When families visit Sedona, it’s not always easy to find kid-friendly activities. (We have yet to meet a 10-year-old interested in a day of gallery shopping or spa treatments.) Lucky for all of us, three distinctly different wildlife parks within a 90-minute drive of Red Rock Country offer plenty of fun for all ages. Out of Africa Wildlife Park is located in Sedona’s backyard – you can see the red rocks from the grounds. The park features exotic big cats, giraffes, zebras, a rhino and other animals more likely found in Africa and Asia than North America. The Grand Canyon Deer Farm, located just west of Flagstaff, gives visitors a truly interactive experience where they can hand-feed deer and other small animals. Finally, our area’s newest park, Bearizona in Williams, features a three-mile road where you drive among black bear, wolf and buffalo habitats (the park has a walk-through component, too). Just think, within a short drive you can experience wildlife from six continents, and you don’t even need a passport, so plan your spring break and summer vacation itineraries accordingly. Who says there’s a shortage of family fun in northern Arizona?
Out of Africa Wildlife Park
As Survivor’s 1982 hit “Eye of the Tiger” plays over the loudspeakers, two tigers, Liberty and Akasha, begin pacing around a swimming pool filled with 75-degree water. Four trainers, jokingly referred to as “the prey,” are stretching nearby. Several hundred spectators sit outside the arena, their eyes glued to the scene in front of them. “These animals are not trained,” says Dean Harrison, the afternoon’s emcee. “We are triggering their instincts. Training would be like making them human, wouldn’t it? We operate in their mind rather than ours.”
It’s just another afternoon of the Tiger Splash performance at Out of Africa, the 104-acre wildlife park Dean owns and operates with his wife of 30 years, Prayeri. For the next 30 minutes, the 400-plus-pound tigers chase inflatable toys, stuffed animals and balls around the enclosure, bouncing off the wire fence that keeps spectators out of harm’s way. The tigers gamely jumped into a pool of water in pursuit of a favorite toy. It’s an awesome display of the tiger’s prowess and definitely one of the park’s must-see attractions. Afterward, for $5 anyone can feed the tigers with a set of long tongs through the wire fence.
When the show finishes, Dean sits at a picnic table above the arena and talks about Out of Africa’s early days. In the 1980s, Dean and Prayeri began researching big cats at their home in Oregon. They designed and built a house where they could live with the cats and study the animals’ behavior. They moved the project to Fountain Hills near Phoenix in 1988 and opened to the public as Tigerville USA. After outgrowing their space, Dean and Prayeri relocated to Camp Verde and opened Out of Africa in May 2005. The park expanded to include more than lions and tigers; today visitors can view grizzly bears, wolves, a white rhino named Boom Boom, javelinas, reptiles and lemurs (don’t miss these guys – we could have spent hours watching their monkey-like antics). While they were waiting to be fed, we had the opportunity to hear a herd of hyenas emit the laughing noise that makes the African mammals famous. All of the animals come to Out of Africa from other parks and zoos as well as through rescue organizations, private parties, and federal and state government agencies. Dean says Out of Africa is a wildlife park rather than a zoo.
“When one comes here, one experiences a sense of the wild,” he says. “When you see the tigers hunt us but not hurt us, when you see the zebra come as a herd to enjoy people, when the anaconda allows you to pet her, one realizes the wild has made a choice to be one with us. This is not a zoological concept. It’s a relationship concept. You leave with a sense of that oneness, and it finally becomes real, not prescribed.”