How to Experience Jacksonville’s Wildlife
By Jennifer DeCamp
Did you frequently watch the live stream waiting for April, the giraffe, to give birth to Tajiri at a New York zoo? Do you think Bengal tigers look like majestic predators, but wish they were cuddly like a house cat?
If you answer yes to one (or both) of these questions, then these Jacksonville adventures will make you go “aww.”
Do treat yourself to a deep dive for breakfast at Metro Diner’s original location in San Marco, where the service is friendly, portions are large and coffee is plentiful. Don’t be nonplussed if you see people gathered outside waiting. It’s bigger than it looks. Also, the wait has always been like this, long before Duff Goldman and “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” came to town. This is the kind of place where you’re just as likely to see twentysomethings working on their hangover cure and discussing the previous night’s shenanigans as you are to see three generations of a family celebrating a milestone. We did say the portions were large, right? Think a pancake the size of dinner plate, 12 inches in diameter. If you haven’t tried fried chicken and waffles, this is your chance – theirs is served with strawberry butter. Other local favorites are the egg and veggie layered Breakfast Pie, Huevos Rancheros big enough to share and the Croissant French Toast.
Walk on the Wild Side
As zoos have embraced more natural habitats as a way to exhibit their species, the Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens has been on the forefront of the trend – first with its Range of the Jaguar exhibit in 2004 and then, more recently, with Land of the Tiger in 2014. In Land of the Tiger, the zoo has incorporated an innovative trail system that allows its Malayan and Sumatran tigers to roam freely through the 2.5-acre exhibit’s different spaces. If the tigers are awake and on the prowl, you never know where they’ll appear. They may be above you or behind of you. Of course, you’re protected and the trail system was constructed to look like cats walking through a vast network of tree limbs. Also in 2017, the exhibit’s first Sumatran tiger cubs, Rocky and Jagger, were born and became a viral sensation. There’s even a live webcam, so you can watch their daily exploits while they explore their habitat or sleep the night away.
But enough about big cats, what other species can you see? Let’s start with the Giraffe Overlook’s elevated viewing platform, which allows you to look the African Savannah’s gentle giants in the eye. Or Wild Florida’s alligator pond that hosts live feedings on Saturdays from mid-March through November. Then there’s Stingray Bay, an interactive exhibit where guests can feed and pet the stingrays. From a horticultural standpoint, the Jacksonville Zoo is unique in its take of incorporating a botanical garden into the exhibits and pathways and includes themed pocket gardens. For those looking for more in-depth experiences, the zoo offers the chance to be a Zoo Keeper for a Day, Behind the Scenes Tours and Garden Tours for an additional fee, of course. Jax Trivia: The original zoo opened in historic Springfield in 1914 with one red fawn deer. Obviously, things have since changed, including its name. The then “Municipal Zoo” was eventually relocated to its current location in 1925 and now encompasses 92 acres.
If Wishes Were Horses …
You’d imagine yourself trotting at an easy pace through wide, open spaces that scream Americana where buffalo roam. Don’t worry, you don’t have to go as far west you might think to make that vision a reality. Instead, book a reservation for a 2-hour or half-day horseback ride at Diamond D Ranch on Jacksonville’s west side. Diamond D is a family-owned, 500-acre working ranch that caters to trail rides, weddings, school outings, company picnics and more. On your ride, you’ll get to explore the ranch, learn about the six generations who have made their living from the land and enjoy nature’s beauty from the saddle. Animals who call the ranch home include American bison, water buffalo, emus, deer, sheep, cows, coats and antelope. Trail rides of two hours or more also take you through Jennings State Forest.
Lions, Tigers … and Chicken
Want to see a tiger vacillate between a humming purr and deep-throated growl while protecting its supper? Or hear a lion talk? All that and much, much more can happen on a visit to Catty Shack Ranch Wildlife Sanctuary on Jacksonville’s north side. The sanctuary, which was founded in 2000 and is nonprofit organization, provides a forever home mainly for large cats when they’re surrendered from zoos and private institutions that are no longer able to care for them. The residents are mainly tigers, but there are two lions (a male and female), leopards, bobcats, cougars, foxes and coatimundis (a member of the raccoon family).
Do make a reservation for the night feeding (Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays) and get ready to be awestruck – there’s a reason why it’s the number one attraction in Jacksonville on Trip Advisor. Tours of the ranch for guests attending the feeding begin at 6 p.m. and leave every 15-20 minutes with the last tour at 7 p.m. The feeding starts at 7:30 p.m. Your guide, a sanctuary volunteer, will introduce your group to each animal while providing information about Catty Shack and backstory on that animal. Arrive early and be on one of the first tours because after it concludes, you’ll have freedom to wander and observe the residents on your own time. You’ll easily be able to identify which cats are showing the most personality on that day. Helpful hint: Those are the ones you want to make sure you return to at mealtime.
The feeding starts at the back of the property where the three sister Bengal tigers, the Fluffies, have their home. (They got that nickname because they were sent to Jacksonville from Wisconsin in the winter when their coats were at their thickest. Also one of the sisters, Runty, is a white Bengal tiger with the traditional ice blue eyes.) From there, the feeding moves from cat to cat toward the front of the sanctuary. You could watch each cat get their meal, but it’s better to pick and choose your favorites and spend more time with that animal. Dinner is raw meat fortified with the necessary vitamins and nutrients specific to each animal’s needs – some days this is whole chicken – you’ll hear the bones snap and crack under the powerful jaws. Spiderman and Spike, two of the Siberian tigers, are known to be “talkers” before and during mealtime. Be ready to take video.
With a Cherry on Top
Any fantastic day of exploring, needs a final exclamation point. Thankfully, St. Augustine resident Stephen DiMare has developed two options to meet that need: The Hyppo Gourmet Ice Pops and Mayday Ice Cream. Both have expanded from Jacksonville’s neighbor to the south to downtown locations in Jacksonville. In eight years, DiMare’s gourmet ice pop venture has tried out 450 flavors with a focus on local in-season produce. Yes, it offers traditional standards like strawberry, but it’s more unique flavors like Cucumber Lemon Mint, Honeydew Basil and Pineapple Mint Rose make the shop a local haunt. Similarly, DiMare brought the same focus to his artisan ice cream venture. Mayday specializes in handcrafted, nontraditional flavors made from high-quality ingredients served with homemade sprinkles and waffle cones. Go for a trio of scoops, pairing The Aviator (Nutella ice cream with Biscoff cookies and hazelnuts) with Denali Postcard (their take on Rocky Road) and the Black Charcoal Vanilla (the vanilla’s infused with activated charcoal). You won’t be disappointed.