It’s like a zoo except you are in the cage!
Wildlife Safari stretches across more than six hundred acres of rolling, oak-studded hills and savannah-like grasslands in southern Oregon’s Douglas County.
Sarah Roy, Wildlife Safari's animal curator, said, “It’s the opposite of a zoo because you drive through our park in your car; a giraffe can walk right up to your car, rhinos can walk right up to your car, the zebra herd will run across the road. It’s amazing!”
Sarah’s Roy is right! Just like that – our interview came to a halt as “JT,” a towering 12-year old giraffe stopped, stooped and zoomed in for a closer look at us.
Actually, there were many similar incidents and when you consider there are 300 different species…close to 1,000 animals “in charge” at a park - that's not surprising.
Wildlife Safari is unlike any park you’ve visited before.
Our visit offered something new that visitors can experience called “Wildlife Encounters.” It’s a new program that puts you in closer proximity to many species – a bit of what Roy called, “behind the scenes opportunities.”
We visited the bear area and found ourselves just feet away from a trio of 6-year old brown bears – we were separated by half a dozen electrically charged “hot wires” that kept the bears on their side of the fence.
Roy explained, “The boys just woke up from hibernation a week ago and we come out here several times a day to do training. Bears are so smart and mentally active – we offer them simple fruit juice that’s been frozen like Popsicles – fruit trays and nuts – hide berries in boxes – get them a chance to rip boxes apart and play with it a little bit We scatter treats around the area – throw frozen fruit in the pond...and they love it.”
There’s nearly four miles roadway that wind through the complex on a route that takes you through several distinct animal communities including Asia, Africa and the Americas.
Each area is home to scores of species you rarely get to see this close: flamingos, cougars, emus, tigers – and each is fascinating.
Nearby, we stopped in for a rare encounter with a pair of animals that have grown up together. “Ellie” is an “Anatolian Shepherd” dog breed and her enclosure friend is a cheetah named “Sonora.” Each is four years old and they have grown up together.
“The dog breed is quite protective, loyal and dedicated,” explained Roy. “Wwhatever they are raised with they bound with and so Sonora is Ellie’s herd of sheep. We wanted to bring this dog breed in as a companion animal to teach more about saving Cheetahs in the wild.”
In fact, protecting the cheetah species remains the number one conservation mission for Wildlife Safari – one that began in 1973 when the park opened to the public.
The cheetah captive breeding program has been a fixture at Wildlife Safari for nearly forty years.
We met two newcomers to that program: “Chimba” and “Mohawk” are two male cheetah cubs to “Liz,” their fourteen-year-old mother. The two boys were born in September of 2010 and will stay with their mom for one year.
Roy noted that in the wild, cheetahs remain critically endangered; in fact, there are less than ten thousand cheetahs living in the wild.
But it’s the “King of the Animal Kingdom” that you may remember the most.
I will certainly remember our “encounter” with “Tao,” a three-year-old African lion.
You see, we played tug of war with “Tao.”
“It’s great exercise,” said Roy. “It’s also good enrichment that keeps him and the other three lions mentally stimulated. So, we do this each day and we thought it would be fun and educational to pull our visitors into the game too.”
Two towering fences separate the lions from humans – each grabs hold of the 40-foot long rope – humans with their hands, Tao with claws, sharp teeth and powerful jaws.
We then pulled back and forth on the long rope – or rather, we held our ground while Tao pulled on us - it was a remarkable experience as the 400-pound lion showed his amazing strength and easily pulled on the rope that the six of us held.
“It is good exercise and the animals seem to have fun. So do the people,” noted Roy. “Each looks forward to this exercise – in fact, our lions come running over anytime it is rope time. It’s pretty impressive when you feel him pulling – you can really feel that power in the rope – it’s amazing!”
It is all of that – and more! Wildlife Safari offers a remarkable outdoor experience across fascinating parkland that will entertain and teach you much about wildlife across the planet.