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Big Haynes Creek Wildlife Festival lets public glimpse animals close-up

Big Haynes Creek Wildlife Festival lets public glimpse animals close-up

Rufus the camel gives a girl the ride of her life at last year’s Big Haynes Creek Wildlife Festival. (Special photos)

Rufus the camel gives a girl the ride of her life at last year’s Big Haynes Creek Wildlife Festival. (Special photos)

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This tortoise doesn’t mind being pet, as he sits on display at last year’s Big Haynes Creek Wildlife Festival.

At 1,500 pounds and 7 feet tall, Rufus cuts an intimidating figure but don’t let his size fool you.

Jeff and Jodi Gray acquired the camel when he was just two months old. They bottle fed him four times a day for the first year of his life. On cold nights, they brought him indoors to sleep by the fire.

When Rufus turned 4, Jeff Gray taught him to sit on command, and Jody climbed on his back and rode.

Now, at age 9, Rufus might rule the roost in the camel pasture, but he is friendly and curious with humans, said Jody Gray.

“We raised him for his entire life for camel rides,” said Gray. “He’s a massive animal, but you will catch me on a camel before I ride a horse any day of my life. They are docile creatures, they really are.”

Rides on Rufus, offered by the Grays’ business Sam’s Path Petting Zoo, is just one of the many attractions at this year’s Big Haynes Creek Wildlife Festival.

Presented by the City of Conyers, the 7th Annual Big Haynes Creek Wildlife Festival takes place at the Georgia International Horse Park on Aug. 24 and 25, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Cost is $5 per person, with children 4 and under free. Parking at the festival is free.

The theme of this year’s festival is Fur, Feathers and Friends and the event is comprised of a bevy of wildlife exhibits and demonstrations that feature everything from birds of prey to primates to reptiles.

“In the past, we’ve had mostly animals you would find in North America but we wanted to add the exotic aspect because it’s educational, and people can learn about these animals from different countries,” said Rebecca Hill, City of Conyers events manager.

The Grays, who care for about 150 exotic and farm animals at their Petting Zoo in Hartwell, Ga., will bring other animals besides Rufus, such as a raccoon, a bearded dragon, a lemur, a fox, a tortoise and hedgehogs.

“This way, the kids get to learn about everything,” said Gray.

Still, rides with Rufus garner the most attention and when people climb aboard, they want the event recorded with a photo. Rufus is happy to oblige.

“He poses for the camera, you could snap a hundred pictures of him and they will all be the same majestic face,” said Gray.

Gray said the rides are for all ages. She once even had a 98-year-old woman take a ride. The woman didn’t reveal her age until she was up on the camel.

“I nearly had a mini-stroke,” said Gray.

Gray said Rufus can carry about 250 pounds so that means a child and an adult, or even three children, can easily ride together, an advantage over the ponies, which can carry about 75 pounds.

“It’s cool. Once you get up on the camel, it’s fun because you’re so high up,” said Gray, who is participating in the Wildlife Festival with Rufus for the second year in a row.

A perennial favorite at the Wildlife Festival, representatives from the Winged Ambassadors program will also be on hand to display Quasi, a vulture, and present several birds of prey shows.

Southeastern Reptile Rescue will bring its collection of snakes, alligators, and turtles to the festival and offer several Snakes of Georgia Encounter presentations. During the programs, Jason Clark, founder of Southeastern Reptile Rescue, will discuss snake behavior, display a few snakes, including a rattlesnake, and talk about snake bites, first aid and how to avoid being bitten.

The Wildlife Festival wildlife stage also features an interactive parrot show, and the Wildlife Wonders program, in which handlers display a variety of animals and discuss habitat, food and behavior.

Returning to the festival will be the American Indian living history encampment exhibit featuring American Indian Sawgrass. He demonstrates how Indians utilized items from the natural world, including animals, in order to survive. Tools, clothing, a tepee, a canoe and other items will be on display. Sawgrass also discusses how American Indians respected and preserved nature.

Other attractions include the Georgia State Frisbee Dog Championships, Indian American storytelling by Carol Brown, artists market, cloggers, and music including American Indian (with flute, drum and dance), country, pop and children’s rap.

For more information, visit www.bighaynescreekwildlifefestival.com.