of them highly skittish and many times the weight of a man.

Roberts grew up outside Portland as part of a lumber family and moved to Marysville during high school, later working in the wood trade with his father, his wife, Dorothy Roberts, said.

He found his way to the North Coast around the time Safari West founder Peter Lang moved north from Southern California with about two dozen species of exotic animals that first populated the preserve.

But Lang, a one-time furniture manufacturer, first hired Roberts to help process and market the wood and finely grained burl from a walnut orchard Lang had acquired. Eventually Lang, who continues to mill and cure wood at Safari West, brought Roberts into the animal care side of his operation.

"He loved it," Lang said. "He grew with it."

Roberts was an early guide once Safari West opened to the public in 1993, developing deep knowledge of the animals and serving as outreach educator for many years.

He also was responsible for monitoring the health of the animals, working side-by-side with the veterinarian for most procedures, staffers said. Roberts was sometimes called upon to use a dart gun to tranquilize or administer medications to animals too large, dangerous or skittish to be treated by hand.

Roberts also became an expert — one of fewer than 10 in the country — at transporting exotic animals between zoos and preserves to enhance breeding and accommodate space needs. He would often hit the road in one of several modified cattle or horse trailers, stopping in a succession of states to drop off and pick up animals for Safari West and other zoological institutions.

Roberts brought everything from monkeys to white rhinos to giraffes back to Santa Rosa — various portions of the animals sometimes visible through openings in their housing, making for occasionally odd roadside sightings.

After meeting Dorothy Roberts five years ago, they married in August 2010 and moved to a house in Napa, though he continued his work at Safari West.

Dorothy Roberts said she sometimes worried that he missed his night-time duties there and his close proximity to the animals he loved, though their two beloved dogs were with him.

"He assured me several times that he was very happy," she said. "It was just the right time for me to meet him and the right time for him to move. And he seemed to be extremely happy."

In addition to his wife, Roberts is survived by a sister, Jeanne Roberts, of Arizona; and step-daughters Rachel Russell, of Cape Coral, Fla., and Ashley Hensgen, of Denver. His parents, Earl and Marjorie Roberts, preceded him in death.