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Giraffe Ranch is a private zoo on rolling hills

DADE CITY — The baby scimitar-horned oryx watched the lumbering bus of spectators from behind the safety of an adult in the herd. These desert antelope, once plentiful in the arid plains of northern Africa, had been hunted to near extinction for their meat, hide and magnificent horns.

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Now they are thought to exist only in captivity. And a newbie has joined their ranks in an unlikely place: the rolling hills of northeast Pasco, just past the outer fringe of the Green Swamp.

An oryx calf, still gangly and barely 20 pounds, was born a couple of weeks ago at Giraffe Ranch, a private zoo that offers guided tours in a hulking bus modeled after African safari vehicles. The calf joins a small herd of about a dozen horned oryx at the facility.

The animals are rare enough that each birth — including another calf born in April at the National Zoo's conservation center in Virginia — represent added hope that the species will survive.

The little oryx is also part of the springtime baby boom at Giraffe Ranch. Four ostriches hatched about a week ago. A camel was born near Mother's Day.

The new arrivals are proof to owners Lex Salisbury and his wife, Elena Sheppa, that they are doing something right.

"The best compliment for us is an animal giving birth," said Sheppa, 50.

Salisbury's work with animals has spawned its share of controversy for the past few years. He resigned as director of Lowry Park Zoo in 2008 amid questions about the transfer of animals between the public zoo and his private refuges. He now awaits a ruling by an administrative law judge, Gov. Charlie Crist and the Cabinet over the fate of Safari Wild, his 258-acre animal park northeast of Lakeland, where critics say it conflicts with Polk County's growth plan.

Removed from the rumpus is Giraffe Ranch, a 50-acre spread north of Dade City roamed by zebra, warthogs and antelope.

Salisbury, 51, and his wife have raised exotic animals here for about a decade, but only two years ago opened up their menagerie to the public. They've had to explain that the $59.99 adult ticket gets you more than your typical day at the zoo.

Visitors can feed branches to giraffes, (for best results, "act like a tree," Sheppa said), witness zebras fighting over food from a few feet away, and rub the coarse head of a friendly camel that knows people equal treats.

"It's not canned. It's not fake," Sheppa said. "There are camels galloping after you, fighting, biting and lots of flatulence."

"Especially among the zebras," said Salisbury.

Salisbury has worked with animals since he was 19, both domestically and in England and Australia. This is his first time managing such a large grazing area, and he gleefully relays to visitors that a lot of land means a lot of happy animals.

"The animals we have here like living in big herds," he said.

And even if the animals aren't surrounded by their own, there is still a perception of safety in numbers, Salisbury believes. About seven years ago, his antelopes wouldn't breed. He brought in a herd of axis deer and, even though the two animals don't normally coexist in the wild, the influx of neighbors made the antelopes feel more at home. There were suddenly babies aplenty.

The horned oryx are hard to breed in Florida, due to their preference for the desert. The creatures can raise their body temperature up to 116 degrees to avoid perspiring, and they have specialized kidneys that prevent excess water loss through urine — all of which allows them to go weeks, perhaps even months, without water.

The oryx calf born last month was conceived without any human encouragement.

Salisbury said Giraffe Ranch is working with other facilities around the country to raise oryx with the hope of eventually returning them to the wild.

He only brings in breeds that will thrive in his back yard's terrain, a mix of wetland and open space similar to the environment in Botswana, he said. Since the animals are used to this type of topography they require less maintenance, a good thing since he and Sheppa run the farm by themselves.

The couple's goal is to create an emotional connection between visitors and the exotic animals galloping about their farm. This is not only accomplished by up close and personal encounters, but also by pointing out the similarities between people and wildlife.

When Salisbury stops the bus outside the giraffe's pen, he mentions that people have the same number of vertebrae as the long-necked beasts. And that oryx's horn? It's made of the same material as human fingernails.

Everything is connected, he said.

"We ought to care about the world beyond our own species," Salisbury said. "We're all in this together."

Helen Anne Travis can be reached at helenannetravis@gmail.com.

If you go

Giraffe Ranch

Location: 38650 Mickler Road, north of Dade City.

Reservations: Required. Call (813) 482-3400.

Admission: Free for children 2 and under; $49.99 for ages 3-11; $59.99 for adults; and $54.99 for seniors. Discounts are available for groups.

More information: Visit www.girafferanch.com.

Giraffe Ranch is a private zoo on rolling hills 06/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 8, 2010 9:05pm]
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