Wilderness Safari Ranch finally open for tours in Polk County
In the wilds of the expansive Green Swamp in Polk County rise the savannas of Africa. And the jungles of India. And the subtropics of China. Exotic species like the wapiti, eland, water buffalo and antelope mingle with Austrian Haflinger horses, zebras and Watusi cattle munching on year-round Florida grasses and lapping from ponds that make up the headwaters of five West Central Florida rivers. The Safari Wilderness Ranch, finally, is up and running, after six years mired in governmental and environmental red tape. It is scaled down from its original grandiose vision of cabins and a restaurant and now is a sprawling ranch with some 260 grazing creatures and a lot of fence. And that's about it.It's not a zoo. The animals aren't in cages. They roam expansive pastures and sneak around watery cypress stands. They have graceful spiral antlers and massive horns. They are big and small, colorful and exotic looking, and seeing them here is like seeing them in the comfort of their own homes. "This is the way these animals should be seen," said Safari Wilderness Ranch owner Lex Salisbury, driving around the 240-acre expanse he plopped down, pretty much, in the middle of nowhere. It's been a long-time coming. The original plans submitted in 2006 called for a wide variety of exotic animals, from primates to rhinos, but drew unwanted attention when a group of patas monkeys escaped their compound and fled into the Green Swamp. Ultimately, the permits issued by Polk County were challenged by the state, which said such a bucolic setting was inappropriate so close to the sensitive wetlands of the swamp. In 2010, a mediator blocked the project, declaring this type of business illegal under the county's comprehensive plan and concurring that it is indeed a threat to the Green Swamp, location of the headwaters of the region's major rivers and an important underground-water recharge area. Later that year, newly elected Gov. Rick Scott streamlined state bureaucracy and dismantled the state agency that challenged the project, giving new life to the future ranch already endorsed by the county commission. Now, the ranch owners guide tours in safari-type vehicles, on camel-back or on horse-drawn carriages. One is Salisbury, the former director of Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa who left in 2008 amid criticism he used zoo resources to build the ranch. New plans were submitted, and the Polk County Commission gave a nod to the Safari Wilderness Ranch by creating an agri-tourism business category in its comprehensive and land use plan last year. That opened the door for working ranches and farms to supplement their incomes by offering paid tours. Under the new agri-tourism category fell the Safari Wilderness Ranch, a slimmed-down version of Safari Wild that still included exotic grazing animals and spectacular vistas of Florida's unspoiled regions. It all works out for the better, said Salisbury, who also owns Giraffe Ranch, a similar preserve near Dade City. At Safari Wilderness Ranch, grazing animals socialize in herds and reproduce. The animals chosen to live here are suited to this environment. Some are upland types, others like schmoozing around the swamps, he said. Tours aren't cheap. They start at $70 for an adult, a little less for children and senior citizens. Camel rides around the expanse cost $150, and a horse-drawn carriage ride costs $120. "It's a little pricey," said Pat Jorgensen of Lakeland, who took her mom, visiting from Illinois, for a visit. Jorgensen said she got a Groupon discount for the tour and paid half price. "It's nice seeing the animals out in the pastures," she said. "It's a lot better than a traditional zoo." The first tour hit the trails in March. The ranch also breeds exotic animals to sell to and trade with other game farms, Salisbury said. Hay is harvested, and although some is sold, most is eaten by the animals on the ranch. Eggs from the flock of chickens and a few ostriches are sold, as well. The tours are bumpy in open-air, refitted church buses, he said. The grazing animals watch as a machine rumbles through the pasture, sometimes approaching to inspect the two-legged, ticket-buying creatures. The driver keeps a bucket of eats and doles out feed heartily to the beasts, ensuring up-close looks at exotic animals like Irish Dexter cattle and waterbucks, Grant's zebras, Watusi cattle, Pere David's deer, axis deer, fallow deer, water buffalo and blackbuck antelope. A small herd of scimitar-horned oryx welcomed their newest calf just a few days ago. The species is extinct in Africa, where it originated, but thrives in game farms in Texas and now Florida. The ranch is ringed by an 8-foot fence, but that does not keep all the predators out. "We have a ton of coyotes around here," he said, "and sometimes they try to dig under the fence." To solve that problem, two zedonks — crosses between zebras and donkeys — patrol the perimeter. They hate intruders, Salsibury said, and stomp anything trying to dig under the fence to get into the ranch, particularly coyotes. Salisbury is in his element here — lots of animals, not a lot of people. He knows all the species and has names for many of the four-legged grazers. "It's been fun," he said. "It's been good. It's a culmination of what I do. It's my whole life. I don't like to see animals in big cages." Salisbury's customers so far aren't the same people who go to zoos, he said. Zoo visitors tend to be females with kids, maybe husbands. They might be older. Customers at the ranch tend to be younger professionals who like to do adventuresome things. They don't cotton to theme parks either. "People are interested in something real," he said. "There are so many fake things in Florida and it's nice to have something real."
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