BIG CYPRESS — Immersion into a world of wildlife beckons visitors at Billie Swamp Safari.
From the minute guests arrive at the tourist destination they are greeted by a cacophony of squawks, grunts, tweets and tribbles that welcome them to pop over and peek into animal pens that surround the parking lot.
“I went right over to see the baby animals,” said Gladys Mateo, an administrative assistant in the Tribe’s Executive Operations Office after attending a meeting Dec. 10 at the Big Cypress attraction. “The miniature horse and baby calves were so cute.”
Much had changed since Mateo first visited with her family five months earlier.
At the place most known for airboats, swamp buggies and alligators, new additions abound.
Staff workers have built a petting zoo for more than a dozen baby critters (goats, calves, deer, ostriches); adopted another dozen homeless or injured creatures and placed them into fresh habitats (foxes, caracara birds, capybaras, porcupines); and built two large aviaries (for hawks, owls and a menagerie of macaws.)
Soon, animal food dispensers will be available for guests to hand feed most of the animals.
“It’s always the goal here to have something for everyone to do and enjoy. People drive one or two hours to get here. We want to give them an experience to last a day, or at least a half day,” said the attraction’s acting operations manager Cory Wilcox.
So far, a boardwalk that runs a quarter of a mile over alligator-infested marshland between the site’s cabin rental village has been refurbished and an outdoor herpetarium was raised to display an array of native and exotic venomous and non-venomous snakes.
Other new residents include an arctic wolf, timber wolf, African porcupine, African serval cat, zebra, two capybara, four Nile crocodiles, baby goats and a gaggle of toddler ostriches.
Newcomers join the attraction’s older animal family members that include a romp of otters, two orphaned bears, a myriad of formerly loose raccoons and the resident Florida panther Liberty.
But not all that is new is furry or feathered.
A long orphaned butterfly garden, left unkempt for months, has been strengthened with fresh blooming native plants, flowering bushes and obvious tender-loving hands. Located near the main entrance, it is now home to various butterfly species and occasional hummingbirds.
A vegetable garden that hugs the water’s edge at a recreated Seminole village, which features cooking, sleeping and canoe carving chickees, has been replanted by students from Ahfachkee School’s traditional preservation program. The children tend and harvest the garden as needed.
“There is still so much left to be done,” Wilcox said.
In the works are a small aviary to anchor the butterfly garden and house a flock of Lorikeet, a pen for wild warthogs and a natural alligator pit carved out of a shallow wetland bank. The new alligator pit will replace the current concrete pit outside the Swamp Water Café restaurant.
“The natural pit will be much more authentic and personal for the audience, alligators and wrestlers,” Wilcox said.
The old pit will become a replica fresh water ecosystem complete with plants, fish and turtles.
Wilcox said most upgrades and additions will be completed by February, the height of tourist season.
Mateo looks forward to returning to Billie Swamp Safari with her family soon.
“There is so much to do there now. It’s a great experience – serene, relaxed and even therapeutic. I want to go back. I have to go back,” Mateo said.