Hidden Treasure: Around the World in 120 Minutes (or less)

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By Samantha Gamez

As I drove north down Highway 79, I did not expect to see two zebras casually grazing behind a fence in Franklin. Nor did I expect to pull down the dirt drive to a metal building with a peacock and buzzard co-existing harmoniously in front with giraffe heads peaking from a dogtrot. That’s the charm of the Franklin Drive-Thru Safari; you never know what to expect.

Founded in 2012, the family owned and operated zoo is home to more than 100 species. The facilities are best described as small Texas farm-meets-Crocodile Hunter’s dream animal center (minus the crocodiles). Metal walls house the gift shop where you can pay the admissions fee and grab a bucket of feed. To the right is the baby room where you can cuddle with infant animals. There’s usually a line, but it is worth the wait. To the left of the gift shop is a dogtrot with a window to the giraffe enclosure where Big John, Big Bertha, Pierra, and Alexa stick their noses into everyone’s business – literally. A herd of flamingos live peacefully next door to the giraffes, their unlikely neighbors.

Driving through the safari takes two hours on average, mainly because the animals will stop you to be fed. They seem to have a sixth sense when you have a bucket of feed in your possession and will follow your vehicle once their hunch is confirmed. Take Sasha the llama, for example. She followed my vehicle for about 50 yards and had no shame in sticking her head over my lap to reach the prized treats. Up close and personal is the only way to describe driving down the worn dirt path that meanders through the zoo. It is an experience that cannot be found elsewhere.

General Manager Chris Soles, along with his father and brother, opened the zoo in 2012 simply because they could. Growing up, Soles was always surrounded by exotic animals. What started with lemurs grew to include a variety of exotic animals. “We grew up with exotic [animals] thinking it was normal to have a kangaroo or monkey in the house,” says Soles.

The first two years of the zoo’s existence were slow, but the following year, word of the zoo spread and stampedes of guests came hurtling through the doors. Well, maybe not literal stampedes, but the growth is more than what Soles and his family anticipated after such a short time.

Since then, the zoo’s popularity has continued to grow. On an average Saturday, the zoo can have up to 150 cars of visitors come through to see the exotic and beautiful animals up close. The success was overwhelming and surprising; the family says they did not expect to see the amount of popularity in such a short amount of time.

Originally, the zoo was home to about 200 animals. Today, Soles says more than 800 animals call the Franklin Drive-Thru Safari home. Exotic and native animals cohabit the premise, which also welcomes some wild creatures that flit on and off the property such as the tiny roadrunner. Don’t worry – no Wylie Coyotes have come running through the zoo.

While smaller animals can easily slip through wire, Animal Nutritionist Tyler Daw says the zoo is well protected against predators who might try to harm the zoo’s residents.

The majority of the animals are free roaming, but some species reside in enclosed habitats for safety to the guests and the animals. For example, the Nubian Ibex goats are known to jump on cars, so they live in a spacious enclosure where they can jump and frolic without damaging visitors’ cars and without fear of being hit by a passing vehicle.

“We put our animals first here,” says Daw.

This priority is evident in the everyday routine at the zoo. Starting at 7 am, a crew of five to six family members begin the slow, steady work of feeding every animal a diet specially tailored to fit their nutritional needs.  “It’s like a kid,” says Daw. “With the animals, you’ve got to feed them healthy stuff and give them treats every now and then.” After being fed, the free-roaming animals are taken to their designated areas ready for the day’s guests.

People of all ages are welcome to visit the safari. With 117 species on the premise, every guest can find an animal they find interesting. According to Soles, several species are on the endangered list and two are extinct in the wild. The North African scimitar-horned oryx was declared extinct by the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 2000. Their long, straight horns make them easy to spot when driving along the safari. Killed off in the wild in 1939, the Pére David’s deer now only exists in captivity. Both species live happily in the safari among the other exotic animals as can be seen as they interact in their habitats.

After a long day of frolicking and feeding, the animals are herded back toward the front of the zoo where they will stay for the night. Feed is distributed and the staff heads home three hours after the last car has left. Everyday the routine repeats. “Rain, sleet, snow, it doesn’t really matter,” say Soles. “[We] have to come. The animals really need to be taken care of. It’s a 365 job.”

The zoo is constantly expanding. As Daw says, “We’re not concrete; we’re dirt.” The family has plans to bring rhinos to the zoo and has already begun construction of the enclosure for the magnificent beasts. They have also begun building a larger enclosure for their Eurasian Eagle owls to allow them room to stretch their massive wings.

A trip to Franklin Drive-Thru Safari is like stepping into the Epcot of zoos. Driving through you’ll see animals from India, the United States, Africa, and Asia all in one place. Not only can you see them, but more often than not, you can interact with them. You never know what to expect at the Franklin Zoo, but you can expect to have a magical time.

The zoo is open every day, weather permitting, starting 9 am and takes the last car at 5 pm. Admission is $15 per person and free for kids 2 years and younger. There is also a baby room where you can hold and play with baby animals for $15. Guests can purchase a bucket of feed for $5. Group packages and guided tours are also available upon request.

For more information, visit franklinsafari.com or facebook.com/FranklinDriveThruSafari/. The zoo is located at 4324 W US Highway 79 in Franklin.

Behind the Scenes with Igor Kraguljac
There is something magical that happens when child meets animal. The excitement, grandeur, and wonder can be encompassed in one twinkle of the child’s eye, possibly only met when a child ponders the magic of his or her first-caught summer firefly. One of my most invigorating photo assignments of the year was definitely this INSITE cover, featuring a closer look at the special connection between children and animals.

The generous people from Franklin Safari Zoo gave us a tour of their property, so we were able to find the best spot. I noticed a little hill, rich in texture, embraced with tree branches lingering above. The light was just right. The ambience was picturesque. It was the ideal spot for our gathering troupe of assistants and dreamers, so that’s where we started setting up.

Of this topic of children and animals, I was already familiar. My daughter, Lu, featured in the image, somehow places this experience among many other experiences with animals at the forefront of her daydreams. She is Mogli, at peace, and storing her utmost happiest moments from childhood in the recesses of her ever-imagining mind, swinging from branches, leaping through the grasslands, and cuddling any baby mammal that comes her way.

At first, Lu was a little bit nervous, excited, and anxious since she had never had a chance to hold a live spider monkey before. The strategy was simple: arrive early and have them “hold each other” for a while before we started the photo shoot. I was worried about her being uneasy or the monkey reacting in some expected way in which fatherly instincts were ready to take over. However, I was the one that experienced something unexpected. I must have doubted or forgotten that “magic” in my adult mind.

Lu and her new friend connected in wonder above a place that any earthly being could see. Maybe they were in Kipling’s Jungle Book or Burroughs’s Tarzan. I was just a spectator, left with the magic I had to embrace. My photo assistant Garrett Terry, along with the help of the talented people from Franklin Safari Zoo, did a superb job maintaining the scene and making sure Lu and the monkey had a more than memorable encounter, while I was fatherly, trying to comfort Lu even though she didn’t need me at all.

The high positioned soft light, supported by the sharper backlight, created the vibrant look on our main two subjects. I also used the ND (Neutral Density) filter in order to keep the original blue color of the sky. We did multiple shots until we got it right. The wind was giving us a hard time as Lu’s hair was all over, but finally the magic was captured.

Once again, big thanks to everyone involved for this wonderful opportunity! — Igor K.