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Safari Edventure in Homestead boasts hundreds of unusual animal, plant species



Special to the Miami Herald


On a five-acre site in north Homestead lies a slice of paradise that boasts 130 species of animals, 1,000 species of plants, an organic garden and even a rainforest — within a sinkhole. Yet Safari Edventure is barely known by folks outside the immediate area.


“Many people are fearful of nature,” says founder Glenn Fried, who has provided hands-on wildlife education for more than 35 years. “Some Miami residents that visit won’t even step off the pavement,” he says of the path that runs through it. “But there’s a chemical change in the brain that happens when one comes in contact with nature and soil and agriculture — it’s very therapeutic.”


The nonprofit enterprise is open to visitors five days a week, and hosts school visits and a summer camp where kids can often be seen bottle-feeding baby lemurs, petting Arctic wolves and swimming in a pool with baby alligators.


Ninety percent of the mostly exotic animals living in the sanctuary are rescued, re-homed or rehabilitated. The remaining animals were born from parents that came in as one of those three R’s.


“They need this to be their permanent home,” says Fried, who lives on the property with his wife, Nicki. “They’ve been shuffled around so much.”


He’s planning a fund-raiser, silent auction and bonfire to help with expenses and to prevent the property from being put up for sale. He worries about what could happen to all the animals, campers and to himself and Nicki if they can’t come up with the enough money. Tending to the animals and managing Safari Edventure are their full-time jobs.


Before locating to their present site three years ago, the Frieds rented part of an avocado grove, which proved to be too small. Before that, the animals lived with them in their previous home in Cutler Ridge, when they didn’t have so many. “Now we’re able to take in more animals,” Fried says.


In his teens, while volunteering with a wildlife rescue and rehab group in Southwest Miami-Dade, Fried saw first-hand the countless animals injured by people. Pelicans were brought in with their wings sliced off by encounters with leftover fishing lines, and opossums were constantly being killed because of the misconception that they carry rabies. He decided to create an education program to reduce people’s fears of wildlife and started taking “backyard animals” into schools.


Now, schools come to him. Teachers often take their students on visits to see and learn about wildlife and plants up close, in nature’s classroom. They get to touch and hold the furry and the scaly since hands-on interactions are encouraged to promote deeper bonds, and to reduce fears, between humans and animals. “Our goal is to connect people of all ages to the environment — you respect nature more,” Fried says.


A walking path inside the edible garden gives people a chance to see and taste different vegetables and fruits. “We ask kids: ‘Where do you get carrots? Where do eggs come from?’ And most of them say: ‘Publix,’” Fried says. He shows them freshly laid quail eggs and then he starts the tour of the edible garden.


The “pizza garden” holds basil, oregano, tomato, garlic and onion plants. In the “candy section,” sugarcane and stevia grow alongside a tree whose berries taste like cotton candy. “If you’re not having fun, you’re not learning,” Fried says. “Here, you feel like you’re on a mini safari adventure.”


“I’ve been coming here since I was 4,” says 11-year old camper Alex Nelson as she cradles a 10-week-old lemur named Liam, whom she and other campers have helped raise. “I don’t want it to close down.” The “safari camp,” which has been operating for nine years, ran on the nearby grounds of a church before the Frieds settled in the current location.


Tommy Chamberlain, 67, who fought in Vietnam, frequents the grounds often to find serenity and relates Glenn to Walt Disney. He says the hands-on programs for campers and young visitors gives them the spark that propels them forward in life. “And what they can do with that can be amazing.”


For patients at Solace Health, who suffer from anxiety, mood and psychological disorders, and for city folk suffering bouts of nature-deficit disorder, the sanctuary comforts through animal-assisted therapy and nature-immersion. Solace Health CEO Pierre Montalvo says the animal encounters help patients open up.


“Typically, horses and dogs and cats are used in animal-assisted therapy, but with all the different animals there, it offers a tremendous and unique experience for patients, and the feedback from them and their families is great. It’s very therapeutic and calming,” Montalvo says.


Among all the animal sounds, the one made by the myna bird, which is native to Asia, stands out like a combination of Super Mario and Tetris theme music. “She makes computer game sounds — she learned it from parrots,” Fried says. Across from the myna, brown lemurs are riding turtles, sitting atop their shells. Glenn and Nicki look for blue, pink and green eggs laid by an araucana, a type of chicken known for laying colorful “Easter eggs.”


“It’s rare that something comes in here that I don’t know about,” says Fried as he stands among birds from Asia and foxes from Africa. He cradles a small gray fox the way a parent holds a baby: surrogate father is his main role to the animals, but his other role is to try and keep the place that he, his wife and hundreds of animals call home.


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