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Tennessee savannah

Clarksburg’s Chris and Tosha Gurley have opened Southland Safari to rave reviews
By Mark Johnson 8/23/2021

 

"Lt. Dan" and "Jenny," two of the three giraffe residents of Southland Safari in Clarksburg, are among the most popular of the 600 exotic animals living on the 125-acre property. The giraffes' neighbors include sloths, water buffalos, kangaroos, ostriches, zebras, a variety of antelope, and many other African and Asian species.
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As a late-afternoon thunderstorm rumbles off in the distance of the West Tennessee horizon, Clarksburg resident Chris Gurley sits in his idling farm truck on a hillside overlooking his property. Before him, livestock move across a rolling pasture, some grazing as they go while adolescents chase each other in playful groups.


“They’re active this time of the day,” Chris remarks. “They’re feeling frisky.”


It’s a scene played out every day on hundreds of farms across the state by cattle, sheep, goat, and equine producers and their animals. 


But there’s a slight difference in Chris’ case. 


He isn’t looking at cattle or horses or goats; he’s watching water buffalo, desert bighorn sheep, African bongo, Nubian ibex, kangaroos, nyla and impala antelope, Grant’s zebra, and dozens of other exotic animals. Despite a large row crop operation directly across his fence, Chris’ property resembles an African savannah as much as a Tennessee pasture.


“Pretty cool, isn’t it?” Chris asks his guest, First Farmers Co-op Lexington store manager Mark Montgomery, who is riding along. “This view never gets old.”


Chris is owner of Southland Safari, Tennessee’s only by-appointment, professionally guided safari experience. Some 600 animals of 52 different species roam across the 125-acre property in a variety of expansive high-fenced pastures, paddocks, and enclosures. A one-lane gravel road winds through the impeccably maintained property, which also features several picturesque ponds and lakes, wooded sections, and a neat-as-a-pin gift shop and welcome center. In a special enclosure near the shop, three majestic giraffes — “Forrest,” “Jenny,” and “Lt. Dan” — peer at visitors from their 15-foot-tall vantage points. In an adjacent location, a three-toed sloth named “Sammy” lounges on a bamboo playset.


Although Southland opened just seven months ago to the public, Chris and his wife, Tosha, have been raising exotic animals on the property for more than a decade. Chris explains that the park is the result of a life-long fascination with zoological animals.


“From the time I first went to a zoo as a young kid, I was hooked,” says Chris, who was raised on a nearby goat and cattle farm. “In elementary school, I took every opportunity to write about, talk about, and draw pictures of exotic animals. I just love them.”


Chris’ fascination followed him into adulthood. After graduating college in 2002, he went to work for a national telecommunications company, but continued to research exotic animals in his spare time, hoping to eventually own a few. Fate intervened a year later when Chris noticed a newspaper classified advertisement for buffalo. After a few months of preparation and planning, he bought four.


“My intention was just to raise buffalo as livestock, just like beef cattle,” he explains. “But soon after I bought them, I began meeting and talking with other people who raised exotic animals, and my little buffalo herd naturally began to expand into other species.”


By 2008, Chris was experimenting with breeding programs and growing his operation, but fate once again stepped in with a national economic recession and its resulting impact on the job market.


“All of a sudden, my company wanted to send me to work in downtown Memphis,” Chris recalls. “It was time to make one of those ‘life decisions.’ Against the advice of many of my friends and family, I decided to leave my job and put all my time and effort into this operation.”


His choice may have seemed unconventional at the time, but it turned out to be a good one. Over the next 13 years, Chris and wife Tosha would develop the operation into one of the leading breeders of zoological species in the southeast U.S., working closely with several regional zoos as well as nearby Tennessee Safari Park in Alamo, a drive-through-on-your-own animal park. Eventually, the Gurleys landed on a different concept — a high-end, family-friendly destination for animal enthusiasts, but with guided tours instead of a drive-through platform. They bought a 1996 GMC flatbed truck and converted it to comfortably seat 20 guests in padded chairs. They also decided to include a lodging option, and over the past year, have built four quaint, one-bedroom guest cabins located at a neighboring property. The cabin site also features a playground, a pond for fishing, and a large petting zoo.


“We were worried at first that this concept might not work in a little town like Clarksburg,” says Tosha, who quit her social work job last spring to help Chris run the park. “We opened in March and couldn’t have predicted the response. Before long, visitors were posting social media reviews and comparing us to the ‘Animal Kingdom’ safari at [Walt] Disney World, which was a huge compliment. Both the tours and the cabins pretty much stay full; it’s been amazing.”


Chris is quick to point out that the attraction would’ve been difficult— if not impossible — to create without the help of First Farmers Cooperative in Lexington.


“Our relationship with Co-op began about 10 years ago when I went looking for specialty 4 X 4 fence panels,” Chris says. “After months of frustration, I was put in touch with Mark [Montgomery], and he handled the incredible amount of legwork it took to find what we needed. He could’ve just as easily said, ‘Sorry, we just can’t get them,’ but he didn’t. He stuck with it, and I’m forever grateful.”


Today, the Co-op provides not only fence panels for Southland, but also T-posts, coyote-prevention wire, a myriad of farm supplies, and approximately 10 tons per week of a custom zoological feed blended at the TFC Jackson Feed Mill.


Mark says that while Chris’ initial call came as a surprise, the Gurleys have become valued customers as well as friends.


“It’s been an inspiration to see this operation grow into what it is today,” Mark says. “I’m really pleased that we’ve been able to help with it.”


In addition to Chris and Tosha, the park employs four full-time staff members including longtime family friend Michael Avery, who serves as the main tour guide.


“I’ve been an animal enthusiast all my life, but this takes it up a notch,” says Michael with a laugh. “It’s not often that the average person gets to love on a kangaroo or hang out with a sloth, but that’s part of my daily routine!”


It’s not just the adults who have all the fun, either. The Gurley’s three children — Gage, 12; Natalie, 8; and Ridge, 5 — all pitch in where needed, helping to keep the gift shop swept clean, preparing apple, carrot, and bamboo snacks for the animals, and caring for some of the petting zoo inhabitants. Gage points out that all animals are fascinating — even the “normal” ones.


“People like to talk about the giraffes and kangaroos and stuff, but I’m still amazed to see a horse or a pot-bellied pig,” he says with a broad smile. “They’re all amazing to me!”


Southland Safari is open to the public by appointment only. For reservations, visit www.southlandsafari.com or call 731-415-3812.


 
 
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