Sam Chambliss
Sam Chambliss ()

Samuel Mauldin Chambliss was a successful lawyer in Ridgefield. Some even describe him as one of the first attorneys in Connecticut to focus on environmental law as a practice area. In the early 1970s, he helped write legislation that created the local Inland Wetland Boards that now function statewide.

But when he died in early May, those achievements weren’t the most interesting part of his obituary. Instead, it was his decision to abandon his legal career for the wide-open savanna of Africa, buy a large ranch, and devote nearly two decades to conserving habitats for rhinos and other species.

In an interview with a Ridgefield Press reporter in 1989, Chambliss recalled how the government of Zimbabwe was trying to move endangered black rhinoceroses away from the nation’s borders and out of the reach of poachers. He describes how the arrival of the first rhino to his ranch offered insight into the animal’s notoriously bad tempers.

“The first rhino delivered had to be ‘free released’—that is, not into a pen,” Chambliss recalled. “It came out of the crate and it had enough of being cooped up. It was looking for something to damage. Someone had left a pickup truck with two dogs in it parked nearby. After the first time [the rhino] hit it, the truck bounced up and down on its shocks, which convinced the rhino it was alive.”

In all, 32 rhinos were brought to Chambliss’ preserve. Three had calves there. He filed reports on the animals’ lives and mating habits. He also helped save elephants from poachers, bringing them inside electric fences. “We got 10 calves and we came up with the idea of starting our own little elephant herd,” Chambliss said.

When he died in DeLand, Fla., at 84, Chambliss was remembered for his contributions on two continents.

“It is hard to describe a very special person,” his wife of 35 years, Janet Chambliss, said in an interview. “But Sam is indeed a special person. A wonderful husband, very supportive, loving, kind, protective. He had a delightful sense of humor and he was dedicated to accomplishing anything he started.”

Sam Chambliss, as he was known, was born in Plainfield, N.J., on Dec. 15, 1929, and attended Wilkes College, now Bucknell University. He went on to earn a law degree at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, his son, Samuel Mauldin Chambliss III, said.

While living in Pennsylvania, he married his first wife, Millicent Marie Purcell, in 1949.

After law school, Chambliss’ son, an attorney in Atlanta, said his father went on to earn his master’s degree in military law from the Judge Advocate General School at the University of Virginia.

“He then served his country as a captain in the JAG Corps of the United States Army, stationed in Germany,” his son said. After leaving the military, where he conducted military trials and court-martial proceedings, Chambliss and his wife settled in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“Sam accepted a position there in the Chambliss family law firm, which was founded in the late 19th century by his grandfather, the first Samuel Mauldin Chambliss,” the son said.

In his first law job, Chambliss worked as a general practitioner, specializing in business litigation. After a divorce in 1966, Chambliss moved to Westport. He eventually moved north to Ridgefield, where he established a practice in land use and conservation issues. He became a specialist in the emerging field of environmental law and served for several years as the town attorney for Redding.

In 1979, Chambliss married his second wife, Janet Bavier Parris.

Midway through a career that included representing the Redding Conservation Commission and the Redding Land Trust, and holding memberships in many early environmental groups in the state, a friend told him about an 18,500-acre ranch that was for sale in the midlands province of Zimbabwe, near the country’s largest lake.

“We had visited Zimbabwe previously,” Janet Chambliss said, and the couple jumped at the opportunity to buy the land. Family members joked that the purchase was made “during a midlife crisis,” she said.

But they had serious work in mind. About a year after making the purchase, government officials put out a call for landowners to help save the endangered black rhino.

“When we learned the government of Zimbabwe was looking for ranchers who were willing to protect the country’s black rhino from the poachers who were slaughtering them along the Zambezi border, we moved there permanently,” Janet Chambliss said.

For the next 16 years, starting in 1987, the couple lived a life many only dream of. They pulled buckets of sweet water from a spring-fed well, ate fruit from their own trees, vegetables from the garden, and enjoyed what Chambliss described as “the beauty and peacefulness of our environment.”

The couple and neighboring landowners enclosed their properties with an electric fence, creating a 60,000-acre nature preserve intended to protect the rhino and other species. At the same time, Sam Chambliss became licensed by the Zimbabwe government to be a professional hunter and guide. “Sam was one of only three non-Zimbabweans to ever pass the professional hunter test,” Janet Chambliss said.

Sam Chambliss kept his friends at home updated with letters and articles about his life that appeared in The Ridgefield Press. “They call it a savanna, open woodlands and plains,” he said in 1989, describing his ranch. “We’ve got zebra, waterbuck, kudu, impala, elands and the tsessebe, the fastest antelope in the world.”

Janet Chambliss said that when her husband had practiced law, “he was very pleased that he did not know how to turn on a computer.” But having a computer became a necessity in their new life. Sam taught himself to type, and he used the computer for all of his records about what happened on the ranch, including his correspondence with friends and relatives back home, she said. “He wondered how he had managed without a computer” during his law career.

Aside from the computer, they had few modern conveniences.

“We were 35 miles from the closest town, [a] 15-minute drive from the closest neighbor, and no TV or cable,” she said. “There were no distractions, but a marvelous bonding with each other. It was a bliss many do not have the good fortune of experiencing.”

For her husband, who in Connecticut had belonged to environmental groups such as the New England Interstate Water Pollution Control Commission and the Connecticut Conservation Association, the newfound career was a natural fit.

“Sam had a love for every animal,” Janet Chambliss said. “He never tired of watching the interaction between the animals that made their home on our property.”

But their life on the savanna came to an end in 2003, when Zimbabwe President Robert Mugabe expropriated land from white settlers. The couple moved to South Africa for nine years before returning to the U.S. in 2012. They settled in central Florida instead of Connecticut Janet Chambliss explained, because it was more like “the natural environment we’d been accustomed to in Zimbabwe.”

Still, returning to the states was an adjustment. “He was in his 50s when we pulled up stakes and left the country,” Janet Chambliss said. “When we moved back, we found that America had changed a lot in the 25 years we were gone.”

The changes they noticed most were the taste of fluorinated public water and having a supermarket close by. Same with mail delivery, and the ability to buy goods without a long wait for it to arrive by airplane, Janet Chambliss said.

“The best change was being close to our family once again,” she said.•