By Abrahm Hurt
PAOLI, Ind. — Among the farms and hills of rural Orange County, visitors can get up close and personal with some of Africa’s giants.
“I’ve had an interest in them for a long time,” Jerry Fuhs said as he stood near one of the elephants he works with. “I just went further than most people do with an interest in them.”
Wilstem Ranch in southern Indiana is the home of three African elephants and two giraffes. When Fuhs first started discussing the possibility of opening an elephant attraction, people thought he was crazy, including his wife.
Two guests at Wilstem Ranch help give Makia the elephant her second bath of the day. Photo by Eddie Drews, TheStatehouseFile.com
“We spent seven years touring America to visit with herds of elephants that were privately owned to find the right set of owners and the right set of animals to be able to do what we wanted to do here,” he said, “which is to have people engage with these animals that are basically 11,000 pound pets.”
Visitors can wash the elephants and feed carrots to the giraffes. During the elephant baths, each visitor is given a task — from scrubbing them to rinsing them off, painting their toenails with mineral oil or shampooing them. Fuhs said the elephants love their baths so much that they’ll gather at the barn around bath time, eagerly awaiting the suds.
The elephants have returned to the ranch for the third year in a row after spending their winters in Florida. This is the first year for the giraffe encounter.
Sixth grader Raegan Stock, of Evansville, was on vacation with her grandparents Marsha and Cecil Abney. She was excited because she had never seen a giraffe up close.
“My favorite part was when I got to feed the giraffes,” she said. “I’ve never been able actually to feed an animal like that.”
Gloria Gaona, who works with the giraffes, said she has been surprised to see the individual personality of each giraffe.
Jerry Fuhs, President of Wilstem Inc., helps Reagan Stock feed a giraffe. Photo by Eddie Drews, TheStatehouseFile.com
“I once thought that giraffes were just giraffes. They’re just tall and that was it,” Gaona said. “But they have personality, they follow me when I call them, they’re curious about everything and I just love it because they’re so tall and I’m so short.”
The ranch helps people have an experience where they physically engage with the animals, Fuhs said. After the elephant experience, an educational seminar allows spectators to see how the elephant uses its trunk to breathe and eat.
“Most people can say, ‘Well, I went to the zoo, and I got to feed a giraffe or I got to see an elephant or whatever,’” he said. “When people leave here, they talk about Jabari or they talk about Bert or they talk about Makia.”
9:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
10:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m.
$69 for adults, $59 for seniors and children under 12, children two and under are free.
Reagan Stock feeds an elephant an apple. Photo by Eddie Drews, TheStatehouseFile.com
Elephant educational seminars
10:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
11:30 a.m. and 3:30 p.m.
$25 per person, children two and under are free
10 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 3 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.
11 a.m., 12:30 p.m., 3:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.
$15 per person, children two and under are free
Abrahm Hurt is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.