In February, George and I were offered the opportunity to go to Safari Wilderness, a sister company to the Giraffe Ranch. They were impressed with the blog post and video I had created for the Giraffe Ranch and asked if I would be interested in doing one for them as well.* Aside from being incredibly flattered, I was thrilled at the chance to try something new!
I did recall later that I had visited Safari Wilderness once before, several years ago when my sister, her husband, and their two young daughters were in Florida for a wedding. I didn’t do a blog post for that trip which may be why I didn’t realize initially that it was the same place, but I did create a video of that trip for my sister which I will share along with two new videos at the end of this post.
And now… let’s go on safari!
First, I want to give you a little background. Safari Wilderness is located in the middle of a protected preserve known as the “Green Swamp” in Lakeland, Florida. It is surrounded by cattle farms, giving you that “middle of nowhere” feeling as you are driving to it.
The day we chose for our adventure couldn’t have been more perfect! It was neither too hot nor too cold and the clouds were huge and puffy, which helped to keep the sun from getting too intense and made for some dramatically beautiful pictures.
When compared to the Giraffe Ranch, Safari Wilderness is quite a bit larger with more animals and more room for them to roam. The pricing for each site is about the same, with each having the same basic adventure options like the vehicle tour or the camel tour. They do each have their own unique adventure options not available with the other – for Safari Wilderness, the one that most appealed to George and I was the kayak adventure, which gives you the opportunity to observe the wildlife and many bird species from the water. You also get to make a stop at “Lemur Island” to hand-feed grapes to the lemurs that reside there.
If you don’t want to spring for the kayak trip but really want to feed the lemurs, never fear! Just like the Giraffe Ranch, Safari Wilderness has optional add-ons available, and feeding the lemurs is one of them. I can’t speak highly enough about my experiences with feeding the lemurs, both at the Giraffe Ranch and Safari Wilderness. It is definitely worth spending the extra money on.
As of now, I’ve fed these fuzzy little primates five separate times, and it has still not gotten old. I don’t even think it’s possible to get tired of feeling their soft little hands gently gripping your fingers as they semi-patiently wait for you to give in to adorableness and hand them another treat.
I could talk about lemurs forever but because there is so much more I need to get to, I must move on! As a family-owned working ranch, Safari Wilderness has free-range chicken and they bale their own hay, raise cattle for beef, and even breed, raise, and sell guinea pigs as pets. They keep their tours limited to twice a day and purposefully keep them small to ensure their animals don’t become overly stressed.
For this trip we took the traditional vehicle tour, which made it easier to compare and contrast the differences of the two sister ranches. Our vehicle was a converted open air bus with comfortable padded seats, which we shared with a group of about 10 other safari-goers. The bus did have a canopy cover for shade – believe me, that is a valuable feature for dealing with the strong Florida sun!
As far as mosquitoes go… well, we were in the wetlands. Mosquitoes are pretty much a given. If you are very sensitive to mosquito bites I’d recommend putting on bug spray before you go on the tour (but please, not while on the bus if you want to be respectful to those around you who may be sensitive to sprays). I didn’t think to bring bug spray, and while I did see mosquitoes and I’m certain I was bitten, I didn’t react to the bites as I normally do. Usually if I’m bitten my skin develops itchy red welts that last for hours, but this did not happen here. Perhaps the mosquitoes here were a different species that I am not sensitive to, or maybe I was so enthralled with the beauty of everything I saw outside of the vehicle that I just didn’t notice the itch.
Our driver and guide to the safari was a woman named JJ, who was absolutely wonderful. She was incredibly knowledgeable with a great sense of humor, and her chemistry with the animals was endearing and even comical at times. It was her interactions with the animals that really added a lot to the charm of the tour. She entertained us with stories of her days working in the circus (including Ringling Bros., which, while now closed, still has an awesome museum in Sarasota that I recently blogged about!). She also gave us interesting insights into the animals we “met” and happily answered any questions we had.
Some of the first animals we saw were the water bucks – named not because they spend a lot of time in the water, but because they use water to defend themselves against threats – they are capable of running through the water much quicker than their natural predators. To help us identify them, JJ pointed out a couple of their defining features:
- They have adorable heart-shaped noses.
- On the aptly named “ellipsen” water bucks, they have white ellipse-shaped marks on their rear ends, which JJ artfully described as looking like “they just sat on a wet toilet seat”.
One frequent visitor to the bus were animals known as the “nilgai” which means “blue bull” or “blue cow”, named because the males turn a beautiful bluish gray color as he matures.
The nilgai were one of the animals we were asked not to feed from the bus, due to their tendency to become a nuisance to tours when they get used to being fed by visitors. However, JJ assured us that each of the animals on the ranch is fed, and fed well. They are given grain and hay each day, and have mineral licks in various spots throughout the grounds.
Of course, that didn’t stop them from begging to be the exception to the “don’t feed the nilgai” rule!
Another persistent visitor to the bus were the llamas, which were one of the animals we were permitted to feed. They hammed it up and did their best to look as cute as possible to compete with each other for the treats. But, really, how could you possibly choose between these adorable faces? I fed them all!
The ostriches were another animal that we couldn’t feed off the bus but, much to the delight of everyone on the tour, followed us around anyway, attempting to trick JJ into giving them snacks.
Did you know? The male and female ostriches have very different coloring, but unlike with most birds, the feather coloring differences are not to attract mates. Instead, the coloring assists ostrich parents with protecting their young – the dark coloring of the males is perfectly suited to keeping eggs hidden from predators at night, while the light coloring of the females is better for blending in during the day. For attracting mates, male ostriches develop a bright reddish-orange coloring on his beak and legs, which he shows off with some clever birdie dance moves to drive the ladies wild!
While in ostrich territory, JJ pointed out an ostrich egg and described just how strong they are – a human could stand on one and it would not break. During this conversation, a memory stirred about an experience I had in high school…
After learning a new trick where you could surround a chicken egg with your hand and squeeze as hard as you could and it wouldn’t break, high school Karen decided to share this new knowledge with her friend. Her class had just completed the assignment of carrying around hard-boiled egg “babies” for a week, making it the perfect opportunity for high school Karen to impress her friend with the “eggs-periment” The friend in question refused to believe that it was true, so high school Karen challenged her to try it for herself. With only a bit of hesitation, the friend began to squeeze the egg, becoming more and more amazed as she increased the pressure. Just as the words “Wow, you were right!” were escaping her lips, the egg broke in her hand, spilling egg guts everywhere. The shocked look on her face had high school Karen in hysterics, and she to this day has no idea why the trick didn’t work that time. Was the egg weakened from being carried around for so long? Or perhaps it had a micro crack on it’s shell? The world may never know.
Back to the ostriches! One persistent myth about ostriches is that they bury their heads in the sand to hide from predators. This is actually not true; in reality, they will run quickly in a zigzag shape while throwing their wings around to scare off the threat. They are also pretty tough when they have to be – they’ve even been known to take out lions when challenged or when protecting their young!
Of course, as the owner of a very tough little cockatiel, this doesn’t surprise me at all. Would you mess with either of these birds?
The definite highlight of the tour was feeding the water buffalo. These gentle giant beasts delighted everyone on the tour with their large soulful eyes and their long skinny tongues which they used to take the food from our fingers.
They continued to circle the bus and accepted food from anyone who offered it until we had no more to give.
The zebras were another memorable part of the tour. Though we couldn’t feed them, they cleverly devised a scheme to get some treats their own way. Let me explain – Safari Wilderness has different sections throughout their grounds which are separated by large gates. These gates require that the guide get out of the bus to open the gate, then get back into the bus to drive through, and finally back out of the bus to close the gate behind us. In what appeared to be a group undertaking, JJ was shooing a couple of the zebra away from the gate so they wouldn’t try coming through. While she was distracted with closing the gate, a third zebra managed to sneak up to the bus and help himself to the bucket of food, purposefully knocking it over so the pellets would spill to the ground for all three zebras to enjoy.
JJ took it in stride, saying that they let the zebras get away with it because it beats the alternative of them trying to run through the gates!
Now, while we’re on the subject of zebras – let’s talk about zedonks! Just like with the Giraffe Ranch, Safari Wilderness also had a resident zedonk (part zebra, part donkey). Because zedonks tend to be very protective of their herd and will make a big racket if they sense a threat, Safari Wilderness decided to give their zedonk the important job of being part of the “border patrol early warning system”, – meaning its main home is inside the double fence section that circles the property. Don’t feel bad for the border patrol animals though, the fence circles all 265 acres of their property so they have plenty of room to roam!
Next up – the forest buffalo! They are kept fenced apart from the travel areas because they have a tendency to get aggressive when stressed out, and vehicles driving around them multiple times a day would be quite distressing. Forest buffalo are red in color, which might seem counter-intuitive for a prey animal that lives in the (green) forest, but because their main predators are big cats (such as leopards) which can not distinguish between red and green, they have no problems blending in with the trees.
The wildebeest, also known as the “blue gnu”, are funny looking creatures which JJ aptly described as looking “like they were thrown together out of spare parts”.
If these guys look familiar to you but you can’t quite place them, you may be thinking of an old viral YouTube video showing what happens in a standoff between wildebeest and crocodile. Or, if not that, you might be remembering a National Geographic episode showing these animals during their “great migration” in Africa – and “great” it certainly is! Wildebeest travel in groups so large (think millions), that they can be seen from outer space.
Throughout the tour we found ourselves in the company of various species of cattle, many of whom would walk up to the bus while licking their lips, hoping beyond hope for a special treat.
These big-horn beauties are called “angola” or “watusi” cattle. Can you imagine having to have such large growths coming out of your head? It doesn’t seem to bother them though!
Now for a guessing game! Can you tell me what kind of farm animal this fella is?
If you said goat, NOPE! It’s actually a sheep. Sheep can sometimes look quite a bit like goats, but JJ told us a little trick on how to tell them apart: goats have tails that are usually pointing up, and “goat” ends with a “t” – the tail on the letter is up. Sheep usually have tails that are pointing down, and “sheep” ends with a “p” – the tail on the letter is down. Burn that to your memory, because you never know when it might come in handy!
And now (hooray!) it’s time to talk about lemurs again. During the tour we drove past Lemur Island, though we couldn’t get up close and personal with them in our land-based vehicle. We did, however, get to see the delightfully entertaining spectacle of them playing together!
You might be wondering, “how do they get the lemurs to stay on the island? Can’t they swim?” Actually, they can’t. They are in a class of primate called “simian”, and apparently, simians can only swim if taught. So if just one lemur made it to the island who had a knowledge of swimming, he’d quickly teach everyone else and Safari Wilderness would have quite a messy situation on their hands!
Three interesting lemur facts:
- All ring-tailed lemurs have 13 rings from the day they are born (so unlike with tree rings, you don’t count them to see how old the lemur is).
- The only place that you would find lemurs in the wild is on the island of Madagascar (yes, it’s a real place, not just a cartoon!).
- Lemurs have a matriarchal society – which means it’s the FEMALES that run the show!
After the vehicle portion of the tour had ended, those who had chosen to participate in one of the optional add-ons split off from the rest of the group. Besides the lemur feeding (which I already talked about), George and I had two other extras – hand feeding the guinea pig colony and feeding the petting zoo. For the guinea pig feeding, I had pictured in my mind that it would be us sitting in the middle of the colony and feeding them as the swarmed around us. But alas, that is not how it went down. We stayed on the outside of the pen and fed them from there. It was fun to watch them run around and listen to them squeak, but I think this option might be more interesting to the kids. I remember that when my nieces had been here many years ago that they were fascinated by the guinea pigs – even more fascinated by them than the baby cow that happened to be wandering around.
The one major difference from the first time I went with my sisters family that I do remember – the guinea pigs were inside previously, but now have moved to the outside. They do have protective netting over the outdoor pen and a little “cave” where they can all hide from extreme weather…
or nosy cats.
Did you know? There are some countries that actually consider guinea pig meat a delicacy! You can easily find videos of people trying this “delicacy” for the first time on YouTube. However, we were assured that these “pet” guinea pigs were not the same breed that are normally eaten – the “food-grade” guinea pigs are a bit bigger. Of course, I couldn’t help asking what barbecued guinea pig might taste like… the answer? “Probably chicken.”
Next up, feeding the petting zoo! Once again it was not quite what I expected… While we did enjoy feeding the goats and the pigs, the “petting” part of the description was a bit misleading. The animals were behind a wooden and wire fence that was fairly high, so the animals were partially hidden, and there wasn’t much petting going on. It is an inexpensive option though, at only $5 a person, so it would probably be a fun thing for the kids to do!
After we returned from our petting zoo feeding, everyone from the tour was given the opportunity to feed the camels, regardless of if they purchased tickets for the petting zoo.
Three fun facts about camels!
- Unlike llamas, camels actually don’t spit, despite what you may have heard from certain cartoon genies. Instead, if you make a camels angry, they just might vomit on you.
- Contrary to popular belief, the humps on the camel do not contain water – they are actually fat reserves, which can be used as a food or a water source when needed.
- Remember the 40/40/40 rule for camels: they can live to be 40-50 years old, they can drink 40 gallons of water in one sitting, and they can run up to 40 mph.
One more extra that is definitely worth a mention is feeding the budgies. We didn’t do it this time, but I’ve done it in other places before and I have loved it! I would recommend it to anyone who isn’t afraid of birds flying closely to them… and even if you are a bit nervous about the idea, I say give it a shot, at least for a once-in-a-lifetime experience. These little guys are pretty small (with tiny little poops if that has you worried) but they are oh so cute! It is so cool when they fly over to you and land on your hand or arm and nibble on the treat stick provided. I actually grew up with pet budgies as a kid, at one point we had a total of 10 (we started out with just two, but decided to put in a nest box to see what would happen… you can figure out the rest!) I have fond memories of them having races with each other, flying from the kitchen to the living room, landing on the lamps, and then flying back again.
This is about the point where we fed the lemurs, but I already spoke about that at the beginning of the post so I don’t want to repeat myself… but I will mention that I took video of the feeding with my GoPro on a chest strap, and I thought the video turned out really fantastic! I’ll share the link to that at the bottom of this post.
But before we get to videos, let’s finish out the tour with the walking portion! After the extra add-ons were completed, JJ walked us around the immediate area to look at the pigs, turtles, porcupines, and other animals they kept up in front.
We chatted with the porcupine for a short while (who was, by the way, very disappointed that JJ forgot to bring him some grapes). Those teeth almost make him look like a cross between a porcupine and a beaver.
Did you know? Porcupine quills are actually just hardened hair, which they can’t shoot out at predators. In reality, if a porcupine feels threatened he would stand up and shake his quills which creates a rattling noise that would hopefully scare off the intruder. If that doesn’t work, they turn, backing into the threat. This is how the quills break off and get stuck in other animals.
We saw a few more lemurs, including this beautiful chocolate lemur. His eyes were almost hypnotic!
At the very end of the tour, JJ brought out a ferret, giving anyone who desired a chance to hold him and stroke his belly. It was then I learned that apparently in some states, ferrets are illegal as pets, and even the states that allow them as pets require that they all be fixed.
And at last, that is the end of our Safari Wilderness adventure! George and I took our time looking around the gift shop and taking pictures outside before heading home, so ours was the last car left in the parking lot (leading to a very picture-worthy scene).
Now – when comparing my experience at the Giraffe Ranch vs. my experience at Safari Wilderness, I honestly can’t choose one over the other. They each had their own unique differences that were fun to experience. The Giraffe Ranch had the feeding of the giraffes and the optional add-on of feeding and bathing the rhino, both of which were really awesome experiences. However, Safari Wilderness was larger, had more animals and a beautiful landscape. They also had the feeding of water buffalo, and let’s not forget how amazing our tour guide was! The pricing between Giraffe Ranch and Safari Wilderness are about the same, but Safari Wilderness had the inexpensive add-on options of feeding the guinea pigs, feeding the budgies, and feeding the “petting zoo”, at only $5 for each of these. From what I recall, the cheapest add-on option at the Giraffe Ranch was the lemur feeding at $25 (which is the same price at both places but I still say that price is always worth it!)
OK, now let’s get to the videos! There are a total of three this time: two from this trip (the lemur feeding portion seemed like it deserved its very own video) and the third is the video from when my nieces were in town. It’s nice to compare the experience with kids vs. without – because each experience really is completely different. It’s great to see children experience animals like this up close for the first time, and to see the joy and wonder in their eyes, but it’s also nice to experience it sans kids, interacting with the animals without worrying about whether your child is having fun!
Video 1: Recent Tour – No Kids!
Video 2: Recent Tour – Lemurs!
Video 3: Previous Tour – With Kids!
*Full disclosure – Safari Wilderness let us experience this adventure for free, but I don’t believe the people we interacted with were aware of that fact; this meant we had the same experience any paying customer would have. I did, however, pay for the adventure when I went with my sister and her family.