The local Bella Book Club recently read “West with Giraffes: A Novel” by Lynda Rutledge. The historic adventure told of two men in Depression-era America hauling two young rescued African giraffes from hurricane-decimated New York harbor. The men traveled cross-country 3,200 miles to the San Diego Zoo, when highways were not prevalent as they are today.

After reading the historic adventure tale, the book club found they were fascinated with giraffes and wanted to learn more about giraffe conservation. 

Fortunately, Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch is a short 17 miles from New Braunfels. There, Tiffany Soechting, the animal care specialist and marketing director, is a protector and promoter of native and exotic wildlife, particularly giraffes. 

The ranch is home to a herd of 16 Reticulated Giraffes.

The Bella Book Club scheduled a visit to the Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch to learn more.

The Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch opened to the public almost 39 years ago on June 1, 1984. It was developed by owners Raymond and Trudy Soechting and their two sons T. Dudley and Shawn on 200 acres high atop the Cibolo Creek bluff off Natural Bridge Cavern Rd. 

Visitors drive through in their own vehicle on paved roads to observe exotic animals roaming freely as they did in their native habitats. The drive is an “African Safari, Texas Style.”

In the early days, the adventures at the ranch included herds of Elk, Sika, Axis, Fallow deer and many varieties of African antelope, in addition to ostriches and emus. Visitors could leave their cars and watch the animals from protected observation areas around the Trading Post, where nearby the giraffes, cape buffalo and zebras were making their new homes.  

Colorful and unusual birds, along with monkeys, wallabies and Texas wildlife were housed in a large gazebo-shaped cage. Today there is an area that has Budgies, a bright colored bird from Australia. You are welcome to walk in the aviary and feed the birds.

In 1991 the first giraffe calf arrived, adding to the giraffe population at the Wildlife Ranch when 120-pound Hilmer was born to his giraffe mother, Laurie Annice, after her 15-month pregnancy. Hilmer’s father was Fritz Van Gogh, 9, a Wildlife Ranch resident since its opening.

On May 10, 2013, there was a memorable event at the Wildlife Ranch when the only living twin giraffes in the United States were born. 

Wasswa, a female calf and the first born, weighed 95 pounds and was 4-and-a-half feet tall. Nakato, a male calf, came second and weighed 125 pounds and was 5-and-a-half feet tall. 

Their names are African names given to twins —Wasswa for “first born twin” and Nakato for “the second born twin.” These twins were the 19th and 20th giraffes born at the ranch. The twins’ mother, Carol, was the 12th giraffe born there. The twins’ birth brought worldwide recognition to Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch. The ranch has been family owned for over 100 years. To have a wildlife ranch on the property was rooted in Trudy and Raymond Soechtings’ desire for visitors to see exotic and native animals on their property in a natural setting. 

They wanted visitors to appreciate the beauty of the ranch with its rolling hills, creek beds, live oaks and thickets of juniper trees. 

The Soechtings’ love for the land, their agricultural way of life, and their desire to enable other people to see animals roaming free that previously only had been seen in a zoo-like environment were satisfied by establishing a wildlife ranch.

The Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch is now more than 450 acres. When visitors first arrive at the Wildlife Ranch today, they are given a guidebook featuring the animals they are about to see. Then they embark on a winding 4.5-mile drive at their own pace. Visitors can repeat their safari journey if they wish.

Animals in the compound include giraffes, zebras, antelope, ostriches, gibbons, cranes, peacocks, white rhinoceros, lemurs, and more. Cheetahs are a recent addition. 

There are 700 animals with 40 species representing every continent except Antarctica. Over the last 39 years, Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch has contributed to the world’s effort to help conserve and provide a safe haven for endangered and threatened species.

Tiffany Soechting became involved at the ranch in 1985 as a 15-year-old working a summer job in the ranch gift shop, snack bar, and ticket sales. She met Shawn Soechting at Canyon High School, and they later married.

After graduating from Texas Tech University with a degree in animal science, Tiffany began working at the Wildlife Ranch full time, and is now the animal care specialist and marketing director involved in all aspects of the Wildlife Ranch operations. She is also the founder of a Giraffe Conservation Foundation called Save the Giraffes, whose mission is “to guarantee that giraffes are protected and preserved in their natural habitat.”  

When the twin giraffes were born at the Wildlife Ranch in 2013, the male giraffe Nakato was immediately removed from the giraffe compound. There were safety concerns. Caretakers were worried that the mother Carol didn’t have enough milk for two calves. They were also concerned about her potential reaction to a second calf. Consequently, Nakato was raised in the adjoining compound and bottle-fed by Tiffany three times daily. Nakato had daily supervised visits with his mother and sister Wasswa. There were never any difficulties, and in time he was able to rejoin them. He continued to receive his bottle on schedule with Tiffany for six months. Eventually there was the name change of Nakato to Buddy – the favorite of the wildlife ranch animals. 

Giraffes, like rhinoceros and elephants, are an endangered species. The Wildlife Ranch is committed to preserving endangered species. Tiffany has arranged wildlife symposiums at the ranch with informed speakers like Francois Deacon, a distinguished conservationist and a giraffe researcher. Deacon is a lecturer in wildlife management and grassland science at the University of the Free State in his native South Africa.

According to Deacon, more than 400,000 giraffes have been lost in the last four decades, with only 140,000 remaining in the wild in 1999 and 80,000 in 2010. Deacon gave the example of dwindling herds: only 30 Kordofan giraffes — a subspecies — remain in the Democratic Republic of Congo due to human conflict. Decaon said there are two other giraffe subspecies that have less than 250 remaining in the wild worldwide. He concluded that we need more researchers and more universities to become involved to create awareness and the importance of conservation.  

Fortunately, in Deacon’s home country of South Africa, the giraffe population has increased from 15,000 to 29,000 in the last 20 years. The country has initiated efforts for conservation. South Africa allows private ownership of giraffes, rhinos, and lions. There are also 22 large national parks in South Africa. These parks raise funds for conservation through tourism.  

The Bella Book Club’s appointment day finally arrived, and Tiffany Soechting greeted them at the ranch. They went to the huge barn. As Tiffany approached the inside gate, up came Buddy, in a giraffe gallop eager for some attnetion from Tiffany.

The Bellas learned that after two-ton Buddy became comfortable, he could be a bit affectionate with them, too. He bowed down to lower his long neck so they could scratch him gently between his ears. Gigi, a 3-year-old baby girl giraffe who gets her bottle as a snack, also came to visit. The book club learned that the extra skin she has around the lower portion of her neck was nature’s way for giraffes to grow into their very long necks in the years to come. Each vertebra is a foot long, and there are seven of them. The delightful Buddy and Gigi, both Reticulated Giraffes born and raised on the ranch, took center stage at the Book Club’s visit. Up close and personal, the group was able to see their soulful nature and gentle grace. The loving attention these giraffes have received through the years at the ranch is obvious. 

Tiffany noted that Reticulated Giraffes are one of nine subspecies of African giraffes and part of a single species overall. “Reticulated” also describes their pattern of spots, the shape of each, as well as region of origin in Africa.  It is fascinating that each giraffe’s spot and pattern, like our fingerprints, is unique to each individual giraffe on earth. The Book Club learned much from Tiffany’s work that day. 

Natural Bridge Wildlife Ranch is an outstanding ranch and wildlife refuge in Texas. The ranch is a Texas Land Heritage Property, certified by the State of Texas for being used for agriculture by the same family for over 100 years. It comprises over 450 acres of the Texas Hill Country. 

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