We aren’t supposed to pet the giraffe, but that’s hard to remember when the adorable five-month-old Safari reaches his head into the open-air truck to grab the carrots and lettuce we’re feeding him. This tour is literally ‘waking up the wild’ here at the African Lion Safari, north of Hamilton, Ontario. And we’re a small group of strangers sharing a big moment.
Wake up the Wild is a new feature of this open-air park, established in 1969 as private zoo, unique for its time. At African Lion Safari, you stay in your car (or tour bus). The animals roam free on acres of land while a ribbon of autos snake along paved roads through the grassy plains.
Wake up the Wild is an add-on experience: an up-close look, with a tour guide, at lions, giraffes, rhinos and zebras for fewer than 20 people, hours before the park doors open to the masses. For $150 per person (including all-day park admission and breakfast), you get the thrill of giraffes eating branches and leaves from your hands and much more. When I visited, the older giraffes, like Calgary, were more reluctant to approach and only one worked up the courage to take our treats. But the baby, part of a breeding program, was too curious to resist.
Ok, giraffes are not horses. But they do live among those from the Equus genus … specifically Grant zebras here at African Lion Safari. Grants are a subspecies of the Plains zebra, the most plentiful in the wild, and are not endangered like their cousins the Mountain and Grevy Zebras.
Before we geek out over equine, picture yourself on this adventure:
- First, you load into an enclosed bus to see the lions eat breakfast. Released from their den, these massive yellow felines saunter toward pieces of raw steak (more than one per animal) and gnaws contentedly knowing their next meal is an easy find.
- Second, you visit the white lions, a genetic anomaly not documented in the wild for fifteen years, and new to the safari. These are adolescent siblings and behave accordingly, bating each other into wrestling and grabbing each other’s steak.
- Third, outside the lion zone you board the open-air truck for a trip onto the savannah joined by Jason Pootoolal, giraffe and hoofstock supervisor. It’s here you offer treats by extending an arm outside the truck, experiencing what it’s like to be within touching distance of a prized possession: young Safari is Canada’s first giraffe produced via artificial insemination, a success the park is excited about because of the conservation potential.
Conservation is an important part of the behind-the-scene activity at this adventure park that first opened 45-years ago as a tourist attraction. Today staff members work to breed endangered animals, like cheetahs, in enclosures within view of passing cars, but not directly on the route. Monkeys are also a big attraction, and love to ride on roof racks.
And then there are zebras. Many zebras live among a large herd roaming acres of land and grazing among the giraffe and rhino as they would in the wild. These animals are not interested in taking treats from our hand, nor approaching the truck, but we do get close enough to get some great photos that look almost like they’re from a safari much further away, and much more expensive.
Like their domesticated brethren, zebras live in herds, run fast when startled, kick and bite if necessary, and sleep in shifts with some standing guard. The gestation period of a foal is long, almost a year. They’re born remarkably developed and able to move with the herd soon after birth. But unlike the horse and donkey, few zebras have been successfully saddled. Stories of such are mostly fodder for Disney movies. Still, they do well in zoos, if grazing is possible. At African Lion Safari, they’re more wild than tame, especially with little ones to protect.
Wake Up the Wild VIP experience at African Lion Safari in Ontario, Canada runs June 13 to September 19, 2015 on select dates and tickets much be purchased in advance.
For more animal encounter experiences check out my adventures with a camel. More trail riding experiences (on horses) are coming soon … promise. Stay tuned.