Safari North plans to open next spring
Exotic animals more accustomed to the African plains or the Australian Outback may not be what residents expect to see near Brainerd.
But that is likely to change as Safari North continues to make progress toward a 2014 Memorial Day weekend opening.
Kevin Vogel, Safari North owner, is behind the effort to build a wildlife park south of Brainerd on the former bicycle race track.
“We will have a large selection of animals from around the world,” Vogel said.
Now instead of jump obstacles for a race track, the area will be divided into sections to display animals — North America, Africa, Australia and South America.
Animals are expected to include giraffe, kangaroo and monkeys.
Vogel said the plan is to use about half the 43-acre land for the park. Customers will be able to walk through the park to see the animals by viewing them through the fences or via hands-on options at a petting zoo.
The business will be seasonal with animals heading back to heated barns in southern Minnesota for the winter. Although, Vogel said, animals like camels adjust well to the Minnesota winter.
Vogel, 45, said he’s been in the animal business most of his life. He started with a pet raccoon in grade school. That interest in animals outside the regular variety of cats and dogs evolved. Vogel worked as a meat cutter and said he hated it. Nineteen years ago, Vogel said he got into petting zoos, pony rides and pig races. It got to be a family affair with his wife and daughter.
His company, based in southwestern Minnesota in Sanborn, provided exotic animals for county fairs and a tiger for an attraction in Shakopee.
After years on the road every summer, Vogel said he started to look for a place to build and set down roots. The search began about five to six years ago.
“I knew I didn’t want to be on the road for the rest of my life,” he said recently, taking a break for an interview between pig races.
He studied highway traffic and looked for a proper fit. The metro area was too expensive. Southern Minnesota had the farm land but perhaps not the traffic he was looking for in the rural settings. Vogel looked at the Duluth area with its tourism but Duluth already has a zoo.
“Everything kept pointing to Brainerd,” Vogel said.
Vogel filed with the state for a limited liability company for Safari North in December of 2011. He received Crow Wing Township approval for a conditional use permit in December of 2012 after getting positive feedback from the community. A single letter was opposed to the idea of smaller zoos more than the Crow Wing Township location. Vogel said neighbors have been fantastic as he worked through the permit process. Crow Wing County was not in the mix as the township handles its own land use permits. The township rezoned the land for the park from agriculture to commercial 2.
Safari North is expected to include small animals — raccoon, woodchucks, falcons and owls, African porcupine and tortoise. Plans are to build a children’s barnyard and petting zoo with tame deer and giraffe.
Visitors are expected to have the options of going into a parakeet enclosure for an up-close encounter where they can buy a feed stick and have birds land all over them, Vogel said. Other animals expected include zebra, wildebeest, blackbuck, bobcat and lynx.
Vogel said he follows U.S. Department of Agriculture standards for enclosure sizes based on the types of animals. He said the old days of putting a black bear in a tiny display cage are gone.
“Things have evolved,” he said.
Vogel plans to offer camel and pony rides and provide wildlife educational shows daily. Safari North expects to be open through Labor Day. Then the animals will make the trek back to the heated barns in southern Minnesota.
What’s less clear at this time is how much a trip to Safari North will cost. Vogel said he is still working out admission rates, but he does know he’ll offer a family season pass. Vogel said expectations are to hire eight to 12 employees. Most of the construction of the park is anticipated to be completed this season with hopes for nicer spring weather next year than Minnesota provided this time around.