It might seem an unlikely place for a safari: 16 miles west of Omaha, Nebraska. But all it takes is one leisurely drive through Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park and Wildlife Safari to find it’s actually an ideal place to see wildlife in their natural habitat.
The park is owned and operated by the world-renowned Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo — a surefire sign of quality.
Visitors see the wildlife primarily from their air conditioned cars, ala Bear Country in South Dakota. The journey begins by winding through hills and forested areas. What starts as glimpses of elk turns into close-up encounters with American Elk — some males butting each other with their horns, others just basking in the sun.
As you weave over the gravel paths, you’re transported to what feels like the mountains of Colorado. If you look closely, you’ll catch white-tailed deer under shade trees in the distance. The deer have perfectly natural camouflage, so you’ll have to keep your eyes peeled.
One of the most memorable encounters are in the wetlands with what loos like pelicans that approach your car, getting so close you actually have to weave away from them for fear of hitting one. The birds are hard to miss — much bigger in person as you stick your head forward to get the most extreme close-up possible. It’s like fantastic wildlife photography on a silver platter, courtesy of the Wildlife Safari.
It’s also a good time to educate yourself and your traveling party on some of the major environmental issues we’re facing as you weave through these rapidly diminishing areas. Twenty-two states have lost at least half of their original wetlands — Nebraska alone has lost about 80 percent. I don’t think any of us, even the staunchest global warming deny-ers, would want to only see these habitats at area attractions and parks. That’s orchestrated naturalism — not genuine nature.
Bird enthusiasts will continue to be pleased, as they encounter sandhill cranes, their distinctive red heads and peg legs dotting the wetlands. Graceful swans and blue and green-winged teal and wood ducks share vast expanses of water.
One of the few areas where you emerge from your car is a quarter-mile trek to see black bears and gray (a.k.a. timber) wolves. Though most of the park is handicapped accessible, unfortunately my grandmother and I were unable to get her wheelchair over the bumpy, rocky trek enroute to see the gray wolves at wolf canyon. We were able to get a close-up look at a large black bear, thanks to a relatively smooth, quarter-mile path up to the bear’s quarters. Along the way, we looked very closely for owls in large cages, masquerading as leaves and trees, thanks to nature’s camouflage.
Some of the most impressive sights were saved for last. Long before you even encounter the bison, you can see a few of the largest off in the distance, as you wind through heavily-wooded areas with delicate pronhorn antelope.
Eventually, you get so close to the bison you feel you could almost touch them (though they don’t cross right in front of your car to the extent that the pelicans and other large birds do, which probably draws a sigh of relief for many passer-by). The largest American bison at the park is about six feet tall at the shoulder and weighs almost 2,100 pounds. I’m pretty sure I captured a photo of him — after all, the guy is pretty hard to miss.
The safari is also home to the unusual white buffalo, which is highly significant to Native Americans. Virtually all Native Americans see the birth of a white buffalo as the most significant of prophetic signs, akin to how Christians might perceive the second coming of Christ.
One of the most disturbing encounters was not by any means with the animals who call this place home — it was with the human visitors who had this area on loan to them for a few hours.
There were several people who actually got out of their cars to experience an even closer look at the bison, despite literature and instructions to remain in your car. There is a reason why this is called the “Wildlife” Safari — these animals are still wild.
If a bison does decide to charge or use its 2,000 pounds to rock a vehicle, the only creature I feel for is the provoked or threatened one who would inevitibly have to be put down if it attacked a human. My response to the human: “Good. It’s called thinning the herd.”
Sound harsh? Yes. My point is we must respect nature. This is a gem of an attraction in an unlikely place. Humans have already destroyed so much of these animal’s natural habitats, they must be told time and time again not to litter along the path and here they are, getting out of their cars, peeking their heads out of sun roofs and in general just making a scene.
Trips to such parks are times for leisurely reflection as well as enjoyment. Use these opportunities to also educate oneself and others about these creatures and humanity’s impact on them.