LAKELAND — A wild animal park in Polk County never opened to the public and after a recent court ruling, it never will.
The Safari Wild Park has been in the works since 2007 and recently, a judge decided the park should shut down because of its location.
The judge ruled that the park was in violation of Florida rules because it sits on an area of land that is environmentally protected by the state, called the Green Swamp.
The park sits about a half-mile drive from a paved road just north of Lakeland and is comprised of two buildings and a lot of open land.
One of the buildings is used to store food for the animals and the other would have been a visitor welcome center for up to 500 people per day.
Veterinarian Stephen Wehrmann co-owns the park with Lex Salisbury, the former president of the Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa.
“These are the only two buildings on the property,” Wehrmann said. “And this is all we would ever have on this property as far as buildings.”
The rest of Safari Wild is 258-acres of open fields, which are home to animals from Africa and Asia, including antelope, rhino, and hippos.
“Like Africa, they can run three quarters of a mile in one direction and not hit a fence,” Wehrmann said.
However, with the judge’s new ruling, the park won’t be able to charge people who visit the park.
Without the money to support it, Wehrmann says there’s no way to pay for his investments and the new expenses of the park.
Wehrmann says the park’s animals will eventually have to be moved or sold and he’s not happy about it.
“It’s obviously quite a blow,” he said. “We were really hoping to share this with people out here, but it’s just not going to be possible.”
Wehrmann says he still has some hope that Safari Wild may be able to find some other land in the area where the park could operate.
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