Wild animals abound at Gentry Safari
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
GENTRY Just a short drive from Bella Vista, more than 180 acres are dedicated to all animals - from the big to the small and from the cute and cuddly to the oddballs.
Starting in the 1960s, Ross and Freda Wilmoth began collecting animals to form what is now known as the Wild Wilderness DriveThrough Safari in Gentry.
“My dad (Ross Wilmoth) always said if he got back from World War II to northwest Arkansas that he would take care of the land and build a place where people could come out and enjoy themselves,” said Linda Hook, one of Wilmoth’s eight children who now run the park. “Because of all he went through and all the horrible things he saw in World War II, he wanted to make sure people could have a place to come out and just be with their families.”
The safari started out small with a few head of cattle and some buffalo. But as word of mouth spread and people began coming out to see the buffalo, the Wilmothsknew they had something and began to grow the safari, Hook said.
With that in mind, the ponds Wilmoth had built on the property for growing strawberries quickly became watering holes for animals, with one becoming home to one of the largest animals the park owns, a hippopotamus.
Today, the Wilmoth property is now home to hundreds of animals from all over the world. Almost every continent is represented in the park, from Australia’s kangaroos to Africa’s giraffes and Asia’s Bengal tigers. The only continent without animals in the park is Antarctica.
Driving through the front gates of the safari, visitors are asked to pay a one-time fee of $10 for adults and $8 for children 3 years old and up. From there, the park becomes anyone’s playground.
In the front of the park, children can walk alongside kangaroos, feed African pigmy goats and watch as newborn Jacob sheep compete for the children’s attention.
“This is not like a zoo where you see two or three of any animal. A lot of the herds you will see here are generational,” Hook said of the safari that grows larger each spring as the animals begin nurturing their young.
“What we have really tried to do here is make a natural setting for a theme park,” Hook said.
It is a goal that the Wilmoth family has accomplished. Driving on the four miles of road through the park, visitors can see herds of zebras nudging camels or a black baby yak playing with a bright red Watusi calf. Visitors might even catch a glimpse of a special Dutch Belted cow, a black cow with a white midsection. There is a short, fat one who has earned the moniker “Double Stuff” because he looks like a giant Oreo cookie.
The safari has recently seen an influx of visitors from Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas, Hook said.
With the economy being in the shape it is, families find themselves looking for a place to take their children that is easy on the pocketbook.
“We strive to have something to where people do not have to spend a lot of money in the park. Once you get in, you can buy a bag of feed for $1, a T-shirt for $10 and a hamburger for $2.50,” Hook said.
The T-shirts are printed locally, the animalfeed comes from local feed stores, and all other park merchandise comes from Siloam Springs or Gentry, Hook said.
All of the money the park earns is used for the park and the animals. The Wilmoth children who run the park have additional jobs to support themselves, Hook said.
“I was 10 when we got the first buffalo, and I thought that was the neatest thing. That being said, by the time you have nursed and raised and cared for these animals, theybecome your pets and another member of the family,” Hook said.
For her and her seven brothers and sisters, raising tigers and feeding monkeys was just another part of the farm chores, she said.
Because animal conservation is such a key component of the park, veterinarians visit once a week to check on the well-being of the animals, especially those animals who are either endangered or extinct in the wild.
Animals like the Pere David’s deer and the Przewalski’s Wild Horse can no longer be found in the wild, but they run abundant at the safari in Gentry, while two chimpanzees and a herd of addax,all endangered in the wild, live comfortably in the northwest corner of Arkansas.
“I can go home every night and know that people have come out with their families and have experienced what God has put on this earth,” Hook said.
The Wild Wilderness Drive Through Safari is at 20923 Safari Road in Gentry.
For more information, visit www.wildwildernessdrivethroughsafari.com.
Lifestyles, Pages 13 on 10/14/2009