Where the Wild Things Are

We like to do things a little differently when it comes to the holiday season. My own family will tell you that I have always been a bit of a scrooge when it comes to joining in the rush of Christmas shopping.  Instead of hunting for sales, we explored the outdoors at Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park  in Gainesville, Florida. There is something a little wild inside me that craves adventuring new places in nature. Whether that version of nature is lost in the middle of the woods in the Porcupine Mountains or strolling the edge of a boardwalk in open prairie, my soul is beaming with joyful contentment.

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There is a certain amount of respect that nature deserves when entering into its territory. While light conversation enhanced our journey, there were also times when pure silence was necessary for discovering the beauty around us. We played what seemed like a game of “I Spy” by slowly meandering with eyes peeled along the treetops, distant horizon, and the surface of the water. When one person spotted a creature or beautiful flower, they would quickly motion for us to follow so we could also see for ourselves what was lurking in the bushes. If there were fellow visitors who were stomping along with loud voices, we simply waited for them to pass and wished them a hello so that we could continue looking for interesting discoveries.

There was nothing quite like seeing a feathered friend rest atop a wild horse in the far distance. This four-legged beast tolerated the monkey on his back for a little while until that moment passed.

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The wild horses slowly grazed the plant life floating on the water’s edge, unconcerned by their small audience. This nature preserve is home to wild boar, bison, horses, turtles, alligators, and over 300 species of birds all free to roam the prairie. While we didn’t see any bison that day, there were plenty of wildlife enjoying the warm light.

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One of these creatures was none other than the alligator baking in the sun at the end of the boardwalk. Undeterred by the humans behind the railing, these gators slept with one eye open as the horses quietly drifted their way.

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We also happened to witness a heron swallowing a midday snack.

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Paynes Prairie has eight trails for hiking, horseback riding, and cycling. We walked the boardwalk on the saw grass water of Lake Wauberg and then ventured onto the grassy La Chua Trail where wild horses walked right into our path. Giving them their space, we stood still as they carried on without a care in the world.

(Left: Cal, Sawako, Derek, and Ashley on Lake Wauberg boardwalk; Right: La Chua Trail)

The horses seemed so pleasant that it made me think about what it might be like if all horses were wild and free. The Paynes Prairie “Wildlife Bill of Rights” seemed to strike a note with me about how we view animals and what rights they should have in the wild. According to the Friends of Paynes Prairie, Inc, wildlife are considered citizens of Paynes Prairie and deserve the right to drink fresh water and natural food, free from litter. They may see people if they choose and avoid others while remaining undisturbed by their human visitors.

A few tips for us to protect these rights are to never feed wildlife, touch or chase them, and only to watch these wild animals safely from a distance. While on La Chua, a few armadillos were busy digging through the brush and Derek’s father, Cal, reminded us not to get too close as it scurried through. Viewing wildlife in a natural habitat was much different than visiting a zoo. I was pleasantly surprised to see so many creatures in the prairie that afternoon. I have great appreciation for the preservation efforts made to give these wild horses, birds, bison, and armadillos the opportunity for a protected way of life.

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