By Daniel Evans
There are a lot of places in the world you can walk through and see different animals, but few let you get up close and personal like Pine Mountain’s Wild Animal Safari.
The park is open 364 days a year, only being closed on Christmas day, and is popular for both locals and people traveling from afar.
“We have people from all walks of life. When I first started, it was word of mouth, and that was about the only time people knew of anything. At this point, we have people from all over the world that come,” said assistant manager Kylie Deese.
The 500-acre park includes 576 animals, including the ducks and geese that roam the park, and 71 different species. There’s a walkthrough, which resembles a zoo, where people can peruse through and see wild animals in enclosures, but the feature that keeps everyone coming back is the drive-thru section of the safari.
Visitors are allowed to drive their own vehicle or rent a van to go through the 3.5-mile tour. The animals have become accustomed to being fed when they see the vans, so when they see people drive up, they walk right up to the windows.
Many of them stick their heads in, demanding some food.
“It’s good if you have older kids because the animals come right up to the bars and slobber on you,” Deese said. “It’s a great experience. Everyone gets to yell and scream and get a little nasty.”
There’s also a guided bus tour that runs through scheduled times throughout the day. It’s better for anyone that doesn’t want to get as close and personal with the animals.
“On the buses is where we have the guided tours,” Deese said. “They’re a little higher up so you aren’t going to get quite as much slobber, but of course the giraffes can still slobber on you.”
Wild Animal Safari was started in the 1990s by Ron Snider, a big game hunter who wanted to create a place where everyday people could get have intimate encounters with animals.
Parks! America acquired the park in June 2005 and also owns a similar park in Missouri. Mike Newman is the current general manager of Wild Animal Safari.
“We have come here since we are little and he is very intelligent on animals,” said Mike’s daughter, Megan, who has worked at the park for three years. “If you ask him about any animal, he knows everything about it. This is a good environment for him, taking care of the animals.”
Around 40 to 50 people currently work at the Wild Animal Safari. Paige Harmon is the newest employee, and is one of a handful of zookeepers who run back and forth between animals to make sure they’re taken care of.
Harmon was working in Florida and was heading back to her home in Tennessee when she stopped by Wild Animal Safari for an interview earlier this year. She’d been to the park numerous times as a child and was excited when she was offered the job.
Harmon started working for Wild Animal Safari in June.
“We started coming here every couple of years,” she said. “I brought some friends here one time, and it’s just super fun. I loved coming here as a customer and then I was looking at one of the job boards, I saw the job opening. I was like, ‘I love this place’ and I actually applied.”
The park includes zebra, lions, ligers, baboons, giraffes, buffalo, alligators and many others. Harmon gets to work with all of them, which is what Harmon loves most about her job.
“If I didn’t come here I wouldn’t get to work with some of these animals ever,” she said.
Deese said during hunting season, it’s not uncommon for a group of hunters — still dressed in full camouflage — to make a trip to the park after an unexciting day in the woods. Deer are one of the most frequently seen animals throughout the safari.
“They’ll say ‘well we didn’t see anything in the woods, so we thought we’d come see your animals,’” Deese said with a laugh.
The animals live as close as they can to their natural habitat, Deese said.
“They don’t have any predators, and we do intervene with medical emergencies and with any kind of disease or parasites, prevention of things like that,” Deese said. “But most of our work is in the walkabout, where the animals are contained. They require a lot more work and it is a full day every day and every day is different.”
She said many people visit the park and admit they are scared of animals. It’s not uncommon to hear people screaming and laughing loudly as they walk or drive through the park.
“You’ll hear them scream halfway across the park because they have a cow tongue on them,” Deese said with a laugh.
Deese said she enjoys sharing her knowledge of animals with people who spend time at the park, and she hopes they leave thinking about the bigger picture.
“A lot of places you see animals away from them or you see videos of these cute animals, but actually have an interaction with an animal is such a more solid connection,” she said. “I hope people leave here with the memory and think more about the little bit of wild that’s left out there.”
In the end, it’s the interaction that makes a trip to the Wild Animal Safari special.
“[At other zoos] you pay hundreds of dollars to have an interaction and feed a giraffe,” she said.
“Here, if the giraffe is gracious enough to grace you with its presence, it’s an experience that not a lot of people have.”