You are here
Home > Community > Billie Swamp Safari strives to keep animals’ lives normal in pandemic

Billie Swamp Safari strives to keep animals’ lives normal in pandemic

Before park attendant Yusdday Martinez can clean the enclosure for the Critter Show animals April 22, Francesca the capybara enjoys a belly rub while Bambi the deer tries to get some attention. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

BIG CYPRESS — For the animals of Billie Swamp Safari, life in the Covid-19 pandemic goes on without visitors.

Throughout the yearlong pandemic while the park has been closed to visitors, BSS staff has been making sure the animals’ lives are as normal as possible. They are cared for and fed. Routines are important so the animals can have a smooth transition whenever the 2,200-acre safari park on the Big Cypress Reservation reopens to visitors.

“The animals are doing fine,” said Melissa Sherman, operations manager. “A year without people has impacted them, so we want to maintain our normal routines with the animals.”

The animals in the safari area know where the feeding troughs are. Before the shutdown, the park started a program for guests to feed the animals on the buggy trail. They could purchase a bucket of feed and pour it into the trough from inside the safety of a swamp buggy.

A zebra nudges away a family of hogs as other zebras and a rare white bison take their turn to eat. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

“They could get super close to the animals,” Sherman said. “We are keeping that routine with the staff doing it. The animals are living their best life, roaming free and getting food. Their biggest worry is panthers.”

Panthers live in the area, but their impact on the animals is minimal. Sometimes an animal will disappear and a panther is the likely suspect. A young donkey was rescued from the buggy trail a couple years ago after an encounter with what was probably a panther. It was nursed back to health and put into the petting zoo.

Caretakers in the park have detected a few behavior changes in some animals. Phil Blackwell, shift supervisor, has noticed some changes when he goes into the safari park to feed the animals.

“They are more spooked by the buggies because they don’t see them as much,” he said. “They aren’t seeing people or traffic.”

Billie Swamp Safari park attendant Keyovonni Purcell seems amused that the lorikeet on her shoulder is more interested in her braids than the food she was offering. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

In the walkable portion of the park, the macaws began chewing on wood in their aviary. They were given enrichment toys to play with instead.

Visitors used to purchase birdseed on popsicle sticks and hand feed the budgies. When the pandemic ends, they will have to be retaught how to be fed by hand.

“We can’t hand feed 100 budgies; we rely on visitors for that,” Sherman explained.The animals in the Critter Show – Francesca the capybara, Bambi the deer, Peaches the possum and Cuddle the skunk – follow staff members as they clean their enclosure.

“They are very smart,” Sherman said. “If you are raking, Francesca will move it so you will scratch her back. You need to keep them used to people. We don’t know their emotions, but we want to keep that relationship with them.”

Park attendants Yusdday Martinez and Keyovonni Purcell feed the animals and clean their cages regularly.

“The animals know the schedule for the shows and still go to the waiting area,” Martinez said. “They like people.”

Nuggie, the brown bear, and Little Girl, the black bear, love getting a treat of hard boiled eggs every day. Their large enclosure is inspected daily and the eggs are used to entice them into the closed off holding area.

“The bears like the extra playtime with the staff,” Martinez said. “They aren’t really affected by the lack of crowds.”

The park’s Florida panther, Liberty, is ready for her close-up inside her large enclosure. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

The pandemic has allowed Sherman to tighten up procedures around the park. With a smaller staff compared to normal times, everyone pitches in and does whatever needs to be done.

“When you are outside in nature and with an animal, you forget what’s happening in the world,” Sherman said. “When you give love to the animals, it’s a nice break to our mental fatigue. It helps the staff and the animals enjoy the belly rubs.”

Treats are often given to the animals. For example, the lorikeets get plant clippings in their habitat. They can eat the nectar or use it to make nests.

Capybaras like eating hyacinths, an invasive aquatic plant abundant in South Florida. The staff harvests it from the waterways and gives it to the world’s largest rodents.

“They need a lot of natural forage, it’s better for them,” Sherman said. “It takes a little bit of elbow grease and you have to make sure you don’t pull up an alligator or snake with it. Small changes like that matter.”

Yusdday Martinez gives the macaws, Guacamole and Salsa, some water straight from a hose. (Photo Beverly Bidney)

Capybaras eat about four to six pounds of food per day, including grasses, Spanish moss, kale and hay.

“They eat everything,” Martinez said. “Their teeth are always growing. They need to eat a lot to keep them short.”

The staff clips the overgrowth of weeds around the park and brings it to the animals in the petting zoo. Forage is healthy for digestion, but the animals also get kibble.

In the safari park, the animals get food in the troughs every two days. There are also molasses tubs with minerals in the park. Together they encourage the animals to eat more forage.

Many animals are carnivores, so the park breeds mice and rabbits as a way to introduce the natural prey animals into their diets. The rabbits were a gift and have multiplied quickly. The breeding program is saving the park money while providing a sustainable source of food.

“It’s good to give the animals more natural food,” Sherman said. “Bone and fur is good for them, too.”

The park wants to make sure its residents are in the best shape possible when guests return.

“We are patient with the animals,” Sherman said. “We feed them, work with the veterinarian and make sure they are healthy. If they don’t have a good diet, they will have bad health. We are protecting the tribe’s investment in the park.”

The view from a swamp buggy as Florida cracker cattle feed at a trough in the safari area of the park. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Yusdday Martinez feeds chicken parts to a wolf. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Florida cracker cattle, donkeys, a Nelgai antelope and an ostrich gather at a feeding trough. (Photo Beverly Bidney)
Beverly Bidney
Beverly Bidney has been a reporter and photographer for The Seminole Tribune since 2012. During her career, she has worked at various newspapers around the country including the Muskogee Phoenix in Oklahoma, Miami Herald, Associated Press, USA Today and other publications nationwide. A NAJA award winning journalist, she has covered just about everything over the years and is an advocate for a strong press. Contact her at