A large, purple tongue hangs patiently as a nervous teenage hand drops a snack into it.
The tongue belongs to a domestic Asian water buffalo. The hand belongs to Bailey Hallett, 14, of Carmel, Ind., who was visiting her grandmother in Auburndale.
The snack? A giant protein stick.
“It was fun getting to feed them,” Bailey said.
The two were enjoying a two-hour tour of Safari Wilderness Ranch in North Lakeland, a 260-acre expanse devoted to wetland species and cattle of all types.
For $75, up to 20 people can hop aboard a refreshingly breezy converted bus to see uncontained lemurs, cattle, eland, zebra, fainting goats, ostriches, llamas and so much more face to face.
Safari Wilderness, in the middle of the Green Swamp, is home to the second-largest collection of oryx in North America and two of the largest herds of water buffalo and defassa waterbuck in the U.S.
With the wide open spaces, you can see the full wingspans and flight spans of birds and the ballet-like leaps of springbok.
You can feel the excitement as the long-horned Watusi cattle and zebra slowly inch their way toward the stopped tour bus filled with young couples, young families and senior citizens. This is precisely the moment for which they came to Safari Wilderness.
The more adventurous can opt to experience the safari by camelback ($150), accompanied by an animal keeper and a tour guide.
“Not only do you get the experience of riding a camel, but you also get the benefits of the guides telling you all the funny personalities of the animals. They’re very knowledgeable,” said Kathryn Bunting, of Orlando, who received the trip as a birthday present.
Safari Wilderness is the brainchild of Lex Salisbury, who co-owns it with Steve Wehrmann. Salisbury envisioned a game ranch where animals could roam free and interact with visitors, similar to San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, Calif.
“After seeing animals in big, open spaces in South Africa,” said Salisbury, “I thought, ‘Wow, I could do that in Florida.”
Safari Wilderness opened its doors in 2012, with a maximum capacity of 500 persons at a time.
“The idea is to put people close to animals,” said Salisbury. “The impact is you have a wilderness experience, with an expert guide telling you what you’re looking at.”
The employees’ passion is one of the big attractions to the ranch.
“Mr. B! We’re so happy to see you, Mr. B,” yells tour guide Kala Nelson as she greets one of the barasinghas.
You can imagine then the excited dialogue between guests and tour guides about the zedonk and donkra -- results of a zebra and donkey mating -- and the ostrich who refuses to move from in front of the bus.
The atmosphere obviously is relaxed. One tour starts a few minutes later to answer a guest’s question. There’s no timetable to how long guests take to feed animals. Animals are unpredictable, which makes it all the more fun.
“There’s no script. It’s real. If you want to stop and take pictures, you stop and take pictures,” Bunting said.
Many of the guests want the natural experience to continue and opt for a 20-minute camel ride when the safari ends, or an opportunity to hand-feed grapes to the very friendly lemurs, who will lick the grape juice off your hands if you let them.
Still in its infancy, Safari Wilderness has lots of potential for growth. Construction is under way to create islands to house more animals. Salisbury also mentioned offering horseback safaris and a fishing experience in the future.
“This is awesome,” said Linda Martin, who lives about 60 miles away in Winter Park and plans to bring her adopted grandson back to Safari Wilderness. “I’ve been to Animal Kingdom twice, we’ll definitely be back here again. I like the real nature feeling.”
If you go…
Safari Wilderness Ranch
Where: 10850 Moore Road, Lakeland.
When: Tours available at 9 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Cost: Vehicle safaris $75 per person, camel safaris $150 per person. Rides on camels, horses or llamas, $10-$20; animal feedings, $5-$20. Vehicle parking $7; buses $10.