Devyn holds a miniature deer
If you drive an hour northeast from Memphis to Alamo, Tennessee, you’ll find the Conley Farm. Like many places in this region, a white columned plantation home and spinning windmill caps the hill near its entrance. But instead of raising cattle, this fifth-generation farm is where zebras graze, ostriches peck the earth, and kangaroos tuck joeys into their pouches. It’s the Tennessee Safari Park, a haven for rare and endangered species and a drive-through safari for tourists.
I’m joining Dr. David Hanan, an avian and exotic animal veterinarian with Memphis Veterinary Specialists in Cordova, on his weekly trip to the safari park. His 15-year-old daughter, Devyn, a freshman at Arlington High School, rides along. She usually brings a friend so they can feed the Chinese gorals (a type of goat) and West African sitatungas (swamp-dwelling antelope) that call this place home. While many of the park animals are endangered in their native habitat, they wander free here; it is park visitors who are restricted to their cars.
During the week, Hanan tends to injured ferrets, snakes, monkeys, and birds. But his real passion is working with birds of prey and exotic animals. Hanan’s journey began at Auburn University, where he studied at the College of Veterinary Medicine. It was at Auburn that Hanan became acquainted with big birds through the Southeastern Raptor Rehabilitation program. When he moved back to Memphis, he offered his services as a volunteer vet at the Mid-South Raptor Center, a place that provides rehabilitation for wild birds.
“Birds of prey are beautiful. It’s rewarding to release them into the wild and know they’re not going to be adopted out,” Hanan says. Birds raised in captivity don’t know how to hunt in the wild, so not all can be released. Archimedes, a surrendered raptor, now lives safely as the educational owl at Tennessee Safari Park. He makes appearances for the busloads of children who visit for field trips every year.
Growing the park
Tennessee Safari Park opened to the public in 2007 to promote appreciation and conservation awareness through interactive education. Here, visitors get to touch and feed rare and endangered species, many of which are bred in captivity before being shipped to other zoos.
At the park’s gift shop, 45 blue emu eggs warm in an incubator have already been promised to zoos around the country. Ratites, a Greek word meaning flightless bird, grow strong on the farm and are well fed by visitors. As we take an hour-long drive that winds through open range, llamas greet us in hopes of a nibble.
Jon Conley, director of Tennessee Safari Park, discovered his passion during high school, buying nine Dybowski sika deer with his graduation money. He knew he wanted to preserve these and other endangered species. Still baby-faced at age 27, he now owns a herd of 69 deer. “My father was a banker with an interest in exotic animals. But we’ve taken it a step further and way beyond.” Conley and his brother, Claude, the park’s manager, oversee 500 acres and roughly 1,000 animals; some only exist in a few other zoos in the U.S. Jon’s niche is raising antelope and rare hoof stock for African animal exhibits.
Hanan visits the warm conservation barn where more than 70 tortoises spend the winter. He checks on a feeding tube (much like an IV) strapped to the back of a Vietnamese keeled box turtle. “This guy looks like he’s doing better. You can tell because he’s starting to open his eyes.”
Outside, the vet examines an ostrich with a cracked beak and later we visit a separate pasture where a lone male zebra, treated earlier in the winter for a leg injury, now trots. “He’s starting to get around with that splint off,” observes Hanan.
Back at the petting zoo, Devyn waves goodbye to Elvis, a two-year-old camel that lies near the barn getting petted and fed by excited children. In addition to the driving and petting zoo, you’ll find a log cabin that dates to the 1800s and other reminders of Tennessee’s pioneer roots. But for Hanan, it’s caring for giraffes and wallabies that keep him coming back. “I really like the uniqueness. Each species represents a new challenge. It keeps life interesting.”
Tennessee Safari Park
- Hours: Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Sunday, noon-4:30 p.m.
- $12/adult, $8/ages 2-12. $10/feed buckets. Cash or check only.