It’s not a zoo, it’s not a farm — and a series of fences separate “Africa” from “Asia.” Safari Wilderness Ranch is a working ranch just on the outskirts of Lakeland that specializing in exotic wetland species. And whether it’s the animals, the educational factor, or just the quiet vistas with cool breezes, visitors of all ages and nationalities are sure to enjoy their time spent on the property.
A family-owned, private ranch, Safari Wilderness showcases hundreds of animals from about 25 different species that roam more than 260 acres. Classified as “agritourism,” the ranch, which receives no outside funding, has been giving safari tours since March of 2012. It features native wildlife, including alligators, turtles, and birds, and is also home to animals that wouldn’t normally be found on this continent, such as zebras, Watusi cattle, lemurs, and many others.
Lex Salisbury, co-owner and operator of Safari Wilderness Ranch, notes that Safari Wilderness is the closest thing to a real African Safari without getting on plane and flying to Africa. Salisbury’s family also owns a sister ranch in Dade City called Giraffe Ranch (GiraffeRanch.com), which is 47 acres and a “very intimate” experience in comparison to Safari Wilderness, which is five times larger.
“Safari Wilderness is truly epic and can be experienced either by camelback or by customized safari vehicle,” Salisbury says.
Visitors board an open-air, canopy-shaded safari truck with a 360-degree view of the pastures. The experience that follows is a ride which probably won’t be duplicated as different animals are out at different times, in different places, and the driver-guides each add their own personalities and knowledge to each 1.5 to two hour tour.
The enthusiasm that guide Judit Dojcsak (pronounced “you-dit doy-jack”) has for the animals is evident. Originally from Hungary where she worked a few summers in her uncle’s veterinary practice, Dojcsak is very knowledgeable about the animals.
After introducing herself to the visitors seated on the safari truck and giving a brief explanation of safety procedures, Dojcsak gets the show on the road… er, dirt road.
The first stop is to observe a pair of Zdonks, Barney and Buster, the father of which was a donkey, and mother, a zebra. With the heads of donkeys, they sport the stripes of a zebra on their bodies, although faintly so.
Turning off the truck so she can be heard, Dojcsak jokes that Barney and Buster are the unofficial security duo that patrols the perimeter, and explains that interbreeding wouldn’t normally happen in the wild, save for a few parts of Africa.
As Safari Wilderness is surrounded by more than 800 acres of green swamp and its native swamp critters, Dojcsak says the double fencing on the 265 acres is not only used to keep the animals inside, but also to keep predators outside.
Driving on, Dojcsak, a Land O’Lakes resident, takes the safari truck off the beaten path and into the prairie grass, driving straight toward a herd of zebras.
When stopped, Dojcsak explains that zebras prefer to live in a harem style, meaning one male, up to seven females, and a baby less than a year old. That is how they stay balanced and exhibit their natural behaviors, she says.
“When you go to a zoo, you usually see animals in small quantities in a small place,” Dojcsak says. “Herding animals usually suffer the most in a zoo because they need two things to be successful, they need a minimum amount of space, and they need a minimum amount of numbers.” Salisbury agrees.
“Here animals and people share an uncluttered natural landscape,” he says. “Captivity is a compromise for animals. However, the animals at Safari Wilderness have incredibly rich lives. It is the closest thing a herd species can have to living free but without the dangers of the wild.”
Dojcsak explains that there are herd dynamics on the ranch. When the zebra males grow and reach sexual maturity, they challenge the dominant male, which then pushes the challenger to the perimeter and eventually out of the herd. The loner then begins a new herd. Dojcsak points out that there are now two zebra herds, including a “bachelor” herd.
Many of the animals have been on the ranch since 2006, and many have been born there. Some are rescues from zoos, and some were trades from other ranches. Dojcsak says the staff does not interfere in the animals’ existence unless there’s a life-threatening situation.
“If there’s fights, that’s fine,” Dojcsak says. “If there are births, that’s fine. But we won’t let them suffer.”
Supplementation with bottle-feeding, grain or hay occurs. Visitors are also allowed to feed protein pellets to animals that walk up to the touring safari truck.
“Many of our animals are endangered in their native habitat, or don’t exist in the wild anymore,” Dojcsak says. There are only three African buffalos in the US and all three are at Safari Wilderness Ranch. Because they are very aggressive, they have a space all their own.
The fences at Safari Wilderness are to separate the animals that would not normally be found on the same continent, hence visitors travel through “Africa” and “Asia.”
In addition to five different species of deer, some of the animals include cattle egrets, water buffalo, Blackbuck and Eland antelope, Irish Dexter cattle, Austrian Haflinger horses, llamas, camels, Sherman fox squirrels, a capybara, a warthog and a multitude of others.
For an extra fee, visitors can feed grapes to ring-tailed lemurs. The Madagascar natives are not shy, and will use their soft little hands to pull visitors’ hands closer to either grab the grapes or eat directly off of visitors’ palms.
“There’s so much to learn, there’s a little bit for everyone,” Dojcsak says. “Sometimes people say they just came out because the kids wanted to, but they had fun, too — I love to hear that.”
“This is not an artificial or theatrical experience, it is a real thing,” Salisbury says. “The people visiting Safari Wilderness learn a lot more than they ever can in a zoo, because you are escorted by a guide who is an expert and gives you running commentary, not from a script, but based on what is happening at that moment.”
Safari rates are $70 for adults, $65 for seniors, $60 for children under 12, and free under age 2. The ranch offers incentives from time to time.
Tours are by reservation only, and run Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Monday and Tuesdays are reserved for group tours. Safari Wilderness Ranch is located at 10850 Moore Rd. in Lakeland.
For more info: (813) 382-2120 or visit SafariWilderness.com.