Dade City – Its 18-inch tongue darts like a blue-black snake. Into the giraffe's mouth goes a leafy treat, hand-held by a thrilled 10-year-old close enough to smell the lanky ungulate's breath.
"They literally can't bite you,'' said Lex Salisbury, the owner and operator of Giraffe Ranch. He has 30 years experience in zoos in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.
"This project is different and in my view superior for the animals," Salisbury said.
He has assuaged any latent trepidation children or adults might harbor about feeding the world's tallest mammal – 16 to 18 feet of hyper-vigilant vegetarian.
To remain alert for predators, the giraffe sleeps just five to 30 minutes daily and its egg-sized brown eyes – the largest peepers of any land animal – can spy a human from a mile away.
But in this 47-acre central Florida habitat, there are no dangers. Visitors to the Giraffe Ranch, which is north of Tampa and a few miles outside Dade City, come only to learn about and connect emotionally with wild animals in a very personal way. No predators lurk among the giraffes' free-roaming companion creatures – among them bounding axis deer (and their impala mascot), jostling zebras, diminutive Dexter cattle and up to 200 roosting sandhill cranes.
Salisbury and his wife, Elena Sheppa, have had the Giraffe Ranch for nearly 15 years. The hands-on preserve specializes in endangered Asian and African animals that do well in Florida's environment.
"We hope to encourage breeding and bring animals into the future with us,'' Sheppa said.
Riding in a canopied, four-wheel drive safari vehicle with wide, padded seats, visitors come face to face with the giraffes. A towering male was standoffish, but the females approached. A baby, a mere 10-feet-tall, peeked shyly around his mother's rump.
The giraffes enjoyed a meal of oak twigs, garnished with sweet, green leaves. They bent down to snag the bounty from human hands. "Act like a tree,'' Sheppa instructed the entranced tourists, eagerly thrusting the sylvan salad but having better luck holding as still as possible.
To the delight of all, even the reticent baby sidled up and snatched a treat.
Visitors looking for a more unconventional experience can take the tour on camel back. Ranch employees Eddie Hansen and Dani Pegram saddle up a half-dozen at a time, a mixture of one-hump (dromedaries) and two-hump (bactrians) species. They seem mild-mannered beasts, unlike the cantankerous rascals of popular lore.
Hansen and Pegram walking alongside, the camels move in elegant single-file, the caravan always visible from the safari truck. The sight lends yet another exotic touch to a bright, rolling landscape containing giant oaks bearded with Spanish moss and decorated with resurrection fern. An ancient butterfly orchid clings to an oak; it had to be covered with a cage to keep the giraffes from munching it.
The giraffes and camels and bouncing antelope aren't all.
The preserve is a wildlife wonderland; visitors marvel at more than a dozen unusual species.
The fossa, for example, is a reddish-brown creature resembling a small cougar but closely related to the mongoose, flexes its muscles in a roomy cage.
And nearby, a collection of ring-tailed lemurs waits expectantly as people approach. The orange-eyed primates bring an endearing demeanor to one of their favorite activities – being hand-fed. Their soft, tiny hands paw for proffered grapes or grasp a visitor's knuckles while nibbling the fruit.
A white tom turkey advances with majestic step, the regent of all he surveys. A couple of hens watch in admiration. The poultry are part of the ranch's sustainable farming activity, which includes a "chicken tractor" to haul a coop from place to place each day, fertilizing the ground and offering fresh forage. Free-range eggs are for sale.
Tough-looking ostriches patrol the safari. Sheppa passes around one of their eggs, a grapefruit-sized white ovoid strong enough to stand on.
Pygmy hippos, their 600-pound weight about one-tenth that of their huge relatives, open gaping jaws to receive the apples Sheppa tosses.
Salisbury or Sheppa deliver lectures – more like informative casual chats – throughout the tour, which takes place twice a day.
The latest addition to Giraffe Ranch is a rainforest enclosure featuring tropical plants, hornbills, turacos, barbets and small primates. A tour of the area is conducted by a nature guide and includes feeding the rainforest's animals.
If You Go
Where: 38650 Mickler Road, Dade City, 33523
Contact: 813-482-3400; firstname.lastname@example.org
Tours: Two per day, 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. Each tour is 1 to 1.5 hours. Reservations required.
Price Structure (does not include sales tax):
Safari Vehicle Tours:
- Children under two, free
- Children two-11 years old, $59.99
- Adults (12 & up), $69.99
- Seniors (65 & up), $64.99
- Florida children group rate, $19.99
Camel Expedition: $150 per person. Hat, sunscreen, long pants and close-toed shoes are highly recommended. Children five years and under must ride with an adult. Children under three are not allowed.
Other tour and interaction options include budgie feeding ($5/stick), ring-tailed lemur feeding ($20), a mini camel safari ($20), behind-the-scenes tour ($50, including a rhino feeding and giraffe barn) and the rainforest safari ($50).
Giraffe Ranch has a 24-hour cancellation policy. Cancellations 24 hours or less before the booking time will be charged to your credit card