[music plays]>>>>Kelly Runyon:
It’s been two-and-a-half years since James Aikman had a dream of owning his own wildlife
park. Today that dream is a reality, but it’s much
bigger than he originally imagined and involves dozens of breeds of animals, coexisting together.
Join us as we go on location for this edition of the Paw Report to Aikman Wildlife Adventure.
Stay with us.[music plays]>>Rameen Karbassioon:Okaw Vet Clinic in Tuscola and Dr. Sally Foote
remind you to properly take care of your pets, and are happy to help support the Paw Report
on WEIU. Okaw Vet Clinic, located at 140 West Sale
Street, in Downtown Tuscola. More information available at okawvetclinic.com.
Dave’s Decorating Center is a proud supporter of the Paw Report on WEIU.
Dave’s Decorating Center features the Mohawk SmartStrand Silk Forever Clean carpet.
Dave’s Decorating Center, authorized Mohawk Color Center,in Charleston.
Welcome for this special edition of the Paw Report.
I’m your host, Kelly Runyon. And as you can see, we’re not in the studio
for this episode. We are on location at a special location:
the Aikman Wildlife Adventure. And joining us for this episode is James Aikman,
the owner of this wonderful park. And he’s going to tell you all about this
wonderful facility and all the friends that reside here.
So, thank you so much for spending some time with us on the Paw Report.
>>James Aikman: Not a problem.
Happy to do it.>>Kelly Runyon:
You know, as we were talking before this interview just getting to know each other, I said probably
the million dollar question everyone has asked you over, and over and over again is how in
the world did you come up with the idea to create a wildlife adventure?
>>James Aikman: Sure, yeah.
So, I was a banker for 10 years. And I’d always loved animals, but never thought
I’d be doing anything like this. On the night of October 22 I had a dream that
my wife and I owned and operated a wildlife park.
And I thought it was a cool dream. I told her about it the next day.
She said, “Our son’s going to be born in about two weeks.
We have enough on our plate. You need to just forget that.”
>>Kelly Runyon: Forget the dream.
>>James Aikman: And I agreed with her completely.
And the next night I had the exact same dream. And so, I told her, I said, “I don’t know
why, but I really feel like this is something God’s wanting us to do.”
And so, it kind of, from there my finance background made me want to find out what all
was involved from a financial aspect of a zoo or a theme park.
And so, we started researching what other places do, as far as bringing in attendance
and expenses like that, and kind of put together an annual budget and cash flow, and took that
out to 10 years. Because, we said if, we said God, if this
can’t support itself it would be very difficult for us to justify it.
And to our surprise, it could support itself. And so, from there doors started opening,
and things started happening. And here we are, two-and-a-half years later.
>>Kelly Runyon: I want to know more about this dream.
You had it twice. Was it the exact same dream?
Take me, I mean in your deep sleep when you’re thinking, oh my.
Did it look like this?>>James Aikman:
It looked, I didn’t have some of these buildings here, but it had buildings, it had the drive
where people are driving up. It was me and her standing there, kind of
watching vehicles come in and enter the park. So, I mean there were trees.
You could see the animals in the background, you could see the vehicles going through the
entry gate. And just being able to look off to the left
and see kind of the walk-through part of the park, so I knew it wasn’t just a drive-through;
it did have a walk-through component to it, similar to what a zoo would have.
And just being able to see kind of the animals roaming around, going wherever they wanted
to go was a pretty cool sight to see. And I knew it would be something a lot more
unique and a lot more interaction that what you get at some zoos out there.
>>Kelly Runyon: So, the first person you told was your wife.
After that I’m sure people thought you were nuts.
>>James Aikman: So, we knew that we needed to find land for
it, and land around this area is incredibly hard to find.
It’s like asking people to part with their firstborn son.
And so, because of that we didn’t want to share it with anyone else until we had a better
handle on what this would look like, if it was even doable.
So, the next people I shared it with were my parents and my younger brother, who happened
to be in the area at the time. So, I told them about it.
And then at the end of November, my wife and I, we were in the hospital, our son was being
born. And my parents and my two brothers were having
Thanksgiving dinner, and they told my middle brother about it.
And I knew that he would, from the beginning he would be the toughest critic, that if I
could convince him that this could work, then I could convince anyone it could work.
And so, I was not there when he was first being told about it, so I don’t know what
was being said. And so, when I saw him a couple weeks later,
the first thing he said when I walked into the room was, “What’s this about a stupid
And so, I said, “I don’t know what they told you, but just wait until we get done eating
then I’ll show you what I’m thinking.” And so, we did, and I showed him.
And he said, “Huh, this is not like what they described to me.”
And so, he could see it. And what I didn’t know until about a year
later, that night him and his wife were driving back to Terre Haute and they both decided
that night that they needed to come back here and be a part of it whenever it actually happened.
So, he’s now my number two guy. So, I mean if I’m not here, he’s the one calling
the shots because he’s the one that sees the big picture just like us, and sees the details
as well. So, he’s gone from being my toughest critic
to being–>>Kelly Runyon:
Your biggest supporter.>>James Aikman:
The biggest supporter.>>Kelly Runyon:
So, how does a banker, who sits down and puts pen to paper and crunches numbers, now have
to pick up feed and feed buffalo, and feed wildebeests, and take care of peacocks?
>>James Aikman: It was an interesting change, that’s for sure.
So, my day started earlier out here. I was no longer working in an air conditioned
office. I was out in the heat, doing things.
And what I noticed, to my surprise, is my reflexes started coming back.
So, I think sitting in a desk for 10 years, my reflexes had kind of gotten a little lax.
And then all of a sudden I started noticing when things were falling, I could catch them,
that I couldn’t catch before. And I was moving, I’d move out of the way
of things. So, I think it’s just working around some
of the bigger animals like the water buffalos or the bison, and things like that, or even
just our skid steer, you always know that these are big animals, these are big machines.
You have to be paying attention, you have to give them the respect that they’re due.
And then that makes you a little more aware. But no, I’ve lost probably 10 pounds at least
since I started working here. So, I didn’t have time to really work out
before. And so, here just on a daily basis I’m running
different places, or I’m lifting 50-pound feed bags or things like that.
And so, it’s been a very cool transition. It still has its challenges.
There are different challenges than what were at the bank.
But now, with the bank I always loved my job. But there’s nights now where I go to bed and
tell my wife that I just can’t wait for morning to come because I’m excited to get out here
and continue doing things. Because, we know we have a lot of stuff to
do before we can open it up with the public.>>Kelly Runyon:
How do you take… So, you found out that…
This is the former location of Rockome Gardens, which a lot of people know about.
You find this location, it is up for sale. So, how do you, was that a long and daunting
process to get approval for a place like this?>>James Aikman:
So, with this location, we knew from the beginning that it could be an option.
It was not for sale in the beginning, but we knew it could be an option.
We’d kind of looked at the aerial map multiple times, and this location had quite a few challenges
associated with it. Enough so that we didn’t really feel it was
worth looking into at that time. Then we started pursuing other sites.
And when we realized that those just weren’t going to work out we came back to this site
and said, okay, let’s say that we can build the park here.
What would that look like? And so, we took about 60 days during that
time period coming out here, walking it, looking at things, looking back at the aerial map
and coming up with how could we make our vision fit into an already existing location that
had a lot of buildings, a lot of structures, had paths and things like that.
So, what all would be needed to make it work. And so, we finally came up with a plan that
we felt would not only work, but could even be better than what we’re thinking of originally,
just because there are a lot of huge mature trees here, which you don’t find that very
much around this flat farmland area. It’s got the pond that we have in the background
and some topography, some rolling hills behind us.
So, it already has some of the features we wanted.
And then it’s got a lot of the buildings and infrastructure that we were able to use.
And so, from there, once we realized that it was possible, we kind of started dealing
with the challenge of Rockome is known to a lot of people.
It has a lot of history. We need to do what we need to do to make our
vision happen, but we still need to respect that heritage and that history that it has.
And so, we started thinking about kind of how could we incorporate some of the rock
structures, or what can we do. And so, when we got here, during those 60
days we realized that the rock structures were not in as good of shape as what people
remembered them. That they were put in back in the 30s and 40s, and what the issue was
that the steel that was in it rusted through. So, a lot of them were not stable.
So, we just, we began doing what we call the Asa test.
So, my son Asa, when we bought the property he was about 2-years old.
And so, if he could touch one of the rock structures and it wobbled, it was just too
much of a liability for us to have. And so, we would move those.
We were able to save, we waved a ton of the flower pots and the crosses, and things like
that. And those will go kind of in different places
throughout the park. And then on the south end of the property,
as we expand, we left some of that fencing and will incorporate that into kind of like
a park flower garden type of area. So, we’re trying to do what we need to do,
but still at the same time honor the heritage and the history that was here.
>>Kelly Runyon: So, you got the land, and you’re preserving
it. But probably the next step then is the animals.
And that’s what everyone is interested in. So, how do you go about selecting the animals
that are here in the park? And maybe talk about what you do have here
that people will be able to see.>>James Aikman:
Sure, so as far as selecting goes, in the planning we had kind of come up with these
are the animals we’d like to bring in each year.
So, we knew what animals we’d start with in the beginning, and what animals we felt we
could add each year. And when we brought in those animals that
we thought we would have in the beginning, it did not look like we had many animals out
here. So, my brother and I, we would test drive
the path. We’d go three-fourths of it without seeing
any animals. So, I knew that my animal to acre number was
incredibly conservative before. But until you see it in real life, you don’t
realize just how conservative it was. And so, from there we started realizing hey,
we could do more animals. What does that look like?
And we had animals that we’d like to have, but we kind of just left it open to see what
was out there. So, our animals usually come from two different
places. One is from individuals that have had an animal
or two, and for whatever reason they need to find a new home for it.
Or from other parks or zoos that just have some extra animals that they just really don’t
have room for. Or some places have animals that they just
would rather not take care of through the wintertime.
And so, they’re trying to find a new home before winter comes.
And so, we kind of just had the mindset of whatever we can see, whatever we can get,
that’s what we’ll make due with. And so, we’ve got, at the park we’ve got 61
different species of animals here, over 150 animals on the grounds now.
In the drive-through we probably have roughly 33 species, right around 80 animals.
In the beginning people would ask, “What kind of animals do you have?”
And I would list off scimitar oryx, addax, eland.
And people would look at me like, “What are you talking about?”
So, then I quickly realized when people ask me that question, I say we have zebras, we
have camels, we have a bunch of African antelope and things like that.
And so, people can wrap their heads around zebras and camels.
They know what those are, but they don’t know what a lot of the African antelope are.
So, we have animals that are native to six different continents, and so their species
is native to that continent. None of the animals have come from those continents.
And actually none of the animals come from the wild to be brought here.
So, all of our animals have actually been born and raised in the U.S.
The majority of them have been born and raised in the Midwest here, so they’re already kind
of used to our weather, used to our winters and things like that.
And so, that definitely helps move things along.
>>Kelly Runyon: What is the most unique animal that you have
on property, and maybe the one that needs a little bit more extra love and care?
>>James Aikman: As far as unique or exotic, the most popular,
most well known are probably our zebras. We have a Grant’s zebra and we have a Chapman’s
zebra. As far as more exotic than that, we have a
nilgai. His name is Diamond, he’s an antelope native
to India. And then we have our blue wildebeest and our
eland. And so, both girls are native to Africa.
And so, they’re bigger animals that you don’t really see that often in other zoos.
And then we also have our pair of hyenas here that are in our walk-through site.
So, those get seen when you go on the behind-the-scenes tour.
And so, a lot of zoos out there do not have hyenas, and so they’re probably one of our
most popular animals on the behind-the-scenes tour.
And so, they have a different diet obviously than what the drive-through animals do.
Because in the drive-through it’s just herbivores, so only plant eaters and then the big birds,
like emus and ostrich. So, no predators in the drive-through.
No predators will ever be in the drive-through. So, the working with the local butcher shops
around and trying to get donations of meat and things like that probably make the hyenas
a little more unique in dealing with and feeding on a daily basis.
>>Kelly Runyon: I think what I found so interesting, and I
just keep smiling when I look around because it’s just such a beautiful place.
But what strikes me is that all the animals are out there together, at least a vast majority.
So many different breeds. Is that normal?
I mean you’ve got horses with peacocks, and horses with llamas and bulls.
And I’m sure I’m saying the names wrong, but I think that’s just what’s so interesting.
Do they all get along? Are they all friends?
Do they have quirky habits?>>James Aikman
So, when they come to us, in the very beginning when there were only a few types of animals,
you could see that each kind of group kept to their own area.
They would move amongst themselves, but each group kind of hung out and they would move
to their own area, and that’s the only animal that would be there.
And then probably at the end of October is when we started looking out and realizing,
wow, there’s 13 different species just grazing together, or there’s 10 different species
actually laying down, bedding down together. They have 100 other places they could go on
the property, but they’re choosing to be next to each other.
And it was that time that we kind of were reminded of earlier on, there was a person
that said this is not a Disney movie. Animals just don’t get along.
This is real life. And so, we can look out there everyday and
see that statement proving false. We thought around feeding time is when aggression
would tend to come out in a lot of animals, and so we thought that would be the biggest
issue. Really over the wintertime we would keep the
feed kind of close together, and we would not really have any issues.
Occasionally some of the bigger animals would kind of just push their way in and nudge other
animals out of the way because they wanted the food.
But there haven’t really been any fights or major issues like that.
And now that we’re open, we do try to spread the food around just to kind of help the animals
be in different parts of the park. And that seems to work out great.
So, I mean it’s very cool to see the animals interacting with each other, getting along
and just hanging out together.>>Kelly Runyon:
Take me from the moment you wake up in the morning to the moment you lay your head on
your pillow each night. Take me through a day in the life of what
you go through, what your staff goes through at the park here each day.
>>James Aikman: Sure, so we’ve got, I have two younger brothers.
Both of them are very involved, and the middle brother’s wife is our office manager, and
then my younger brother’s fiancee, she’s kind of our event planner and handles the food
side of things. And then we also have an Amish guy from the
Arthur area that started working for us from the very beginning, and he’s become an adopted
brother. So, usually when people ask me how many brothers
do I have, I tell them three. And so, when I get up, I usually get up around
5:30 each morning, I get dressed and then I head to Daniel’s house and pick him up.
And then we get to the park probably around 6:30, 6:45.
And then, that’s when usually the feeding starts.
So, you can see a lot of the animals will come up to the holding pen fence.
They see, they know the red truck is what’s got their food.
So, we’ll load up the hay and grain, and then Andy my middle brother, and then Daniel, they’ll
take it out, drive it around and put it out in different places.
They’ll feed the other animals in different parts of the park, make sure they have food
and water. And so, that, the feeding process probably
takes about two-and-a-half to three hours each morning.
And then when we’re working with kind of keeping it from being overgrazed, we’ll put out hay
sometimes in the middle of the day and things like that.
And that seems to help a lot. But then it’s making sure all the other small
animals on the walk-through side are fed, doing different enrichment things with them,
different– Whether it’s putting their food in little
kid toys or playhouses, or things like that to make them kind of work for it or scavenge
for it. Just do something new and exciting that they
can find interest in. I deal with, I have tons of phone calls everyday
from people calling wanting to know what our hours are, when we’re open, phone calls from
people wanting to tell us they have an animal that they’d like to find a new home for, things
like that. We get the same thing with emails, through
our emails as well as our messages on Facebook. Facebook is how we’ve gotten a lot of requests.
We just, last week we got a 70-pound sulcata tortoise that’s probably two-and-a-half feet
in diameter from a couple up in Effingham, that they just had raised him from a little
baby tortoise, and he was 10-years old now but just too big for them to take care of.
So, it’s fielding those calls, and then it’s trying to figure out okay, if we can take
this animal, where can we put it. And so, these last six to eight months, they’ve
been a little different than what it will be in the future just because we’ve actually
been building the park now. And so, we have a big list of projects that
we’ve been kind of checking off each day. And so, it’s kind of figuring out what projects
can we get done today. And so, we’re very excited about the time
when all our phase one projects are done, and then we can just take a little bit of
time and relax, and kind of enjoy what we have more before we continue on with the project
list. But it’s working with animals, it’s talking
and dealing with people or other businesses, and then just building habitats, putting roads
in, putting fencing up and things like that. So, it’s something new everyday.
It seems like every week a new project or two pops up.
I know just over the wintertime we were told that this pond was deep enough it wouldn’t
freeze. But it froze, and it froze thick enough to
where the animals could walk straight across it.
And so, that’s one of the reasons we put this fence up back here.
And so, we had to spend a day kind of shoveling off some of the snow so they would see that
there was ice there and realize that it was slick.
But just things like that, that we weren’t thinking we would have to deal with just yet.
But that’s just an example of projects that pop up that we don’t really have on our schedule,
but we have to make time to make it work.>>Kelly Runyon:
I’m curious, have you had any funny experiences with any of the animals?
Have they nudged you, kissed you, bumped you? Any fond memories of any particular animal?
>>James Aikman: Sure, so we’ve got, we have two of our big
water buffalo. Dundee is our big black water buffalo, and
Charlie is our whitish colored water buffalo. Both were kind of giving rides before they
came here. And so, we knew that we can work with them
to give rides. It had been a little bit of time before they
had given rides, and we would get on them out there.
And sometimes they’ll do great. Other times they’ll look for the lowest tree
branch and run towards that to try to knock you off.
And so, they’ve knocked a couple off before. Then Clyde, our camel, when I do behind-the-scenes
tours I take people out in our six-seat side-by-side ATV.
And as it’s been getting hot, Clyde’s been getting in the pond.
And so, he realized a few days ago that he’s covered in mud when he gets out.
And when he goes up to the vehicle, if he stomps his foot or kicks his foot it’ll spray
mud everywhere. And so, the first time he did that with our
tour, people kind of screamed because they weren’t expecting to get the mud sprayed on
them. And so, he picked up on that, and so now he
tends to do that quite often. So, usually if I see that, I’ll let people
know. And if I know they don’t want to get their
clothes dirty or something, I just won’t spend that much time with Clyde.
>>Kelly Runyon: Uh huh, old Clyde.
Well James, as we conclude our wonderful interview here today, what is the message, we have a
couple of minutes, what is the message you would like to share with the public about
the park? You know, some may be skeptical and some may
not understand. But what would you like to say about your
adventure area here?>>James Aikman:
So, I know from the beginning my wife and I have been very firm on the fact that if
we can’t provide a better home for the animal than where it came from, we have no business
having that animal. And so, from the beginning we knew that basically
it was animals first, people second. And so, we wanted to give them big habitats.
And so, some places habitats are small, but you do see the animal.
So, one of the things we do let people know is we’re here for the animals, because of
the animals. And so, they have a big habitat, which may
make it hard to see them sometimes. So, that’s just one thing we want people to
know, especially on the walk-through side of things.
But the other is we wanted to be a place that families could come.
So, we see nowadays everyone’s schedules are incredibly busy, that if you have multiple
kids they’re probably involved in different things.
And maybe you don’t even have time to have a family meal together every night or something
like that. So, we wanted to be a place where families
could come, something that would appeal to a wide age range.
We have people that come up and thank us every week.
They say, “I’ve got kids 3, 6, 9 and 12, and they all love this.
Do you have any idea how hard it is to find something that kids in those age ranges all
enjoy doing?” And so, that’s been very cool for us to see.
And just we wanted to, a lot of kids have a lot of screen time nowadays, whether it’s
phone or tablet, computer, TV, whatever. So, we wanted to be a place that reminded
kids, reminded families that there’s the outdoors, that there’s a ton of things that God’s created
that are amazing to see and experience, interact with.
And just be something that would be cool enough for them to realize, hey I don’t need to look
at my iPad today, and things like that. We get a lot of teenagers that come out here,
their parents say they didn’t want to come. They thought this would be boring, stupid,
why are they coming out here. And by the time they leave, they love it and
can’t wait to come back. And so, it’s just been very cool to be a place
where families can come and enjoy it together.>>Kelly Runyon:
Well James, we sure enjoyed coming to your sanctuary.
So, we appreciated the experience that you’ve treated us to.
>>James Aikman: Appreciate you coming.
>>Kelly Runyon: Yeah, thank you.
And we hope the viewers out there are enjoying it as well.
And we do appreciate you joining us on location at Aikman Wildlife Adventure in Arcola, near
Arcola. And we’ll see you next time here on the Paw
Report.>>Rameen Karbassioon: Dave’s Decorating Center is a proud supporter
of the Paw Report on WEIU. Dave’s Decorating Center features the Mohawk
SmartStrand Silk Forever Clean carpet. Dave’s Decorating Center, authorized Mohawk
Color Center, in Charleston. Okaw Vet Clinic in Tuscola and Dr. Sally Foote
remind you to properly take care of your pets, and are happy to help support the Paw Report
on WEIU. Okaw Vet Clinic, located at 140 West Sale
Street, in Downtown Tuscola. More information available at okawvetclinic.com.[music