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A Safari on the Wild Side

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Jim Mickle, president of Wild Animal Safari, is a partner in Parks! America, with a second animal park in Pine Mountain, Ga. He and  Sondra Morgan show tiger cubs to young visitors.

Jim Mickle, president of Wild Animal Safari, is a partner in Parks! America, with a second animal park in Pine Mountain, Ga. He and Sondra Morgan show tiger cubs to young visitors.

Paleontologists will tell you that there was a time eons ago when tigers, bears and buffalo roamed the plains, and giant saber-toothed cats climbed in the trees.

Giant sloths were slothful; huge armadillos, wooly mammoths and mastodons roamed the plains along with American lions, the saber-toothed tiger and bison by the millions.

These, except for the increasingly plentiful armadillos, a wandering opossum, skunk or badger, turtles, hundreds of birds and perhaps a bobcat, black bear or a mountain lion, such creatures are hard to come by.

Unless you’re up for a Wild Animal Safari at 124 Jungle Drive near Strafford.

Here you can meet at least 65 species of animals from all over the world from the comfort of a school bus without windows. Characters such as Clyde the Camel, Sheldon the Giraffe, Justice the Black Bear, and Joetta the Bus Driver.

Joetta isn’t just hospitable; she’s funny, and very nice to children of a certain age (which we are), a rarity among all-business bus drivers if you know what we mean.

Wild Animal Safari dates back to 1971 when Pat Jones, father of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, created the park as Exotic Animal Paradise. It was a lot to take care of, and the park passed through several hands before Jim Mickle and his partner, Dale W. Van Voorhis bought it. The two men were already owners of a second park, Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain, Ga.

“Since 2008 when Parks America! bought this park we have remodeled almost every enclosure,”says Sondra Morgan, general manager. “We have added several different and rare species.  We have expanded into promoting education and even reduced cost by over 50 percent for youth groups and school field trips.”

A conference center is available for weddings, church events and corporate events. Imagine a company picnic here, or a family reunion.

Morgan signed up for the U.S. Army three weeks after graduating from Olathe High School and was a blackhawk crew member at Fort Campbell.

I started here as a cashier while working three other jobs, was promoted to assistant manager within a few months and then general manager nine months after that.”

Many of animals have names, and many are so tame they are easily fed from the open-air buses. Some bite, but there are constant reminders about which are “nippers” and which are “lickers.” Nearly all of the four-legged critters seem to love the nuggets of food for sale at $3 a bag.

In fact, the buffalo will stick out his greenish tongue and let visitors drop in the snack food. Elk are just as tame. But for caged animals, such as tigers, ligers, spotted leopards, feeding involves having a strong arm. More likely, the cats and wolves are likely to be on the lookout for a bird that wanders into their large enclosure. When that happens, the safari gets really interesting.

Two recent additions are a pair of tiger cubs still just about small enough to be held and even petted by a group of young visitors during a camera session.

“We are not sure who the mothers are because they gave birth on the same day within minutes of each other,” says Morgan. “Their names are Cleopatra (Cleo) and Ananstasia (Anna).

“The father past away but his name was Shadow.  They are all Bengal tigers.  Shadow and Ana are white bengals and Cleo is a traditional orange bengal.  Their offsprings are Nami who we actually call Binx and she is a white bengal and then Mikko who is a traditional bengal.

At the end of a long day, Morgan visits Justice, a black bear born at the park: “He was born Jan. 15, 2013, and he is our precious little bottle baby.  He is an 18-month old black bear that is so full of love and cuddles.”

Wild Animal Safari isn’t just a ride in the park, although you can certainly have fun and leave it at that. In fact, you can travel the park into your own vehicle, but the Missouri Department of Agriculture requires visitors to keep their windows closed. And what’s the fun in that?

Wild Animal Safari is also a teaching opportunity. Some of the animals are rare, endangered, or both, in their natural habitat. Meeting, and even feeding them, may not be the same as seeing them in the wild. But it’s at least the next best thing.

Sondra Morgan obviously has an appreciation for the park, and it shows. In a way, it’s a dream come true. In an e-mail, she credits Jim Mickle:

“He saw past my apron strings, he is more than my boss, he is my mentor and most importantly, my friend.  He genuinely invests into his staff and the animals at this park. I met Jim simply by chance, but he saw something in me and took the time to make me see it in myself.”

“As a child this would have been a dream job that I would have never thought possible,” she says. “As an adult I am so grateful for all of God’s blessings and knowing me better than I know myself.  This is not something I would not have thought I could achieve and probably wouldn’t have tried.”

If you have a suggestion for a one-tank trip, please send it to Editor@OzarksLiving.com.

George Freeman is a veteran journalist and photographer. An award-winning writer, editor and columnist in Springfield, Mo., with more than 50 years experience. His preference is for positive and uplifting stories about people, places, traditions and trends that make the Ozarks one of the most livable regions anywhere. A member of the Garden Writers Association of America, he is a past-president of the Society of Professional Journalists of Southwest Missouri, the Kansas and Ohio AP societies; a board member of Friends of the Garden and a member of the Rotary Club of Springfield. In 1976, he traveled to India as a member of a Rotary Foundation Group Study Exchange Team.

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