Wild Things: And how they came from Africa to Avoyelles
Don't worry that you’ve never heard about Lake Juneau Safari Park—it’s not really a secret, but Juli and Stewart Juneau, founders of the certified wildlife habitat, don’t go out of their way to publicize it either.
Lake Juneau Safari Park has no regular hours—because the park is open by invitation only— intended to benefit children who may have never seen exotic animals like a blue wildebeest, American bison, zebra, red kangaroo, nilgai, elk, eight different species of deer, lamas, alpacas, reindeer and many, many others. They may never have seen wilderness like Lake Juneau’s fifteen hundred acres or may never have slept overnight in an African Village tented cabin before.
Located on the eastern side of the Bayou Des Glaises levee, which famously gave way to the Mississippi River flood waters in 1927, Lake Juneau Safari Resort is in a part of eastern Avoyelles Parish where there are no towns, but there are plenty of wildlife management areas—the Grassy Lake State Wildlife Management Area, Pomme de Terre State Wildlife Management Area and Spring Bayou State Wildlife Management Area. See a pattern developing? Wildlife is the operative word.
One of ten children, Stewart Juneau’s family has been in Avoyelles Parish since 1755.
“We’re one of the original families of Avoyelles Parish,” he said. A hotelier and real estate developer, Stewart splits his time between there and New Orleans.
“I’m a country boy at heart, but I could not stay in New Orleans if I didn’t have this place in the country to come to.”
The Juneau’s place in the country came out of their love of Africa, a continent they have visited many times. Of the two, Juli was the experienced Africa hand. She had previously explored Africa via donkey cart, boat, barge and train for thirty months before she met Stewart. In 2003, a call to Africa was sent to the Juneaus from Bill Clinton. Yes, that Bill Clinton.
“Juli and I went on a mission to Africa to help Bill Clinton set up the International AIDS Trust in Africa,” Stewart said. Nelson Mandela was also one of the organizers.
Heady company, Bill and Nelson, but even those that travel in the highest circles are not immune from personal loss. Stewart’s mother died around this time.
The loss of his mother, coupled with their first-hand experience of the incredible poverty of many African children, led the Juneaus to create this new African setting in Avoyelles to benefit the underprivileged and honor his mother’s love of family and children.
Lake Juneau Safari Park was born and quietly began serving the needs of Louisiana children shortly after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. Busloads of kids displaced by Katrina were hosted with barbecues and safari trail rides as the camp took shape. The official grand opening of the park was in 2006.
What can a group expect from Lake Juneau Safari Park?
Exotic wildlife, lots of exotic wildlife—and fun. The resort is host to more than eighty mammal and bird species, including American bison, water buffalos, wallabies, kangaroos, lamas, reindeers, beefalo, oryx, antelopes, emus, zebras, peacocks, watusi—even giant loggerhead turtles.
Safari guests enter the wilderness from Highway 1 and cross over the Big Bend protection levee near Hamburg. They’ll drive along a lonely three-mile bayou road lined with bottomland hardwood trees and palmettos past wheat and soybean fields.
As you get closer to the main gates of the wildlife park, newly planted magnolias line the road. A gateway guarded by two statuary elephants heralds your arrival. Once inside the gates, you’ll spy kangaroos loafing about in pastures, zebras munching on feed from the feeders and wildebeests running about wildly. Safari rides, petting zoo, a stay in the African Village and exotic treehouses await.
“We like to host an organized group of children, like a 4-H club, a church group or inner city kids, for an extended weekend,” Stewart said. “When we do that, we find we can begin teaching the children about the animals and their environment right away. We provide some day tours. We also do outreach by loading animals into trailers and visiting nursing homes and places like that so the adults and children can interact with the animals.”
The Juneaus pay all the expenses for an invited group which is why donors and donations are always welcome. A group of twelve to sixteen is optimum, but Juli has accomodated forty Boy Scouts who wanted to pitched their tents on the grounds.
“The kids already can identify a lot of the animals from watching The Lion King,” Juli said. “They know what a wildebeest is.”
Hay is stacked on the highest ground available and underneath the resort’s many curious buildings, which are elevated twenty feet above the ground in case there is a flood.
Speaking of floods, the protection levees usually keep floodwater out, but in 2011 high water from the Mississippi River and the opening of the Morganza Spillway threatened the animals. Stewart and his extended family formed an animal roundup posse and, using four-wheelers instead of horses, herded all the animals into wagons for transport to other exotic animal farm locations in neighboring states. Berms were built to create high land for the animals that couldn’t be found and moved.
Alas, the stress of moving created hardship for the animals and a small percentage were lost. Their wonderful giraffe died, not directly from the trauma of the evacuation, but from the general stress created by the move.
“These are not domesticated animals,” Stewart said. “They’re wild animals and they don’t adapt like cattle when they have to be moved.”
Children adapt to the Lake Juneau Safari Park freely, however, and Juli and Stewart Juneau will do everything they can to accommodate them.
Details. Details. Details.
There is a mini-documentary detailing the triumphs and heartaches of the 2011 flood evacuation at the park’s website: hefcorp.org.