Go On Safari in San Antonio: Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch

Happy Texas Giraffe Day!

No idea how to celebrate? Our giraffe-lovin’ neighbors at Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch have a few tall ideas.

The ranch, covering more than 450 acres, is home to more than 500 animals representing more than 45 species of native, exotic and endangered wildlife from Africa, Asia, Australia, Europe, South America, and North America, including giraffes. If you have an animal lover in your midst, it’s a must-see destination, and I’ve got the scoop you need to make it a great safari for your little animal fans.20160402_140751

First, let’s talk giraffes because they’re one of the animals you’ll see at the ranch and, well, they’re really cool! Today is the first ever Texas Giraffe Day, and it came to be thanks to the folks at Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch.

In 2013, one of their giraffes gave birth to twins, something they had no idea was so unusual. The pair was only the ninth known set of living giraffe twins born in captivity. Their birthday was May 10th, making it the perfect day to now be celebrated as Texas Giraffe Day. As they shared news of the birth and worked to raise the twins, the plight of the giraffe population hit home. You hear about elephants, rhinos, and so many other animals being endangered, but you probably haven’t heard about the challenges facing the world’s giraffe population.

Buddy hanging out with a taller friend.
Buddy the giraffe hanging out with an even taller friend.

There are 500,000 elephants in Africa, but only 80,000 giraffes. How is that possible?? Half of the world’s giraffes have been lost in the last 15 years, and more than 400,000 giraffes have perished in the last 40 years due to the loss of their habitat, tribal violence across Africa, and other issues. At that pace, in the next decade, there won’t be any giraffes in nature left for our children to enjoy. Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch is working to educate the public about giraffes while also working to support giraffe research in Africa.

Buddy hanging out during a recent educational event at the ranch.
Buddy hanging out during a recent educational event at the ranch.

And at the heart of all of the effort is Buddy, the male twin you can see hanging out near the Longneck Learning Center, the facility that the ranch uses for educational programming. Buddy’s mom didn’t have enough milk to feed two babies, so the staff took Buddy under its wing, nursing him and watching him grow. He is a ham, loves people, and will do his best to stretch his neck to reach you over the fence when you talk to him.

We’ve fallen in love with Buddy, but to be honest, we love all of the animals at the ranch, and you will too. It’s a fun way to see animals in a natural habitat, and you’ll love seeing how excited your children get when a zebra sticks his head in your car window.

Open daily from 9:00 A.M.–5:00 P.M., with an extra hour until 6:00 P.M. during much of the summer, the ranch is great fun for kids of all ages. Tickets are per person vs. per car. The ranch offers annual passes and military discounts (active and retired) and often features coupons for weekday visits. For details on hours and admission, visit here. Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch is on Natural Bridge Caverns Road off of FM 3009 in far north San Antonio, so head north, take exit 175 off of IH-35, and head left on FM 3009. Thanks to great signage, you won’t have trouble finding your way to the entrance gate, which happens to be next to Natural Bridge Caverns. The two attractions are separate properties and separately owned.

To fully enjoy your day, arrive early. The animals are out and about enjoying their morning, especially on a cool spring morning like our recent visit. Arriving early also means fewer human visitors and cars, so you can drive through the ranch multiple times with almost no interruption and the animals are ready to greet you.

I'm one of the animals that doesn't always have manners and the signs you'll see at the ranch are true: I do bite, so hand over the food and no one will get hurt.
I’m one of the animals that doesn’t always have manners and the signs you’ll see at the ranch are true: I do bite, so hand over the food and no one will get hurt.

And then the fun begins: as you drive through the ranch (five miles per hour for the safety of the animals—and yes, they’ll walk in front of your car, so keep that in mind as you explore), animals will approach your vehicle to say hello and see what you might have for them. You’ll be given a bag of feed with your admission (you can also buy more so that everyone in your car has their own stash), and now’s the time to share it with your new friends.

Note: it’s not smart to let the animals eat out of your hand. Many will try, but the ranch advises you to simply drop the feed on the ground. The animals, including the ones with big, long horns and tall antlers, will try stick their heads in your window, even when their horns or antlers are too big to fit. And of course, they all have teeth. Many of the animals are incredibly friendly, but they are wild animals, and those big teeth don’t mix well with little hands and fingers.

You’ll see American Bison, kudus, watusis, springboks, gemsboks, wildebeests, gazelles, barasinghas, aoudads, waterbucks, and more as you drive through Tatonka Range, the first area of the ranch. Confession: I don’t know my springboks from my gemsbok, but the guide book you can buy at the gate is totally worth it! It has pictures of all of the animals, as well as details about each of the species to help answer all of the questions you’ll be asked by your little safari crew.

Deak, the 22nd baby giraffe born at the ranch.
Deak, the 22nd baby giraffe born at the ranch.

Your trek will then take you to Tower Creek, a beautiful expansion to the ranch that highlights its Hill Country terrain and gives you the opportunity to see the one of the ranch’s newest additions, Deacon or “Deak,” its 22nd baby giraffe born onsite. Named after Dr. Francois Deacon, one of the world’s leading giraffe researchers, the baby hangs out with his mom and friends at the Giraffe Barn. You can park your car, take pictures, and enjoy watching these gentle giants, or just drive through and enjoy blesboks, zebus, bongos, and more. (I promise, I’m not making these names up. The guidebook has really expanded our animal knowledge! The ranch also features lesson plans on its website, so you can download materials and help your animal lovers learn more about their new friends.)

You can also park at Tower Creek and enjoy ice cream treats at the Safari Sweet Spot—or visit restrooms if your crew needs a break. Additional food is available onsite—check out the Safari Camp Grill menu here. There are also picnic tables near the trading post and Safari Camp Grill, so you can bring snacks or a picnic to enjoy. (Just remember—please don’t feed the animals anything other than the feed you can purchase onsite, and don’t feed that to the giraffes. They have a special diet.)

A baby zebra hanging close to mama, but curious to know if we had treats.
A baby zebra hanging close to mama, but curious to know if we had treats.

Once you complete your drive through the ranch, you’re welcome to take another safari: there’s no limit to the number of times you can drive through. We have done it twice on some of our visits and saw different animals on our second loop. You can also park, enjoy the petting barn, see more animals, and chat with Buddy over by the Longneck Learning Center.

By the way, while you’re gazing at Buddy and his friends, give some props to mama giraffes. They carry their babies for 14 months, and they NEVER get more than 1.9 hours of sleep A DAY. Their anatomy makes it hard for them to safely lie down. They can’t get up quickly, making them extremely vulnerable when sleeping, so they just don’t. Giraffe moms give birth standing up, so their 100-pound, five-feet-tall babies drop an average of six feet, hitting the ground and walking within 15 minutes. And these tall mamas do all of that with no wine or coffee, so really, they deserve some serious respect!

Our trips to Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch tend to last two to three hours, depending on the time of day, the amount of traffic on the ranch, and how long we choose to hang out after our safari. Know that the entrance lines to get into the gate can be long later in the day, especially in busy seasons (summer and spring break). But since this terrific adventure is just up the road, hopefully you can time your visit (or visits, as in our case) to avoid the crowds and enjoy a safari right here in San Antonio. And when you see Buddy, don’t forget to wish him Happy Texas Giraffe Day, or Happy World Giraffe Day (June 21).

Watusi with you?
Hello! Watusi with you? Come see me! I promise not to stick my horns in your car.
An Army brat who came to Texas for college and ultimately managed to make the Lone Star State her permanent home, Dawn became a mom “AMA” (advanced maternal age), giving her the opportunity to use a stroller vs. a walker as she navigates the world of motherhood. Her growing up way too fast native Texan loves all things Star Wars, Legos, dinosaurs and keeping his parents on their toes. When she’s not busy parenting the original strong-willed child, Dawn runs Tale to Tell Communications, a San Antonio-based PR and marketing agency. An award-winning writer, Dawn also contributes to San Antonio Woman, Rio Magazine and Texas Lifestyle Magazine. She and her family enjoy exploring all that San Antonio has to offer, going on adventures and playing tourist together as much as possible. Favorite Restaurant: Clementine Favorite Landmark: The beauty of the River Walk, especially La Villita Favorite San Antonio Tradition: Celebrating anything and everything with color, music and food