We’ve all been to the zoo: well-manicured landscaping, souvenir cups and meandering paths leading visitors from cage to cage with animals sitting safely inside and an abundance of signs reading “Do not touch the wildlife.”
The Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch is NOT that kind of zoo. Which is exactly the reason a trip to the Wildlife Ranch makes for one heck of a wild ride.
It’s impossible to drive on I-35 without seeing signs for the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch and its neighbor Natural Bridge Caverns, which both sit around 30 miles north of San Antonio and west of New Braunfels off F.M. 3009. Those that actually diverge from the Interstate and make a trip to the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch are transported far from the Texas Hill Country to the foreign lands of a completely different continent.
The Wildlife Ranch has over 500 animals representing more than 40 species, but it is nothing like a traditional zoo. Instead of walking around viewing animals in cages, visitors are the ones locked in cages as they take a 4-mile drive through this 400-acre ranch and through multiple open animal habitats. The ranch is separated into four distinct areas grouping species into diverse categories, with each having an adventure all its own.
MY FACE-TO-FACE ENCOUNTER
On the day I visited, I arrived as early as possible, having been told that the animals are more active during the early morning and might bed down during the heat of the afternoon, making them a bit more difficult to see. I drove up to the window, paid my fee ($17.50/adults and $9/kids), and received an animal guide and a bag of food. I was then pointed down the road and told to have fun.
Within seconds, I was driving beneath a tall entrance gate with the theme music from Jurassic Park playing in my ear. From the comfort of my steel cage (aka my truck) complete with air-conditioning, radio and heated bun-warmers, I was ready for whatever was in store.
Almost instantly, my truck was swarmed. Rather than driving through and struggling to catch a glimpse of a wild animal, I found the animals anxiously waiting to see me. I quickly realized that they didn’t want to see me, they just wanted to see my food bag becoming their breakfast. I started scattering food pellets on the ground, which were received well by the baby animals, but the mommas wanted the mother load they knew was inside the bag. The reindeer were so eager to get the food they were stuffing their entire heads into the truck. Luckily, the male’s horns were too big to fit, but the females were challenge enough. I refused to give in and decided to inch forward. After all, if this was going to be a 4-mile trip, I certainly didn’t want to run out of food in the first 50 yards.
A few feet ahead I stopped the truck to see an animal I didn’t recognize. After consulting my field guide, I learned it was an African Gemsbok, which is something like a deer but with distinct black, gray and white coloring and two beautiful long horns. I dangled my food bag out the window and with a bit of effort lured it right up to my window. I was marveling over its horns when suddenly, in one smooth swipe, the horns came down and knocked the entire food bag out of my hand. Breakfast was served! I quickly realized these guys are much smarter than I gave them credit for. Luckily, I had bought a spare bag.
I was having a great time feeding the goats, watusis and wildebeests, when the biggest beast of all came out of the brush and headed straight toward me — a full-grown male buffalo. Surprisingly, he was the most eager of all, pushing the smaller animals aside and coming right in for the goods. I wasn’t so much worried about his teeth as I was about his foot-long tongue flopping around the driver’s seat like a unmanned firehose. I kept my distance as best I could and attempted to strategically toss food pellets into his open mouth. If you have any idea how to get buffalo saliva off car upholstery, please let me know.
I left the buffalo behind, but my close encounters were just getting started. I crossed over into the “Kilimanjaro Outlook” to find a herd of zebras awaiting my arrival. Seeing zebra stripes up close is an amazing thing. Seeing zebra molars is a whole different story. These guys came right at me and knew exactly how to get to the food. Some were even so nice as to smile for the camera. A word of advice: Make sure to take the “Watch Your Fingers” signs in the zebra area seriously.
But even more adrenaline-pumping than getting licked by a buffalo and breathed on by a zebra was getting pecked by an ostrich. These just might be the most vicious residents of the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch … in a good way. There’s nothing quite like the sensation of having a 200-pound bird peck pellets from the palm of your hand. Now that’s a rush.
Go early. The animals are more active and easier to see.
Mind the ostrich (and the zebra… and buffalo).
Fill up your tank: You don’t want to be stranded in the middle of your safari.
BACK TO START
I passed llamas, rhinos, scimitar-horned oryx and a whole slew of other species before my 4-mile journey ended back at the park entrance. However, just because the ride was over didn’t mean the trip was done. Around the entrance were a handful of cages with exotic animals, an island full of lemurs and a petting zoo full of much less intimidating pygmy goats: the perfect opportunity to use what little food I had left over.
Anyone who visits the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch will quickly realize that this is not your average zoo. To be fair, it isn’t really a zoo at all. It is a ranch in the truest sense, full of exotic animals with enough room to run around and be animals. I’m just glad they were nice enough to let me visit.
Safari Camp Grill: Located at the ranch, this is more than a typical tourist attraction spot and has great food.
Bracken Store Café: Home of the famous “Bracken Burger.” I recommend getting it covered with bean dip, Fritos and jalapeños.
Tune into The Daytripper on your local PBS station, or visit www.thedaytripper.com