The public got its first glance Thursday morning at the Aggieland Safari, where visitors entering the grounds were immediately greeted by zebras, ostriches and tortoises roaming fenced fields.
Hundreds made the drive into northeastern Brazos County before arriving at the attraction’s tall brick gates emerging from the rural scenery along F.M. 974. After two years of planning and four months of construction, the park opened with more than 5,000 ticket and annual pass purchases online.
Safari co-owner Brandi Riley said she was pleased with the day’s turnout.
The first official field trip visitors — a group of students from Dime Box ISD — arrived at the park on Thursday. Riley said many schools in the area have expressed interest in scheduling field trips, and the park is ready, with customized giraffe school buses on-site that are prepared to take students through the drive-through safari.
For Riley, her husband, David, and zoo co-owners Jeremy and Teresa Williams of Cameron, Aggieland Safari’s mission as a business is to conserve species and to educate the public.
“Our passion behind this place is that we both have young families,” Riley explained. “And we don’t think there’s been enough to do in Brazos Valley with kids. We’re very passionate about getting people outside, away from the TV and giving them an education about animals.”
The zoo boasts more than 700 birds and 300 mammal and reptile species, ranging from otters to primates, snakes to a hippopotamus. Twelve species at the park are recorded as being either endangered or extinct in the wild, Riley said.
Aggieland Safari is considered a for-profit private zoo licensed with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, taking up 250 acres of a 450-acre property. Riley noted that Aggieland Safari is still seeking to gain Zoological Association of America accreditation. The zoo’s curator, Paul Huang, formerly worked with the Dallas Zoo and oversees seven full-time and part-time zookeepers, as well as several interns from the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine.
“Not only do I feel like we’re offering something for the customers, but also for the community, in the sense of conservation and internships,” Riley said. “Not all [Texas A&M] veterinary school students will get experiences with exotic animals, so we’re glad to offer them that education.”
Isabel Collier, formerly an intern at the Dallas Zoo, was taken on by Aggieland Safari to work as a zookeeper. She has several years of experience working with smaller animals in a laboratory setting, and Huang, her supervisor from the Dallas Zoo, has trained and guided her through her journey of stewardship with the animals in Bryan.
“For zookeeper training, a lot of it comes from internships and hands-on experience,” Collier explained as she carried a small snake through the reptile building on Thursday. “I feel like you really prepare for this just by working with animals and working with the people who know animal behavior, and can explain how an animal is reacting and how you should work with them.”
Though Collier has been on site tending to the animals for more than a month, she experienced a new sense of joy on Thursday when visitors asked her questions while she worked with a herd of warthogs.
“I feel like it’s sort of an enriching experience,” she said. “I know my favorite thing about going to zoos in the past was seeing zookeepers come out, learning their experiences with the animals. ... I love the animals, and I also just love how I’m always doing something here. I always say that I think about work way too much. I love coming here, thinking of new ideas like, ‘What can we do with the animals and their enrichment? What are some new ways to train them?’ ”
Riley said she and the other three Aggieland Safari owners hope to bring in more animals each year, such as elephants and rhinos. Certain animals — including big cats and large primates — are not permitted in the area by county ordinance. However, more animals are already on the way, as two monkeys and an alpaca are set to give birth at the safari soon.
General admission for adults and children grants visitors access to view exhibits and pass through a drive-through safari, as well as select animal encounters. Visitors also have the option to purchase an “adventure pass,” which includes free animal feeding sessions along with a nursery experience. The zoo is open every day year-round and also features a mobile barbecue restaurant and gift shop on location. To learn more about Aggieland Safari, visit www.aggielandsafari.com.