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Getting Up Close At The Giraffe Ranch

Jul 8, 2016

When Beth Buchanan brought her 3rd grade class to the Giraffe Ranch, she knew it meant her students from Monarch Learning Academy in Winter Park would see animals in a completely different way.

“I think it’s a great environment for the kids to learn about animals in a more natural environment than a zoo”’ she said. “The kids loved actually getting to interact with them, and the feedings.”

The Giraffe Ranch and its companion attraction, Safari Wilderness, are located near Lakeland, and is where Lex Salibury and his wife, Elena Sheppa, call home.

The couple keeps more than 400 animals – representing more than 70 species on the property. Giraffes are the stars of the show, but you’ll also see camels, ostriches, zebras, llamas, hippos, warthogs, rhinos and pigs.

“It’s like going on Safari in Africa,” Sheppa said. “Only in Florida.”

The children from the Monarch Learning Academy are greeted at the gate.  They will get a classroom less first, before being divided into two groups. Salisbury takes half the kids to feed the otters. Sheppa takes her group to feed the lemurs.

Before going into the lemur enclosure, Sheppa hands the students a bunch of grapes and instructions on how to properly feed a lemur.

“These are dollar bills,” Sheppa cautions. “Don’t give up the whole wallet.”

Third-grader Sagan Helms giggles as a happy lemur sees its impending meal. It touches her lightly, and look up with pleading eyes.

“It’s really cool,” she said.  “You go up and hey take it right out of your hand.”

Unlike a zoo, the animals at the farm are not kept in cages. They are in enclosures where they are free to run, eat and – well – make other animals. Most of the animals bred on the ranch stay at their parks, though some are sold to other parks or zoos.

Salisbury and Sheppa have been at this a long time. Salisbury had been at the helm of Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo for more than 20 years. Sheppa explains the farm may be the only place where people might see some of these animals.

“A lot of these animals no longer exist in the wild, you can only find them in captivity being bred by people like us. In other cases, maybe doing fine in the wild but our guests have never seen them in captivity before”

While tours on camels and llamas are an option, most visitors to the Giraffe Ranch tour on what looks like a giant school bus, but with no roof or sides. Salisbury takes the third-graders first to visit with the ostriches, which dance and run in a hilarious frenzy. The kids are enthralled when a group of giraffes come into view.

Salisbury pulls alongside the giraffes, which are behind a high fence and kills the engine.

Each child is given a handful of cabbage. The giraffes lean over the fence, close enough to the children for the kids to kiss them.

“It’s not that slobbery, like a dog’s tongue,” one child says.

Natalie Graham, a teacher, exclaims, “Oh my God. It feels so soft, like a blanket.”

When the supply of cabbage is exhausted, the tour moves along and Salisbury stops to hose down a hippo on the hot day. The hippo responds by kneeling and rolling over like a trained cocker spaniel. The kids are agog.

The bus also stops alongside a group of zebras. Salisbury explains the unique looking animal with a solid-colored body and zebra-striped legs.

“It’s a Zedonk,” he said of the animal that’s the offspring of a donkey it received from the Miami Metro Zoo and a female zebra at the farm.

“She’s really pretty isn’t she?” he said. “He followed that zebra around for four years. Finally he got her alone in that ditch over there, and now we have a zedonk.”

Salisbury said he doesn’t see the ranch as an attraction, as much as it is a place for learning. It’s especially important for children to see it, he said.

“This has turned into a giant classroom. People don’t understand what’s worthwhile to keep unless the love it, If they experience it at this age they are kind of a constituency for nature conservation,” he said.

“What these kids learned today? They will remember when they’re 60, like me.”

Tours at the Giraffe Ranch start at $75 a person for a ride on the bus. Tours on camels or llamas cost more. Giraffe feeding is included in the tour but lemur and otter feeding costs extra.

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