As Bryce Martin stood with a bag of food in each hand, two giraffes walked up to him, lowered their heads and began to enjoy a snack.
"This really beats working in an office," Martin said.
Martin is head keeper and assistant manager at Wild Animal Safari in Pine Mountain, Ga.
Open since 1991, about 125,000 people visit the 500-acre park each year to see more than 450 animals and 60 different species that are on display. "Open every day except Christmas," Martin said.
Alligator, baboon, tiger, camel, rhino, zebra, antelope, bison, hyena, wolf, ostrich, emu, kangaroo, python, you name it, Wild Animal Safari likely has at least one.
Martin, who is charge of animal care, feeding the animals and keeping their homes clean, has a name for many of the animals he calls his friends. "No way I could do them all," he said.
Martin can describe the personalities of many of the animals and said that it helps when caring for them.
His job is physical and one that calls for a long work day but he doesn't mind it because he loves what he does. He said the feeding is more fun than the cleaning.
A customer can drive their own car over the three and one-half miles of road in the Serengeti Adventure where the animals roam freely but most choose to rent a van or ride the bus which has a tour guide.
Visitors also travel through another section called the Walk-About where the animals are caged as in a traditional zoo.
In the Serengeti Adventure, animals such as the zebras will come right up the vehicle and may be petted.
"I like to see the way the children react to the exotic animals," Martin said. "Most haven't seen these animals before, not even in a book."
Martin sat down with the Ledger-Enquirer recently to talk about his job.
This interview is edited a bit for length and clarity.
Do you ever get scared or nervous, for example, when working in close vicinity to an alligator?
I can't be nervous or scared but I do have a healthy respect for the animals. I have never had a serious injury. There are really no mean animals, but, they are not all my best friends like the giraffes.
Do some people get scared when driving through?
A handful. We have had a few begin to drive through the park and turn right around when they see the animals approaching, but that is rare. You hear some kids scream but they are also laughing. It is a different kind of experience.
What happens if someone is driving a van or their car and has engine trouble?
We have a mechanic for that. We give the driver a number to call. The main thing is that they don't get out and start walking around.
What is something you always have to remind people?
It is OK to feed the animals and to pet them, but you should not stick your fingers in an animal's mouth, and also to be gentle.
Have any of the animals ever escaped?
Not since I've been here, but, we do get calls from people who see an animal and think it is from here.
Is this the kind of work you have always wanted to do?
I have always loved animals.
Ever think about becoming a veterinarian?
Not really. I probably would not get to work with the exotic animals that I do here and I would become too attached to the pets I treated.
Is feeding the animals difficult?
No, but there are special diets to remember.
People can feed the animals in the Serengeti Adventure, can't they?
Yes, but it must be these special nuggets that are healthy. They are a mixture of hay, oats and minerals. Some people want to come in and feed food they have brought from home but that can be dangerous to the animal.
Everyone I've seen arrive here and get on a bus seems to laughing and happy.
Everybody can have the kind of fun they want to have and do it at their own pace. Some love the drive through and some prefer the walk-about. I'd say 95 percent arrive in a good mood and leave the same way. The kind of fun you have can't be found just anywhere and it is educational, as well.
All of the education is not in the park, is it?
We do off site presentations. We visit schools and are received well. We would like for everybody to get here but we know that they can't.
The park is about more than just having fun, isn't it?
Conservation is a big message. Some species such as the rhino and the Siberian tigers are endangered species.
And you work hard to make life pleasant for the animals?
They are in their natural habitat, which is what is best for them.
Where do you get the animals?
Some come from zoos. We have had a few born here and have never known any other place. Where the animals come from is probably the biggest question I get from people visiting.
Where do you customers come from?
All over. We especially get a lot from Atlanta and Auburn. We get a lot of school classes and we also get a large number of church groups.
Do you allow people to grill in the park?
No, there is too much risk there. We do have a restaurant.
What seems to be the favorite animal?
It is the giraffes, by far.
Name: Bryce Martn
Hometown: Warner Robins, Ga., native who now lives in Pine Mountain, Ga.
Education: Georgia Southern University where he majored in biology
Leisure time: Martial arts