It turns out Louisiana's climate is a lot like Sub-Saharan Africa's. So it makes some sense you’d see animals usually spotted on safari at Global Wildlife -- an animal refuge on the Northshore in Folsom. There, visitors can learn about 4,000 exotic, endangered and threatened animals from all over the world.
As I drive down the gravel road into Global Wildlife I can’t help but notice what makes the place so special -- there are no fences. Aside from a perimeter fence, there is nothing restricting the animals’ movement, and my car is quickly surrounded by antelope, zebra and what looks like an ostrich.
Director of Global Wildlife, Brittany Ricks, explains that it wasn’t an ostrich, but a rhea bird from South America. They don’t have any ostriches or other types of aggressive animals, like lions or other carnivores, because of how up-close-and-personal visitors get. Many of those visitors are kids.
"We have giraffes, a family of ten, we have a lot of antelope species, and we have deer species," Ricks says. "We have llamas and alpacas and camels.”
Ricks walks out to a line of wagons full of first graders, pulled by a tractor.
“We are heading out to our safari wagon tour. We are going to be touring with Lyon Elementary out of Covington-Mandeville area. They have about 150 students and chaperones touring with us today. They’re boarding up and we’re getting the feed passed out to them to feed the animals.”
A circus of activity follows as the tractor pulls the excited kids out into the open fields of Global Wildlife. Dozens of zebras, llamas, antelope, geese and other waterfowl rush the wagons as the kids dump cupfuls of dry food down to them and scream in delight.
A first-grader named Destiny says she is excited to see animals she had only ever seen in movies before. “I liked giving them the food because it kind of smells good for them and it might be healthy for them too, to keep them strong,” she says.
The 900-acre refuge was founded by a man from Houma who bought a few exotic animals for his daughter about 25 years ago. But the sight of a giraffe on the Northshore caused traffic jams on Highway 40 as people pulled over to see her and the other animals, so they decided to open it up to the public.
Since then the center has grown and expanded. Ricks says part of the goal is to grow the herd and protect endangered species, like giraffes, which they then trade with other wildlife refuges across the country to improve genetic diversity.
“But our main goal is to educate the public,” says Ricks. “To give everyone an experience like they’ve never had before and they may never get to see because they can’t afford to travel, so this is like a little African experience in Louisiana.”
You can tell that the staff enjoy the escapism of working in that environment. Far on the other side of the property from the screaming first graders, Ben Martino parks his jeep in the middle of the giraffe herd and checks on them.
“It’s easy to turn off the vehicle, animals are all around and it’s easy to forget that we are right here in Louisiana -- in south Louisiana, just an hour from Baton Rouge, an hour from New Orleans," he says.
Martino is a tour guide and says it’s quiet moments like these that make him love his job.
“There’s a tour running now with over 100 school kids, but here we are 200 yards away and the animals are still acting like they’re here by themselves. So you see a lot of behavior you would only see in the wild but yet they are technically in captivity.”
It’s mating season for many of the animals so that behavior includes rutting in the dirt and trees, and fighting with each other for attention from the females.
Tour guide Russell Ellzey hopes that seeing these animals up close inspires visitors to become environmental stewards, “If people don’t keep in touch with nature and keep in touch with their roots and how the wild world actually works, then we may take it for granted and then we could abuse it.”
He says they try to convey that in their tours through instilling a deep appreciation for the animals, and also just teaching kids to clean up their trash so it doesn’t get eaten by an antelope.
The Northshore Focus is made possible with support from the Northshore Community Foundation, a center for Philanthropy in the Northshore region. More at NorthshoreFoundation.org