One of the benefits of turning your whole world upside down is that you have the opportunity to try new entertainment experiences. One of the most unique and entrancing new entertainment opportunities we’ve explored is the Giraffe Ranch in Dade City, Florida.
As odd as it sounds, before we moved, I goggle-searched to see if there was any place in central Florida where one could feed giraffes. I was moving from a location close enough to visit the world famous San Diego Zoo often. I’ve fed giraffes in a number of zoos and parks all over the country. I’ve always felt feeding giraffes was kind of high on the “coolness factor” scale. Don’t judge. We all take our endorphins where we can get them.
The Giraffe Ranch is a little different. It isn’t really a zoo or a theme park. It is more like a sanctuary for exotic animals, operated by spouses Lex Salsibury and Elena Sheppa. Lex is the former director of the Lowery Park Zoo in Tampa. The grounds are on an abandoned cattle farm, adapted to create a home for dozens of species of animals. Lex and Elena run tours of their facilities for no more than 20 people at a time. They use their experience with African safaris as a model for their operation.
There are a number of options for touring the ranch, all of which include the opportunity to feed their giraffes. The tour is a bit expensive, although not as costly as a day at an Orlando theme park. It isn’t a whole day activity, but I think it is still worth every cent because of the uniqueness and exclusivity of the experience. No crowds, no noise, no lines…. Just you and about 19 other people hanging out with the animals and discussing them. And feeding them. I’ve been there twice now. It is way, way cool.
In addition to the basic giraffe tour, there are a number of optional extras that you can add for additional charges. One of those extras is feeding lemurs. Those of you who have seen the Madagascar movies may remember King Julien the lemur. For those of you who don’t know what a lemur is, it may help if I tell you that they are about the size of a housecat and sort of resemble what might happen if a monkey and a raccoon could have a baby. A baby with REALLY big eyes. There are many varieties of lemurs, all of which are endangered. There are a couple of different types at the giraffe ranch. I elected to participate in the lemur feeding, which involved interacting with ring-tailed lemurs.
There were basically four parts to the experience at the ranch. The first part was a briefing when Elena told us about the history of the ranch and shared some basic information about the animals we would see. The briefing came with visual aids- in the form of giraffe and zebra bones. Next, we took a walk around the habitats close to the office. We saw animals like gibbons and servals and kangaroos and pigs. The third part was the feeding extras. Finally, the fourth part was the safari tour in a 20-seat jeep type vehicle.
I really enjoyed everything the experience had to offer, but I was most excited about the lemur feeding. After all, as much as I love feeding giraffes (and I love it a lot), I have done that often before coming to the Giraffe Ranch. The lemurs were new to my animal-feeding repertoire.
When we got to the lemur enclosure, it was clear that those critters knew the drill. It obviously wasn’t their first rodeo. The lemurs attached themselves to the inner enclosure like peanut butter on bread. They stared at us as we congregated in the little caged vestibule area that served as an anteroom to keep the lemurs from escaping as we entered their digs. Elena gave us grapes (which seem to be the catnip of the lemur world, given their response) and instructions. One of the most important things she told us was that we were not supposed to feed the lemurs near the door to the enclosure. We were supposed to go over to a shelter at the center of the enclosure and only then offer the grapes. This procedure was supposed to teach the lemurs not to congregate at the door. The idea was that, if the lemurs learned they only got the grapes well within the enclosure, they would not gather at the front door where they could tumble out into freedom (and, probably, certain death if the giraffe ranchers were not able to wrangle them pretty quickly.) It didn’t work. I think there might have been one of three different reasons for its failure:
1) There were sufficient people as impatient to feed the lemurs as the lemurs were impatient to be fed so the lesson was not consistently taught.
2) Lemurs just aren’t that smart.
3) Even in the lemur world, hope springs eternal and, hey, to a lemur, it’s worth a shot.
As the lemurs hung off the inside of the enclosure, they stared at us with their goo-goo-googly eyes, begging us to ignore the nice giraffe lady and hand over the grapes. I’m sure those pitiful looks can be pretty effective motivation for early grape-feeding. I, however, used to have a dog that employed the same technique, so it didn’t bother me.
Given the obvious enthusiasm the lemurs seemed to have for the possibility of grapes, you would have thought that we would have been trampled by dozens of tiny feet when we entered the inner enclosure. I’ve been to petting zoos and have the goat hoof prints on my chest to prove it. These lemurs were the politest creatures I have ever met, however. Despite the emotional blackmail they employed unsuccessfully to get us to give up the grapes at the door, they amiably trotted behind us to the feeding shelter with no hard feelings.
I made my way into the shelter with the grapes hidden behind my back- another of Elena’s tips to make sure that the lemurs concentrated on one grape at a time. These creatures are seriously charming. Again, they produced the same pleading looks. They exuded sweetness. I was completely smitten. In fact, I was momentarily enchanted into paralysis by the sheer cuteness of the animals. That enchantment was detracting from valuable grape-gobbling time, in the lemurs’ humble opinions. It wasn’t that they screeched or jumped or did anything obnoxious to jolt me out of cuteness overload and convince me to offer the grapes. Just as I was struggling to come out of my adorableness-induced fog to offer a grape, one of the lemurs, with extreme courtesy, reached out with his soft little hand and patted me on the wrist! Just a soft, sweet, momentary pat to remind me that he was there and waiting as patiently as his little lemur heart could wait for me to share a grape. It felt just like a little human baby grasping your finger or patting your cheek. And it happened over and over again. With their pathetic looks and pleading pats, it felt like the lemurs were a bunch of furry Oliver Twists asking, “please ma’am, can I have some more?”
I offered grape after grape throughout this lemur happy hour. When I found myself grapeless, Elena gave me more. I could not stop smiling and cooing over the little creatures who took the grapes so daintily and licked my hands to make sure they consumed every drop of juice. Adorbs. Just adorbs.
When we finished the lemur feeding, we moved on to the vehicle safari. As we bounded over the abandoned cattle ranch, Elena and Lex shared fascinating and entertaining animal information with us. Among other critters, we viewed ostriches, rhinos, and zebras. And, of course, the main headliner- the giraffes.
As much fun as feeding the lemurs had been, I was also really looking forward to feeding the giraffes. It was awesome. As I looked up into those huge dark, gentle eyes, I felt like those giraffes could feel me thinking. And what I was thinking was, “you are just the most beautiful thing in the world.” I am pretty sure the giraffes didn’t care what I was thinking as long as I kept the cabbage coming, but it made me feel good to think the giraffes and I were sharing a telepathic lovefest. I was delighted by their warm smiles, lazy eyes the color of chocolate kisses, and the dexterity of the long tongues they employed to tangle my cabbage into their mouths. I was lucky to be sitting in a front seat and Elena offered me a slice of juicy mango to feed one of the giraffes. I’m not sure what is slimier- mushy mango or giraffe spit. It doesn’t really matter. They both wash off easily.
It was a great day. After about three hours, I left proudly bearing my newly-purchased “I Fed The Lemurs” t-shirt. On the way home, I thought about how lucky I am. There aren’t many people in this world that get to lunch with the lemurs.
For more information about the Giraffe Ranch, you can visit www.girafferanch.com
So what are your thoughts? What activities have you done that rank pretty high on the “coolness factor” scale? Please share your perspective by leaving a comment. In the alternative, you can send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Have a wonderful day! Lemurs rock!