Just for Fun: Grapeland Safari

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Photos by Libby Rogers

As you’re traveling along the highway through Grapeland, Texas, you’ll notice a small sign for a drive through safari located right off the main road. Do not be fooled—this small sign is actually an invitation for HUGE fun!

Open seven days a week from 9:00am to 7:00pm, guests of the Grapeland Safari drive their own vehicle through several acres of open pasture where exotic, friendly animals roam free in a habitat thoughtfully designed just for them. A large water hole provides a refreshing place for buffalo to satisfy their thirst and for Aoudad sheep (a goat sheep hybrid indigenous to Africa and introduced and thriving in the southwestern United States) to splash and play. Leafy trees offer a shady sanctuary from the hot sun. Most importantly, all the animals have access to tourist-free resting grounds, where they can get away for some privacy or quiet time when they do not feel like being social.

The Grapeland Safari regularly acquires new animals. I drove through the safari on a beautiful, sunny Saturday morning with my two enthralled children. Along with the buffalo and sheep, we saw llamas, camels, waterbucks, wallabies, zebras, antelope, Scottish highland cows, a Tibetan yak, fallow deer, beefalo, kangaroos, an addax oryx, emus, and even a chunky, little pot belly pig that followed our vehicle all over the grounds on his short legs in hope of receiving treats. Pot bellied pigs are indigenous to Vietnam and can grow as large as 300 pounds! He worked so hard to get to us, so of course we always obliged him.

Feed is offered for purchase by the cup or bucket, and is a fantastic lure for seeing the animals up close. I strongly recommend going for the bucket, as our first cup of feed was pulled right out of my hands by an eager deer! The Grapeland Safari’s owner, Mrs. Nona Herring, said, “They pull the cups out of our hands all the time. We have to drive through ourselves a few times a day to pick up all the cups. You’d think we never feed them, but I promise, they eat very well!”

Mrs. Herring has been in the exotic animal business for a long time, and had operated the safari in Grapeland with her husband for several years. She closed down the safari after her husband passed away, but recently reopened with the help of her son, Tracey Herring. The reopening has been a huge success, and they have expanded their operating hours from five days a week to seven to accommodate the growing demand.

There are many safety rules to consider before embarking on your Texas safari for the first time. It is important to remember that you are entering at your own risk, and while the animals are all very accustomed to being around people, they are still animals and, therefore, unpredictable. You need to stay in your car and only feed the animals from your cup rather than your hands. If you run into any trouble at all, you can simply honk your horn, and help will come your way.

Aside from the drive through safari, guests will find added adventure right at the main safari entrance. Rocky, an umbrella cockatoo, may greet you on the front porch. An endangered species endemic to the tropical islands of Indonesia, birds like Rocky are known for being affectionate and capable of mimicking human speech. I witnessed this large, friendly bird jump right onto the arm of a visitor for a chat!

There is a separate, fenced off petting zoo area where visitors can mingle among the smaller, tamer livestock and animals like pygmy goats and peacocks. I advise other visitors to avoid feeding the animals on this part of the grounds, as I made the mistake of doing. The goats ate all of my feed quite quickly, and as they pressed in around me and realized my cup was empty, one particularly disappointed goat bit me on the leg! Thankfully, I escaped relatively unharmed and learned an important life lesson.

In the petting area, you can get up close to a humongous Sulcata Tortoise. These gentle giants are native to the Sahara Desert in Northern Africa, are the largest species of mainland tortoise, and can live to be 150 years old. While we were there, he was happy to lay motionless, sunning himself as children and farm animals frolicked with great commotion around him. His measureless patience is likely the reason he is able to live so long.

My absolute favorite part of the petting area was the corral of tiny baby piglets! There were about 8 little ones out for guests to interact with, some black, some pink, some speckled. I scooped one right up and cradled it in my arms, and though it squealed at first, it calmed down and enjoyed the snuggle. This was such an authentically Texan experience!

A day at the Grapeland Safari is just $8 per person, and children under 2 are free. A large area with picnic tables is set up on the grounds, making this a perfect event location. The safari hosts birthday parties, church gatherings, school and nursing home field trips, and more.

The Grapeland Safari also sells exotic animals. Caring for exotic animals requires a good deal of research and resources, but if you are prepared to take on the responsibility, Nona and Tracey Herring can help potential owners find what they are seeking.

Grapeland Safari is located about an hour north of Huntsville, and just one mile north of Grapeland, at 13440 US Highway 287 North (SH19), Grapeland, Texas 75844. Find them on Facebook @grapelandsafari and online at grapelandsafari.com. They can be reached by phone at (936) 687-5292.

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