By Eugenio Torrens
It may not have the name recognition of Busch Gardens or the authenticity of a Serengeti tour in the heart of Africa, but Giraffe Ranch in Dade City offers a hybrid of the two.
Run by Lex Salisbury and his wife Elena Sheppa, Giraffe Ranch is situated on a 47-acre ranch that offers a glimpse of quite a few animals in a more natural setting than what a zoo can offer.
“My wife and I used to do all this ourselves until we started doing tours, and then we needed some help,” Salisbury said. “I’ve been working with animals for a long time, so it’s sort of been my vocation and avocation for a long time.”
Salisbury was the president at Lowry Park Zoo before he resigned in December 2008 because of a city audit that suggested he had used the zoo for personal gain.
“I was completely exonerated,” Salisbury said. “They didn’t want me there any longer, so I resigned. That was all resolved, and that’s in the past.”
Salisbury and Sheppa live on the property and used to offer friends and colleagues a peek at how they lived with a menagerie.
“It’s like a little piece of Africa, when I wake up in the morning and look out and I see animals in the vista,” Salisbury said.
Visitors take about a 90-minute to two-hour tour inside sawed off, revamped trucks with canopy roofing designed to replicate the vehicles used in safaris. It’s all open air, which means more direct access to the animals. Usually, tours are limited to 20 people with one vehicle.
On this particular tour, there were three vehicles, one driven by Salisbury, one by Sheppa and the third by Jack West, a freshman at USF who logged more than 1,000 hours during the summer as an intern.
Throughout the tour, the vehicles canvass the area with each driver doubling as a guide and stopping to explain and interact with the animals, as well as giving guests a chance to feed animals.
“I thought it was marvelous,” said Michele Starcher, who was with the Sensational Seniors tour group. “They’re very educated. They know what they’re talking about. I like little animals. If I get an opportunity to come to something like this, I will.”
Starcher said she saw the tours as an educational opportunity for kids as a school outing.
The positive reaction seems to be echoed by the majority of visitors. Salisbury said there was a 94 percent intent-to-return rate.
“(Visitors) don’t want what man has done to nature, they want to see what nature has to offer man,” Sheppa said. She remarked how a woman in the tour wanted to go to Morocco but knew she was never going there and she just really wanted to ride a camel.
“People want to touch stuff.” Sheppa said. “When you connect with another animal, there’s something special about that, especially if it feels like it’s special to you.”
Some animals come on loan from partnerships Giraffe Ranch has with other zoos, such as the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Other animals are bred and raised on the ranch from birth, such as the baby giraffe visitors got to see.
The baby was a bit timid unlike the adult giraffes that sought food from eager-to-feed guests.
“We want to give people as non an artificial experience with these animals in as intimate a way as we possibly can offer, but ultimately in a safe way,” Sheppa said. “We don’t want it to be scripted. We want a little bit of the unexpected. We want people to be a little anxious, because that keeps them attentive.”
The zebras on Giraffe Ranch were particularly attention grabbing. Salisbury spread feed around the vehicle to offer guests a close-up look at the striped creatures.
“The irony is my dogs probably take up more of my time, or are more labor-intensive than this herd of zebra are,” Sheppa said.
Animals for Giraffe Ranch are picked have to meet certain criteria, including how well they deal with the Florida heat and environment; animals have to meet nutritional standards; and many of the animals chosen also are herd animals in order to provide as natural an environment as possible.
One exception to these rules was the scimitar oryx, which is extinct in the wild but is bred and kept in captivity as a means of preserving the species.
After guests have seen the vast array of animals including but not limited to zebras, fainting goats, ostriches, warthogs and a pair of pygmy hippos, they come back to the starting spot to visit the tiny gift shop.
Camel rides are available at the end of the tour for an additional cost. Guests may also tour the property on camelback. Salisbury even offers newly hatched ostrich eggs for a fee.
“I’ve been to a lot of places that I never knew existed, and this is one of those,” said Bill Voliva, a tour bus driver who drove the Sensational Seniors to Giraffe Ranch and went along on the tour. “It’s a little hidden gem. The word needs to get out more for folks to come see this, because it was really nice.”
Tours are $59.99 for adults, while children ages 2-11 get in for $49.99. Children 2 and under get in for free. Giraffe Ranch is located at 38650 Mickler Road in Dade City.
For more ticket prices or further information, call Giraffe Ranch at (813) 482-3400 or visit www.girafferanch.com.