Wolves and otters and sloths, oh my!
Those are just a few of the animals that you can see AND interact with at the North Georgia Wildlife Park and Zoo in Cleveland.
The zoo is home to around 400 animals from over 80 species, ranging from recognizable farm animals to exotic animals from all over the world.
While the zoo offers guided tours to learn more about each of these animals, there are also around 400 programs offered annually to give visitors a more up close and personal experience with the animals.
Some of these “encounters” include swimming with otters, yoga with kangaroos and time spent relaxing with sloths.
North Georgia Wildlife Park and Zoo started with owners Tom and Hope Bennett taking animals to events in the North Georgia community. In 2010 the Bennetts opened the physical zoo on Paradise Valley Road, which now encompasses around 50 acres.
The privately-owned property is split into three different areas, one a petting zoo with farm animals. The second is the Wildlife Walk where visitors can go on a guided tour of an area where some smaller, exotic animals reside. Across the road from these two areas is property for the larger exotic animals.
Although the zoo has grown to include more animals over the past ten years, the reason for its existence remains the same. Director of Zoo Operations Jeff Powell said the zoo’s purpose can be summarized with three words: Care. Connect. Conserve.
“Something almost magical sort of happens when you get to pet an animal or when you really get to experience one up close and personal,” said Powell. “It kind of leads to that third thing, people start caring about animals, they start caring about the environment, they start caring about conserving issues and that’s really what we’re about.”
Powell said that he has seen personally how connecting with an animal can help ease a person’s anxiety or make them feel better on a tough day.
“You sort of back out of the world and all the hustle and bustle and you come into this beautiful setting in the mountains,” said Powell. “Not only is a great experience for the animals but it’s a great experience for the people that come and it’s really kind of therapeutic for folks.”
As the COVID-19 pandemic is altering the way many businesses operate, zoo staff are having to find their own way to comply with social distancing guidelines. Powell said some ways they are complying are by cleaning frequently, enforcing social distancing rules during tours and limiting the number of people in tour groups.
The zoo is also currently offering the “North Georgia Safari Drive Thru”, where visitors can drive thru the property used for housing larger exotic animals and see animals without ever having the leave the vehicle.
Powell said that despite having to alter operations during the pandemic, the response from the community has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Folks have been so, so appreciative. I can’t tell you how many people have said 'thank you for opening up and for giving us a safe option of something to do with our family right now',” said Powell.
The North Georgia Wildlife Park and Zoo is still taking reservations for tours and encounters. Slots to sign up for summer days camps will open soon, as well. More information on all the zoo has to offer is on their website.