Ethel, LA (FOX44) — Camels and kangaroos bring up visions of far-away lands. But thousands of local children are learning that the world is small because they can find animals from all over the world living together in East Feliciana Parish.
Just half an hour north of Baton Rouge Metropolitan Airport, you will find visitors from around the world at Barn Hill Preserve. But many of them came to this piece of land in Ethel from bad environments.
"Some macaws have been in cages for 10, 20 years, never been socialized, so it can be an adventure working with those guys," stated Gabriel Ligon, Barn Hill's founder and president. "They bite, they scream, they're not used to the environment we provide them with. You know, we like to have them outside and lots of social interactions.”
Barn Hill has close to 20 macaws, including several that they rehabbed. Once the macaws adjust to their new home, they’re allowed to roam free during the day. Many of them will fly around the neighborhood before returning to Barn Hill in the evening.
Ligon founded Barn Hill after studying at LSU's School of Veterinary Medicine, and he uses it as a true classroom.
"We have animal science and pre-vet students out here," he said. "Our facilities manager is actually in vet school.
"We also work with veterinary technicians from a few different colleges."
They get experience working with exotic animals one would normally find in a big zoo, including porcupines, kinkajous, cavies, kangaroos, and a camel. The animals are curious, but the children, even more so.
"It's always an adventure," Ligon said. "Kids love the animals. Kids actually will listen, so they're much better with the animals as far as handling them, because they'll do exactly what you tell them to, they'll have the correct body language.”
Barn Hill may call itself a home for exotic animals, but its mission is children.
"There are a few different (facilities with exotic animals)," Ligon noted. "Of course, we have our zoos and some of our large animals parks. But we try to provide a really hands-on environment in a very safe way. As far as our educational program goes, our traveling program, I don't know of any programs in the state that do as many free programs as we do, as far as the schools go."
Barn Hill's team is constantly taking the animals to schools, speaking to as many as 10,000 students in a week.
"Kentucky is the farthest north we've been so far," Ligon mentioned, "but we've been in 12 different states. And all of our programs we provide to the schools are free.”
Barn Hill relies on private parties, entrance fees, and sponsorships to stay in business. It has additional land, and Ligon has dreams of building cabins where guests can spend a unique night.
"Our vision is to provide a facility that's very hands-on," he said. "And maybe in the future, work with endangered species and do some things like that. But right now, our goal is to educate."