By Sheryl Kay
Travel the back roads of central Florida and you're sure to come upon classic diners, great flea markets, fruit and vegetable stands, and red brick court houses.
And if you happen to cruise through Dade City, you'll see all that, plus you might also spy a few giraffes, or a herd of zebra just wandering. No worries....they're behind a nice wooden fence surrounding the 40 acre Giraffe Ranch, about five miles north of downtown, off highway 301. For some of us who've done Disney Gay Days for several years, the change of pace is welcome.
On a recent visit we were warmly greeted by owners Charles "Lex" Salisbury, and his wife Elena Sheppa. Over the years the two have collected a variety of exotic wildlife on their expanse of land, and opened the ranch to the public earlier this year.
Our tour began with a walk through visit with lemurs. These monkeys "fly" through the air, but the most extraordinary moment was feeding them grapes and having them hold our hands ever so gently as they tenderly took each grape and put it into their mouth. It was most unexpected, and the photo opportunities there were great.
Next we visited with Indian song birds. Sheppa explained all about the breed and then showed us how to feed them. After about 60 seconds of feigning timidity, the birds started flying all about, landing on our arms and heads looking for that food.
Then on to a most comfortable safari truck, where Salisbury told us about the ranch, the wildlife, and the ecosystem (the couple have made education a focal point), as he drove us around the property to visit with all kinds of wildlife, up close. For most of the ride we had camels alongside the truck, as well as Haflinger horses, and zebras, all coming to feed at small containers attached to the truck (great for photos, and touching their manes or backs). We also saw Bongo antelope, Dexter cows, warthogs, flocks of cranes, roseate spoonbills, and ostrich.
Perhaps most entertaining for us was meeting the giraffes. About four or five approached our vehicle just toward the end of the tour, and we were given the opportunity to feed them (not giraffe biscuits, but real tree limbs). Never underestimate the strength of this long neck, elegant creature, even when it's batting its eyelashes at you.....when they tear the leaves off the limbs you're holding, be sure to have a good grasp because if you don't, you will get pulled, big time.
Don't miss the gift shop after the tour. Sheppa is also an artist and is selling some of her sand blasted glass ware, as well as artist Heike Johnson's very funky wool purses, several in rainbow colors.
Admission to the ranch is by reservation only, and we recommend only wearing closed shoes! Tours are at 11:00 am and 2:00 pm, and the cost is free for children under two, $49.99 for ages 2-11, $59.99 for ages 11 and up, and $54.99 for ages 65 and up (group rates are available too). Reservations are held by credit card, but payment can only be made by check or cash.
Visit the ranch and then make it an eco-weekend. Swim with the manatees in Crystal River (about 30 minutes away), go fishing and hiking along the Chassahowitzka Springs, or get rugged with some geocaching in the Green Swamp Wilderness Preserve.
Be sure to stay at the Sawmill Camping Resort in Dade City, an LGBT campground. Here you can camp in complete comfort along the winding Withlacoochee River with towering old cypress trees and enjoy nature in a peaceful setting with over 100 acres of nature trails, RV sites with full hook up, tent sites and a large variety of cabins. Just the evening entertainment alone will keep you coming back.
Sheryl Kay is a freelance print and photo journalist based in Tampa, Florida. She's also contributing editor and Out In Front columnist for CURVE Magazine. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org