A Safari—in Broken Arrow?

posted April 15th, 2009 by
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Story by Alice Benavides

Most people associate exotic animals with the wilds of Africa, yet residents of eastern Oklahoma need not travel around the world to enjoy the beauty of rare wildlife. Lions, tigers, and bears can be found closer than you think.
Known as Broken Arrow’s “best kept secret,” Safari’s Interactive Animal Sanctuary is a non-profit organization that currently houses about two hundred rescued exotic animals—everything from big cats and primates to birds and reptiles.

Owner Lori Ensign founded Safari’s in 1995 and has worked tirelessly since then to accommodate the special needs of literally hundreds of homeless animals. 

Lori began with a bobcat of her own. She saw an ad in the newspaper and thought it would be “cool” to own a wild cat. It wasn’t until the animal grew that she realized the responsibility. The animal easily litter-box trained and he was good with Lori and a few others, but no one else. He would bite and Lori says she has scars to prove it. 

“I was the dummy,” Lori says. But instead of dumping her responsibility on someone else, she owned it. She learned how to care for and feed her unusual pet. Soon, she met others who shared her interest, but not all of these friends shared the responsibility. They, like many others who purchase exotic pets, realized their mistake and asked if she wanted their pets. She took those animals in, and before she knew it, she owned her own zoo, and what started as a hobby eventually became Safari’s.

Lori says that all of the animals at Safari’s are rescued—some from zoos that closed or over bred, but most from people who once thought it would be “neat” to own an exotic animal but quickly found out they were ill-equipped.  

Breeders of exotics make thousands of dollars annually. But unfortunately, many of those breeders do not bother to teach the new pet owners how to care for the animals or warn them of the possible dangers of owning pets with wild instincts. 

People get these animals home and find out they need special diets or that they don’t train well to a litter box. Many exotics require plenty of socialization to remain tame and some have lots of natural curiosity. Lori explains that some exotics are like having a two-year-old around the house for years. 

“People try to have them (exotics) in their homes. They don’t feed them properly. They pull their teeth and pull all their claws. It’s cruel,” says Lori. And by the time these animals reach Safari’s, some are malnourished or even injured.

Lori explains that these animals cannot be turned back to the wild. They have no mother to train them how to hunt and survive, and regular zoos will not take them since there is no paper work tracing the animal back to the wild. 

Lori’s joy is to care for these abandoned exotic beauties and her love for them is evident, but it is her goal to educate the public about them. “I hope to work myself out of business,” she says, and she starts with her own volunteers. 

Safari’s has no employees—only volunteers. As young as twelve years old, they are taught how to care for the barnyard animals. They learn to feed them, change their water, and scoop the poop. 

Safari’s also has a Zoo Mobile that brings the zoo to the classroom or party. An education specialist will teach the children about the different animals and that owning a pet—any pet—is not to be taken lightly.

Safari’s runs on volunteers and donations. “Every penny goes back to the animals, foods, and rescues. It’s all for the animals,” says Lori. Fortunately, some locals businesses, such as grocery stores and restaurants, donate outdated food to the animals, but it’s not always enough and more food must be purchased.  

For those considering owning an exotic animal, Lori suggests finding out what it takes to care for them, and a visit to Safari’s is a good place to start. Let Lori or a volunteer give you a personal tour. 

Visit with Mufasa, a twelve-year-old African lion that came from a zoo that closed in North Carolina. Mufasa loves to play “high five” with Lori…through the fence, of course! And listen to his “chuffing,” a purr-like sound that large cats make when content. “Big cats don’t purr,” says Lori. “They chuff.”

See Rocky, a twelve-year-old “liger.” He is a one-thousand-pound cross between a lion and a tiger. Imagine a cat that big! Rocky came with Mufasa from the same zoo.

Then there’s Outlaw, a two-year-old class A miniature horse (under thirty inches tall). Outlaw was a house pet whose owner realized that he would not “house train.”

One of my favorites when I visited was Jacki Leggs, a five-year-old kangaroo. At first, he appeared small and the next minute had his front hoofs on my shoulder trying to steal a snack out of my hands. Jacki Leggs was neutered too early, causing his growth to be stunted, but made him very sweet. He loves to give kisses…and steal snacks!

And listen to the strange hiss of Brutus, a thirteen-year-old alligator who got “too big” for his owner. 

There are plenty of barnyard animals in the petting zoo, and treats are available for purchase. There’s a turkey and the some of the prettiest peacocks I’ve seen. Small children love the many baby bunnies hopping around. 

But I knew my experience was unusual when I had the chance to hold Pepe, a one-year-old black and white skunk! Don’t worry—he’s been de-scented! Lori explains that skunks need a diet of dog food mixed with fresh vegetables, which made Pepe a hassle for his owner. 

And our escort throughout the park was a gorgeous black Great Dane named Izi, who towers over Outlaw, the horse.  

Park location: Safari’s is nestled on twelve rolling acres east of Broken Arrow. From the corner of Kenosha (71st Street) and 273rd East Avenue, travel north 1.3 miles to 58th Street and turn left into the park. 

Entrance fees and hours: Safari’s is open Saturdays 12:00 noon to 5:00 p.m. Adults are $6, and Children and Seniors are $5. Treats are $1 a bag. Tours and group discounts are available. 

Donations can be made via PayPal on website: safariszoo.com or mailed to 26881 E. 58th Street, Broken Arrow, Oklahoma 74014. Those interested in volunteering time at Safari’s are encouraged to call for an appointment.

Contact information: Call 918-357-LOVE or visit safariszoo.com. 

Alice Benavides is a freelance writer and editor from Jenks, Oklahoma.

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