Story and Photos by James Branaman
North of Jacksonville an unassuming left turn leaves the asphalt and civilization behind. Smooth dirt roads cut through saw palmetto and slash pines sifting the Florida sunshine. A one lane wooden bridge crosses Little St. Mary’s River to the sprawling White Oak Conservation property. Songbirds call for attention, but our focus is on the zebras standing 50 yards away.
Exotic animals attract visitors to White Oak, but this is no zoo. Don’t expect plastic rocks and animals corralled on tiny dirt islands in a painted concrete jungle. The setting here is natural Florida. Rhinos roam open pastures, cheetahs have a grassy racetrack and giraffe wander amongst pines and palms.
Brandon Speeg, the conservation coordinator at White Oak leads an open-air trolley tour gliding like an old Cadillac, creaking and swaying, but with a solid, assuring, “Ol’ Trusty” feel. Antiquated wooden benches add more character than comfort, but guests quickly realize they’ll be on the edge of their seats anyway as only a three-rail-fence stands between the trolley and several rhinos. Eyes widen as Brandon asks if they’d like to step off for a closer look. I’m slack-jawed when he tells us if we keep our limbs away from any compromising positions, we can touch the white rhinos. The mellow giants nuzzle against the rails like two-ton armored kittens.
White Oak Conservation is a 600-acre wildlife research and training facility that’s home to 25 different species in Yulee, Florida. Their mission is to conserve species through innovative breeding, conservation and education programs. Founded in 1982 by Howard Gilman, its breeding programs have contributed over 30 rhinoceros, 145 cheetahs, 50 okapi (a rare giraffe relative) and over 1,000 antelope births to captive conservation populations, and re-introduced bongo antelope, roan antelope and black rhinos back to Africa.
White Oak also works with endangered species closer to home including a female Florida panther raised at White Oak and released in Fakahatchee Strand Preserve State Park which has since given birth to her first cub. To date 12 injured or orphaned Florida panthers have been released back into the wild.
White Oak is expanding its conservation education offerings with opportunities to spend a day, a night, or a week “surrounded by imperiled species in a refuge for animals, people, and ideas.” There are also conservation education camps for children.
Climbing off the trolley, cheetahs greet us and again jaws drop when, under Brandon’s supervision, we are allowed to touch two of the hand-raised cats through the fence as they lean against it, predatory smiles facing away. The cheetahs seek out the attention, purring a deep, soothing appreciation as we stroke their coarse coats.
Our last critter stop has guests brandishing leafy branches. Like wind-swept palms, giraffe necks sway through wooded surroundings as they saunter towards us. Finally they tower overhead, otherworldly creatures with purple tongues picking green leaves. Their graceful power occasionally pulls the whole branch free despite tight-clasped hands. Looking straight up, their elongated necks blend with the soaring pines, stretching up towards the Florida sky.
IF YOU GO:
Public tours of White Oak are available on Wednesdays and Fridays. Tours begin at 10:00 a.m. and are approximately 2 hours long.
Reservations must be made in advance.
Up to 24 guests; minimum 2 guests
$100 per adult; $50 for children 3-10 years of age; children under 2 years are free
Tours over 10 people may be booked outside of set dates.
For directions and to book a tour or find out more about camps and educational opportunities, please contact the reservations coordinator at 904-225-3285 or 904-225-3396
More info can be found at http://www.whiteoakwildlife.org/