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Review of Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch

Discussion in 'United States' started by geomorph, 24 Mar 2011.

  1. geomorph

    geomorph Well-Known Member Premium Member

    28 May 2009
    Newport Beach, CA, USA
    This review was written in October 2010 based on my visit in that same month.

    Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch is a 400-acre drive-through park that focuses on exotic hoofstock, located in the Texas Hill Country about 25 miles North of downtown San Antonio. It opened in 1984 on the site of a former ranch. The park claims to have about 500 animals of 40 species, with most of them contained within three very large fenced habitats that are the main attraction of the drive-through route. The route is an oblong loop, nearly three miles long, through the native landscape of gently rolling hills and grassy clearings and large stands of oaks and junipers. Piles of small boulders and thickets of prickly pear cactus are also a part of the habitats. Fences are mostly located far away from the road so that their appearance is minimal. The byline of the park is ‘African Safari. Texas Style’, although the species mix is actually a blend of African and Asian with a few North American, South American, and Australian species.

    Admission is collected from visitors in their autos at a toll booth beneath the entrance sign; they can either proceed directly to the drive-through route, or stop at the collection of facilities that comprise the visitor center at the park entrance. This pedestrian area is called Walk-A-Bout, and is comprised of a large parking lot, a few visitor services buildings, and several small animal exhibits. They are all grouped loosely among oaks and form a reasonably attractive setting; this is not a sad depressing roadside trap. The tallest building is Safari Camp Grill, an attractive counter-service facility with decent food (not necessarily healthier, but better quality than many zoos I have visited) and two attractive dining rooms and restrooms. Another attractive building is the Safari Trading Post, a large giftshop. Between the two is a shady plaza and a roomy picnic shelter. There is also a small rectangular shelter caged with metal mesh for about 10 exotic chickens nearby. A larger hexagonal shelter has similar caging around its perimeter for five small plain exhibits: one for Amazon parrot, one for blue and gold macaw and scarlet macaw, one for military macaw, one that is empty, and one for ring-tailed lemur. These are poor exhibits. However, nearby is the new exhibit, Lemur Island: it is a flat grassy island surrounded by a pond and waterfall, and filled with a variety of small climbing and shade features. It provides a far better habitat for ring-tailed lemur, and perhaps the ones in the hexagonal shelter cage will move or rotate to this exhibit. The surrounding pond is filled with channel catfish, diamond sturgeon, and koi carp. Further down the slope from the island is a plain large open-air barn shelter that houses the Petting Barnyard, filled with about 20 domestic goats of several breeds for feeding and contact. A gate nearby leads to an outdoor pasture for contact but it was closed and unoccupied. There is also a tall metal cage with a peaked metal roof for black and white ruffed lemur; it is a rather poor exhibit with concrete floor and hot exposure. That completes the core of the visitor center, and the cages do not add to the experience; Lemur Island and Petting Barnyard could stand and their own as the exhibits here while eliminating the others. Just across the entrance road, a set of exhibits is included in Walk-A-Bout before entering the drive-through route. One is an unsigned small fenced pasture, apparently for Patagonian cavy although I did not see any. A much larger fenced habitat is for reticulated giraffe, red kangaroo, and crowned crane (unspecified species); I also spotted some helmeted guineafowl inside, although they may be free to roam. I saw 5 giraffes but no kangaroos or cranes. This habitat is probably a few acres, and can be divided in two; it also has a few smaller paddocks attached to small barns for further separation of the animals if necessary. The Longneck Learning Center is on one side of the habitat and is for pre-arranged group education activities; it is a plain barn-like building that appears to have additional barn access for the giraffes.

    Ring-tailed lemur exhibit in Walk-A-Bout:


    The remainder of the park is the drive-through experience. Visitors navigate the route at their own pace in their own vehicles (open-door jeeps and motorcycles are forbidden, as well as pets), rather than seeing it on a tram tour. The speed limit is 5 miles per hour through the one-way route, and visitors can navigate the route multiple times since the entrance and exit are on either side of the parking lot inside the park; however they do not allow re-entry to the park once a vehicle has exited the property. When entering, visitors are given a safety regulation card with a small map of the park. For an additional $3.50, they can buy a 16-page color guide book with photos and short descriptions of the animals in each habitat as well as a 40-minute informational CD to play in their cars that has multiple tracks that correspond to each section of the route. Included in admission is a paper bag with about one pound of feed pellets for the animals. Additional bags can be purchased for $1.00. Visitors are reminded to stay in their vehicles at all times, but are welcome to drive with open windows and drop feed pellets on the road near waiting animals; handfeeding is discouraged, but is undeniably tempting with some of the friendlier ones! Some wait by the side of the road, others roam its length, others stand nearby. They mostly congregate in mixed-species groups. Few of them seemed to be far from the road, but thick stands of trees obscure the further reaches of the habitats so that it is difficult to tell whether there are more animals within. They certainly have the opportunities to escape visitors if they choose! For hoofstock fans, the chance to spend time so close to most of the animals, without fences obscuring the view, and being able to feed them and see them in large habitats, is very satisfying. The downfall of the park is its educational value, with descriptions and identification mostly limited to the additional-fee book and CD, and mixes of animal species that would never encounter each other in the wild.

    Tatonka Range is the name of the first large habitat on the drive-through route. It is named for a Native American word for bison, and indeed there are American bison within. The most numerous species were the aoudad, many of them charming the autos for pellets! The furthest reach of this long habitat is called Kilamanjaro Overlook (a common misspelling of Kilimanjaro) and has nice views of the surrounding hills; at one time it was a separate habitat but has been combined with Tatonka Range. The full species list follows and includes how many of each I observed:

    American bison (saw 2)
    Texas Longhorn (saw 1)
    Watusi cattle (saw 3)
    Aoudad (saw about 40, fed about 15)
    Greater Kudu (saw 4)
    Gemsbok (saw about 20, fed 5)
    Common Waterbuck (saw 2)
    Wildebeest (White-bearded Gnu) (saw 10)
    Springbok (saw 5)
    American Elk (did not see)
    Barasingha (saw 2, fed 1)
    Axis Deer (saw about 10)
    Fallow Deer (saw about 10, fed 1)
    Japanese Sika (saw 4)
    Formosan Sika (saw 3)

    Cape Buffalo (CD says there is 1, guide book contradicts this and says it is in next habitat, either way I did not see)
    Damaraland Zebra (guide book says they are here, but CD and signs contradict this and say they are in next habitat, either way I did not see)

    Aoudad, deer, and gemsbok in Tatonka Range:




    Kenyan Preserve is the next large drive-through habitat, separated from the first by a cattle guard and fence. It is the largest at the park, about 200 acres! It features a large open plain with a waterhole as well as hilly rises covered with trees. It is the most African-focused of the three largest habitats. Unfortunately, there was not much activity in this habitat during my visit. Most memorable was a very friendly ostrich who was more interested in investigating car interiors than feed pellets! The full species list follows and includes how many of each I observed:

    Eland (unspecified species) (saw 6, fed 2)
    Scimitar-horned Oryx (saw 4)
    Nilgai (did not see)
    Blesbok (saw 3)
    Red Lechwe (did not see)
    Dama Gazelle (did not see)
    Ostrich (Females) (saw 3, fed 2)

    Cape Buffalo (guide book says it is here, but CD contradicts this and says it is in previous habitat, either way I did not see)
    Damaraland Zebra (CD and signs say they are here, but guidebook contradicts this and says they are in previous habitat, either way I did not see)
    Greater kudu (CD says they are here but I only saw them in previous exhibit)

    Ostrich in Kenyan Preserve:


    Next are the Special Breeding Facilities, a series of three smaller fenced habitats that visitors drive past rather than through (while they are still within the Kenyan Preserve habitat). The first is for white rhinoceros, a pair they are hoping to breed. I saw both of them, and they have very impressive horns! They occupy a dusty set of two small paddocks that can be separated for management. Next to them is a rather barren grassy fenced yard for Bactrian camel, I only saw one within. Also, there is a similar yard for bongo that seems far too sunny and exposed for them; I did not see them and presume they were enjoying the shade of their barn instead.

    Massai Savannah is the final large habitat of the drive-through and is presumably a misspelling of the Masai or Maasai tribe of Kenya and Tanzania; it is poorly named as well since only one of its occupant species would be found in the land for which it is named. The full species list follows and includes how many of each I observed:

    Sicilian Donkey (saw 2)
    Llama (saw 6, fed 3)
    Addax (saw about 15, fed 1)
    Blackbuck (saw about 10, fed 1)
    Ostrich (Males) (saw 5)
    Emu (saw 3)
    Rhea (saw 4)

    Addax and rhea in Massai Savannah:


    Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch is an enjoyable visit despite the chaotic arrangement in its major mixed-species habitats. The enclosure sizes for the majority of its hoofstock are far larger than in most zoos, yet viewing opportunities for most are excellent. It is difficult to rank such a facility among traditional zoos; the limited scope of its collection and its weak educational value make it easy to rank below many others, but its admirable hoofstock collection slightly raises its value for me (especially with most displayed in a roomy natural setting, even if it does not recreate their native habitats). Therefore, I rank it at number 49 of the 57 zoo facilities I have visited. General adult admission is $16.50, which is probably a few dollars overpriced for most zoo fans but worth every penny for hoofstock fans, especially being able to feed them and see some so closely! I have posted additional pictures in the 'United States - Other' gallery.
    Last edited: 24 Mar 2011
  2. siamang27

    siamang27 Well-Known Member

    7 Mar 2009
    Texas, United States
    Thanks for the review. Have you been to Fossil Rim as well? Would be interesting to see how you'd compare them.
  3. geomorph

    geomorph Well-Known Member Premium Member

    28 May 2009
    Newport Beach, CA, USA
    No I have not been to Fossil Rim, but would like to go.
  4. Arizona Docent

    Arizona Docent Well-Known Member

    10 Feb 2009
    Arizona, USA
    Fossil Rim is about one thousand times better than Natural Bridge. I was at Natural Bridge about twelve years ago and it looks like nothing has changed except the lemur island. Considering Geomorph usually has the same tastes in zoos that I do, I am truly shocked that he rates this second rate facility so highly. I would never, under any circumstances, go back there.

    If they think they are going to breed white rhinos by having a collection of two in a small fenced off dirt plot, they are surely delusional. White rhinos in pairs usually do not breed - you need at least three (and probably a lot more room). The one aspect that Geomorph seems to like - having the animals close by for feed - is one aspect I hated. They all stick their heads in your car begging for food which I do not care for. The zebras were really bad at this which may be why they are now off exhibit.

    Fossil Rim is AZA accredited and does genuine conservation work (large breeding areas for rhinos, cheetahs, maned wolf, praire chicken, etc). Natural Bridge is a roadside tourist trap that, as far as I know, does not contribute to worldwide conservation efforts in any way.