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Sunrise Exotic Ranch

Written by Ford Gunter.

If it’s unusual you’re looking for, Sunrise Exotic Ranch may be for you. Right about the time that Kaleb, a 160-pound chimpanzee, spewed a gallon of water all over my girlfriend, Kacy, I began to realize I might not be in Kansas—er, Austin—anymore. Though warned about the spitting, we had only half-listened, because we could not get over the three-week-old chimpanzee, Kiko, that ranch owner Karon Glass had dressed in baby clothes, complete with tiny booties. Who could listen at a time like that?

Confused yet? We should back up. Nestled between Dripping Springs and Wimberley about 25 miles west of Austin, Sunrise Exotic Ranch boasts more than 300 nonnative animals scattered over its 320 acres. Karon Glass has worked with exotics for three decades, but her ranch only opened to the public eight years ago. It was not until the city of Wimberley asked her to host an event to raise money for the fire department and EMS that she officially began welcoming visitors for tours and overnight stays. Word of mouth spread among locals—many of whom had no idea all these animals were there—and soon requests poured in for school field trips, corporate picnics, Boy Scout campouts, birthday parties, and, eventually, weddings and receptions. Just recently, a junior high dance went way past curfew when the chaperones appeared to be having as much fun as the kids, leading a load of parents to join the party.

Along with the chimps, you’ll find zebras, wildebeests, black buck antelopes, scimitar oryx, Nile lechwe (an African antelope), fallow and axis deer, buffalo, beefalo, llamas, ostriches, emus, crested cranes, kangaroos, camels, and elk roaming the segregated pastures and pens. Karon admires them all, but admits the chimpanzees are her “pride and joy.” In addition to providing a home for retired Barnum & Bailey’s circus chimps, Karon and her husband, Frankie, raise their own chimps—like the aforementioned Kaleb and five others, including a five- and six-year-old pair who grew up alongside the Glass’ grandchildren.

The chimps, kept in several separate enclosures, are a highlight for ranch visitors, too. A guided tram-tour stops in front of Kaleb’s enclosure, where he got us again the following morning, this time with the panache of a gymnast on the parallel bars. The rest of the primates here, including several lemurs and three gibbons—the fastest tree-dwelling primates in the world—attract gawks as well.

Part of the beauty of Sunrise is, however, the lack of gawkers. With only two themed cabins available for overnight stays—plus a treehouse for the more-adventurous—the guest-capacity tops out at 10. While the tours sometimes tote more than 300 visitors in a day, if you stay overnight, you’ll have plenty of alone time. With a staff of two—the Glasses maintain the grounds with the help of cook/nanny Maria Arvizu and her husband, Roberto—and ample strolling room, you’ll have the place mostly to your-self once the afternoon tours have ended.

During our stay, we enjoyed a serene sunset from the deck of the roomy treehouse (it has a full bath and kitchenette), and only glimpsed the family of three staying in the nearby cabin. The next morning, a basket of Maria’s homemade breakfast tacos was delivered to our door—the spiciness of which depends on “how mad Maria is at Roberto,” Karon told us with a laugh.

There is never a dull day at Sunrise, which is also the base of operations for Bobbi Colorado, the renowned animal trainer who recently spent several weeks on Tommy Lee Jones’ ranch (near San Saba), handling the animals for the film The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada (release scheduled for this year). The morning of our tour, Bobbi popped in to return the Glass’ four-year-old gibbon, Lolly, who promptly stole my water bottle.

While Karon and Bobbi are unlikely to allow their primates free rein while guests are present, interaction with the animals is still possible. You can hand-feed llamas or observe the chimps at close range while they bed down each night in hand-raked piles of hay. One even flipped a banana peel at us; we found out later the gesture was a request for food. “They think if they give you something, you’ll give something back,” Karon told us. And watching the gibbons carom around their cage at breakneck speeds is something else.

With the Nutty Brown Cafe (on US 290) and Cypress Creek Cafe (in Wimberley) available for dinner and entertainment just down the road, civilization is never too far away, making Sunrise Exotic Ranch the perfect spot for a birthday bash, corporate picnic, school field trip, or even a romantic getaway.

Sunrise Exotic Ranch is south of Dripping Springs, at 25201 Ranch Road 12. From I-35 in south Austin, take the US 290 exit, and drive west about 20 miles to Dripping Springs and RR 12. Turn south on RR 12, and drive 2.5 miles. Call 512/894-0728 or 512/913-0922 (cell); www.sunriseexoticranch.org. Tours (by appt. only): Mon-Sat 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Cost: $10, $8 ages 2-18 and age 60 and older. Special rates available for school and other groups.

Nutty Brown Cafe is at 12225 US 290 West, west of Austin and about 10 miles east of Dripping Springs. Hours: Daily 11-10 (bar open till midnight Sun-Fri, till 2 a.m. Sat.). Call 512/301-4648; www.nuttybrown.com. Cypress Creek Cafe is on the square in Wimberley, 15 miles south of Dripping Springs via RR 12. Call or go online for dining room (opens 7:30 a.m. Tue-Sun) and club hours; 512/847-2515; www.cypresscreekcafe.com.

From the February 2005 issue.

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