by Ray Newton
If your idea of a family adventure at the zoo is fun, then you will really enjoy a day trip to Out of Africa Wildlife Park, about 2.5 hours north of Casa Grande and 4 miles off Interstate 17 at Exit No. 287 (Camp Verde).
Unlike a zoo where animals are in cages or small enclosures, Out of Africa features 300-plus acres of native Mingus Mountain foothills, where most of the more than 300 exotic animals are free to roam in open space bordered by high fences.
Moreover, animals are not just from Africa. They come from Asia, Europe, Australia, and North and South America. The overall value of the wildlife well exceeds $1 million.
When Golden Corridor LIVING visited with owner Dean Harrison and some of his staff, Harrison says, “We do not want animals in cages. We want you and other visitors to experience and appreciate animals in natural settings as much as possible.”
It was that impassioned comment that prompted me to book a family group experience this past September with Ashton Powell, Out of Africa public relations director. It made a perfect day trip, especially since six of the 17 in the group were great-grandchildren, all younger than 6.
Powell assigned Kaitlin Richard, a university-trained wildlife specialist, as our guide. She provided exceptional details about various animals during our private tour.
Adults and kids boarded Kaitlin’s large open-air bus for an extended “safari” tour that took us into direct encounters with zebra, ostriches, lions, tigers, and leopards; African hoofstock such as eland, water buffalo, horned oryx, camel; Watusi cattle, hyenas; and, of course, a favorite, giraffes. Two giraffes, Temba and Mawenzi, were youngsters who had joined the resident giraffes only months earlier.
Giraffes have developed a reputation of being “kissers” for those who hand them treats from the tour bus. Two-year-old Levi Morrison, from Albuquerque, stands barely 3 feet. He stared wide-eyed up at Pilgrim, an 18-foot giraffe whose 20-inch black tongue curled out of his mouth toward a celery stalk Benjamin’s mother Jessi held out. Levi let out a frightened roar an elephant would envy. His 4-year-old brother Benjamin sat open-mouthed.
At another stop, Kaitlin walked to the fence behind which a family of laughing hyenas were gathered. She fed them treats — then stopped. They immediately began “laughing” in that distinct sound only hyenas make — high-pitched chattering and cackling.
She fed them again. They “laughed” again.
Addy Schafer, 2 ½ years old, smiled and told her mother Christine Schafer, “I really like the giggling animals.” Addy’s 5-year-old brother Josiah tried imitating the hyenas. They stared at him. Josiah then asked Kaitlin, “I heard at kindergarten they could break bones with their jaws. Is that true?”
Adults on our tour were easily entranced by the various animals. They watched a rhinoceros assault a hanging punching bag. Sage, a mountain lion, attacked a large pumpkin Kaitlin tossed over the fence.
For more than two hours, the safari continued. It went to the Tiger Splash Area where giant cats play in a swimming pool as they competed for chunks of raw meat. We saw wolves, bears, Barbary sheep, a pride of lions, the Reptile Resort, and other creatures at the various stops along the route. We had a chance to eat at the food service areas. Restrooms and shuttle stops were scattered along the route.
Following the scheduled tour, some on the adventure traveled on smaller shuttles to return to prior stops or visit new ones. One grandparent, Lynn Penner of Prescott, later said, “Not many families can tell stories of four generations sharing a vacation experience on such an informative tour.”
Another family member, Dana Anderson of Tucson, laughed as he recalled: “When we were at the lions’ habitat, one exceptionally large lioness kept staring at me. It was near their feeding time, but then I realized they wouldn’t feed me to her. Too much fat.”
Anderson’s wife, Sheri, said what especially appealed to her was that the animals were not caged and could roam free, unlike in so many zoos.
Powell says the majority of visitors — 150,000 a year — come from the Valley of the Sun. Many others come from across the United States, especially during the summer. International visitation continues to grow.
Open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., the wildlife park at 3505 W. State Route 260 in Camp Verde is totally handicapped accessible. Courtesy shuttle buses run continuously from opening until 4 p.m. The gift shop and ticket area are near the admission gate. Parking is free.
In addition to regular admission, several special tours are available, such as the Safari Tour we booked for our large family group. Among shows are Creature Feature (touchable animals), Critter Court, Tiger Splash, Great Snake Show, Predator Feed (Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday), and Wonders of Wildlife (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday). Those who want a special treat can opt for the memorable Predator Zip Line Tour, where you soar over animals on five lines and a suspension bridge.
Powell invites those interested in more than the regular admission or in group tours to contact her or staff to arrange for reservations and discounts.
Additional details are available online at www.outofafricapark.com or at 928-567-2840.