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Big Doings At Big Joel's

This Destination Is Half Safari Petting Zoo And Half Educational Park

Joel Clinger wanted to be a zookeeper since he was a little boy, obtaining his first exotic pet, a ball python, when he was just 6 years old. “He even drew maps of zoos when he was a little kid,” says Joel’s wife, MiMi Clinger. “He always wanted to be a zookeeper.”

His childhood wish came true in 2012, when Joel and MiMi opened Big Joel’s Safari Petting Zoo and Educational Park, an agritourism attraction just south of Wright City on State Highway M. With more than 600 animals representing 70-plus species, the facility is recognized as a zoo by the Missouri Farm Bureau. Both Joel and MiMi are members of the Zoological Association of America to increase their knowledge in the care and keeping of their animals. As Joel says, “if you stop learning, you are no longer the expert.”

His knowledge started early, caring for his ball python as a first grader, and increased as he grew up. “I would bug zookeepers and ask what their degrees were in,” Joel recalls.

Emulating his idols, Joel majored in animal sciences at the University of Missouri-Columbia, where he also played football. That’s where he met MiMi, who shared his passion for animals. In fact, she planned a career as a veterinarian, although she became an occupational therapist instead. Joel played arena football for a few years after college graduation and began to work more intensely with exotic animals in the off season.

Over the years, Joel and MiMi kept adding more animals to their collection. Friends and family enjoyed visiting them, and soon strangers began stopping in their driveway to view the animals. People encouraged the couple to open a small animal park. They began planning to do just that, and when it came time to christen their park, Joel says he didn’t want to name the zoo after himself. He’s mum on the origins of the nickname “Big Joel,” but admits he was outvoted by his parents and MiMi on using the nickname for the park.

Big Joel’s Safari is a walk-through park, half zoo and half petting zoo. Of the many hooved mammals, visitors can see camels, llamas, alpacas, zebra, American bison, watusi cattle, North American elk, muntjak and fallow deer, a yak and other species.

“We're probably known for our large-hooved stock as a whole,” says Joel. “You can get pretty close to our bison and the watusi cattle with the huge horns.”

Mimi says people don’t realize how big a bison is, or the length of a watusi’s horns until they get close to them. “We try to get people as close to the animals as we can and do it safely,” she explains. “This is also so they can see their different features.”

A ‘deer’ can be one of many different species, she notes. “We want people to realize just how unique each species is.”

Joel spends a lot of time with the camels, and if he’s forced to choose, Clarence is his favorite, he says. “We’ve done appearances with him all over the place,” he adds.

At 25 years of age, Clarence is now retired from giving rides to visitors, but for years he delighted kids, large and small, from the perch above his hump. “Our male camels are very large. I like them because they make me feel normal,” jokes Joel, who stands 6 feet 6 inches tall.  

Other animals on display include the capybara, a favorite of MiMi’s; porcupines; lemurs; a Carpathian lynx; Bennett’s wallaby; and another MiMi favorite, a pair of fennec foxes. She says the tamanduas, a genus of anteaters, and the sloths, a fan favorite, are unique to privately funded zoos, such as theirs.

At the petting zoo, kids go crazy for the goats. “They love to feed them,” Joel says.

In the parakeet encounter, guests can purchase a parakeet feed stick and birds may even land on their head in the open bird aviary. Other birds include parrots, cockatoos and macaws, joined by an emu, ostrich, cranes, swans and pheasant.

Of course, there are reptiles: pythons, harkening back to Joel’s first exotic pet, boa constrictors and an anaconda. An American alligator, a caiman and a Morelet’s crocodile represent that species group.

Joel is living his childhood dream every day, caring for hundreds of exotic and interesting animals while sharing his knowledge with guests, including kids on educational field trips and through private events. “We're proud of our animals and the family that helped us create our one-of-a-kind farm,” says Joel. “But we’re not done yet, as we're always planning new projects and new animals to acquire.”


"We try to get people as close to the animals as we can and do it safely."