A walk on the wild side

Explore, learn and play at Aikman Wildlife Adventure

Photo courtesy of Aikman Wildlife Adventure

With the sun blazing brightly over the landscape and the wind rustling through the few trees spread throughout the grassy terrain, a vehicle slowly drives down the road. In a streak of black and white, a zebra runs by. A nearby wildebeest lazily grazes on grass. In the distance, the laughter of a hyena can be heard.

However, this isn’t an African safari in the Serengeti — this is Aikman Wildlife Adventure in central Illinois.

Spread across 40 acres outside of Arcola on Coles-Moultrie Electric Cooperative lines, Aikman Wildlife Adventure is home to more than 230 animals representing 90 species from six continents, making it Illinois’ only drive-thru animal park. Each year, the park welcomes more than 40,000 visitors to experience their own adventures in this unique sanctuary for exotic animals.

Owner James Aikman holds Lakota the umbrella cockatoo.

James Aikman’s journey to creating this wildlife haven began with a dream — literally. In October 2013, he awoke with a vision of running a wildlife park with his wife Kelsey. At the time, he was working in banking, and, with a baby on the way, it seemed like an impossible dream. Yet, after having the same dream two nights in a row, James felt a divine calling.

“I told her, ‘I don’t know why, but I feel like this is something God’s wanting us to do. Well, if God is behind it, he’ll find a way to make it happen,’” he recalls.

Over the next two years, doors began to open, leading to the purchase of the former Rockome Gardens property in September 2015. James’s dream started to take shape when a Grant’s zebra became the park’s first resident. “My wife named him Tobias. It means ‘the goodness of God,’” James shares about his favorite animal at the park.

Aikman Wildlife Adventure officially opened in March 2016, with the walk-thru adventure debuting a few months later. Since then, the park has continued to grow, adding new attractions, animals and adventures for guests.

Rocket the muntjac.

“All the animals were born and raised in the United States in captivity,” James says. “So, none of them came from the wild, and most were born and raised in the Midwest.”

For guests, there are six adventures to choose from. The walk-thru and drive-thru adventures can be done individually or together in the Aikman’s Triple Crown. When choosing the drive-thru option, visitors can opt for a wagon ride instead of driving their own car and learn more about the animals from a guide while feeding and petting the animals. Each wagon holds 20 people.

The Off-Road Adventure takes guests off the beaten path to where the larger animals roam. For the ultimate experience, get up close and personal in the Behind-the-Scenes Adventure, in which a guide drives passengers in a utility terrain vehicle (UTV) right up to the animals.

Marzipan the sulcata tortoise.

“They [the animals] stick their heads right in,” James says. “Like Randy, our camel, his head will come in one side, [and] his nose comes out the other side. So, there’s a lot of squealing and giggling from both adults and kids on the UTV rides.” This adventure ends with a meet-and-greet with the resident kangaroos and Rocket the muntjac.

According to him, the drive-thru remains the most popular option. With the animals living harmoniously in one large enclosure, guests drive their cars through the mile-long loop, getting right next to the animals, offering a closer encounter with the animals than zoos can provide. “People can’t experience anything like it,” James says.

The walk-thru adventure offers equally close encounters, with large habitats that prioritize the animals’ quality of life. “We wanted to have big habitats. So, we chose quality of life versus quantity of animals,” James explains. He says guests seem to appreciate the spacious enclosures and the opportunity to see animals like the spotted hyenas, Taz and Tasha, up close.

Scout, one of four red kangaroos.

“They are two of the most popular animals at the park,” James says. He explains this is partially due to many zoos replacing hyenas with more endangered animals. “Nobody gets to see hyenas anymore.”

Having one of the strongest bites in the animal kingdom, the hyenas are too dangerous to pet. “They love attention. They’ll come when they’re called just like dogs, but even a play bite can still take your finger off,” he adds.

The park also features a petting zoo, where kids can feed and interact with various animals, including sheep, Scottish Highlanders and zebus. Additional encounters allow visitors to meet and learn about specific animals, from kangaroos and muntjacs to reptiles and wolfdogs.

Their Wildlife on Wheels program brings ambassador animals to off-site events for educational experiences. Some animal ambassadors include Benji the Norwegian dwarf rabbit, Ethel the sugar glider, Herman the tortoise, Leopard the ball python and Mirabell the hedgehog.

Bowser the Patagonian cavy.

In addition to seeing the animals, guests can step back in time in the Museum of Prehistoric Life. More than bones can be viewed in this exhibit. Life-size statues stand in front of depictions of their natural landscape, and kids can touch the statues and dig for bones.

Aikman Wildlife Adventure also serves as a unique wedding venue, hosting ceremonies in a rustic barn next to the petting zoo and receptions in the Serengeti center. Couples can capture unforgettable moments with the animals as part of their special day. Guests can stay at Elk Ridge, the park’s cabin B&B overlooking the pond in the drive-thru park.

Looking to the future, plans are underway to add more B&Bs, including one overlooking the wolfdog habitat and another near the kangaroo enclosure. James hopes these will be ready by next spring. Down the road, James also envisions adding big cats and giraffes to the park.

Corey the Corsican sheep.

Driven by a mission to provide the highest quality of life for all wildlife in need and to create memorable experiences through interaction, education and conservation, Aikman Wildlife Adventure invites you to take a walk (or drive) on the wild side. This close-to-home animal adventure is more accessible than one might think, offering a memorable experience for all who visit.

“We are family-oriented,” James says. “We want to make people feel welcome, have a good time and make memories.”

For more information about Aikman Wildlife Adventure, go to aikmanwildlife.com or call 217-268-3500.
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