Hope Bennett is on a mission: To bring people and animals together to glorify God so no life goes untouched. Everything she and her staff do at North Georgia Zoo, Wildlife Wonders, and Paradise Valley Farms, is based on this mission. Read how Tom and Hope Bennett have created a place where authentic connection between people and animals is encouraged and initiated.
I'm not sure how we first heard about the North Georgia Zoo. I think it was because Jeff wanted to have a sloth encounter, which shouldn't really surprise anyone who knows him. I searched for sloth encounters and hit pay dirt with the North Georgia Zoo. They not only offered sloth encounters but also reptile encounters, baby otter encounters, and even wolf encounters. After a visit to the zoo, we found a group of people truly committed to the many animals there and eager to share their knowledge and love of the zoo's inhabitants. The love and attitude of the staff and the provision of personal animal encounters were an expression of the mission that drives the zoo, farm, and animal outreach programs carried out from these 60 acres in north Georgia. Check out these adventures at https://www.northgeorgiazoo.com/.
Just Getting Started
Helping people make connections with animals has been part of Hope Bennett's life for many years. As a child, her father always brought home pets to her, and in college she studied to become a veterinary technician. Into adulthood, she felt a call to be a missionary in Africa but never was given a chance to follow that call as she had originally thought she would. During this time of questioning her call, she learned about a man who took animals into the community to do programs. This was something she could get into! She already had the animals she needed as pets. With help from a mentor, she began taking her menagerie to community and church groups for donations, calling her business Wildlife Wonders to show how she wanted to share the wonders of God and animals with people.
Wildlife Wonders went from being a hobby to a full-time job quickly and, as soon as he finished college, her husband joined her in making presentations. Soon, the couple needed land for their growing animal tribe but didn't want to go into debt. With their small budget of $55,000 in mind, a kind real estate agent began a search for a seemingly impossibly inexpensive piece of land.
"I will never forget the day she called," Hope says. "My husband said that this was the house and land we're supposed to buy, and we bought it that day." The couple moved onto three acres that is the current site of the zoo's nursery. As land became available, they bought the land around them until, now, they own 60 acres.
Defining Their Mission
The Bennetts originally planned to just do outreach programs, but God had bigger ideas for them. "Along the way, when you're looking for what God has for you, remember that God is loving and faithful. He only showed me what I could handle at that time. If He had shown me that I would have a staff of 35 and an overhead of $1 million a year, I would never had the courage to pursue this dream. I just have done what He's called me to do and bring people and animals together. He has done the rest."
Prior to the economic crash of 2008, Paradise Valley Farm had about 300 animals and Wildlife Wonders was doing over 600 outreach events a year at schools, churches, and corporate events. With the economic downturn, however, the outreach programs began to dwindle. Though Hope knew God would provide, she wanted something to offer the community that would provide an inexpensive experience for families. She saw the value of giving the public access to animals and knew that those animals would benefit those people.
"We all struggle with comparing ourselves to others, but when you put an animal in someone's lap that person is experiencing God's love. At that moment, you're not worried about what others are thinking, you're enjoying that experience. Those encounters are the canvas God has given me to work with."
In fact, at the heart of this business based around animals is an emphasis on people. "We want people to learn to show respect for the animals and see God's glory through these creatures. We also want them to learn about conservation, but people come first. The compassion we show to the people who are our guests encourages them to show compassion to animals."
Though the Bennetts and their staff were expecting local people to come to the petting zoo they established with their farm animals, that isn't what happened. Soon people were coming from Atlanta because of the exotic animals. Even though that required that people pay a higher admission, the public was interested in making personal connections with animals through small-group tours and animal experiences. They started with only about five people coming to the zoo, which grew to 25, and to what it is today as they continue to pursue a specific mission.
"About nine years ago as the business was growing, I realized that I could no longer impact every employee and impart my vision of what we were trying to do. We pulled the entire team together and prayed over what would be a clearly-expressed and easily -remembered mission. Our mission, 'To bring people and animals together to glorify God so no life goes untouched,' came from that time and has been the driving force for the organization as it has grown."
The Mission Continues
Today, the zoo and farm still have about 300 animals, but they have refined the farm's stock, the zoo's enclosure spaces, and the system for training the staff. "We have a large staff for a zoo of this size, but, because we're driven by making that personal connection, we need more people."
The zoo has experienced 10-20% growth each year and now, in addition to outreach programs and animal encounters, they also provide overnight experiences and welcome corporate picnics. They have an average of 200 people visiting the zoo on a high day, more in the summer and on school holidays, and less in winter, but the numbers are not their only indicator of success. "We are driven by the connection for those who want to experience the animals on a personal level. The countless hours we spend training and preparing the animals for a positive encounter experience makes the additional cost of the encounters worth it."
A surprising addition to the organization has been how the animals have worked in the entertainment industry. Animals from the zoo have appeared on shows such as The Walking Dead and Vampire Diaries and on talk shows such as Conan with Conan O'Brien. They have even worked with big names known for their wildlife expertise such as Jack Hanna, Jeff Corwin, and the Kratt Brothers. Most people would jump at the chance to work in this industry, but Hope says that she has to pray over each project to make sure they are staying true to their mission.
"Our work in the entertainment industry has not grown much over the years because that's not our main thing. Due to our purpose, we can't take on long filming jobs because it takes away from being able to carry-out our mission and what we do here."
With that said, they still do work with shows such as the Carbonaro Effect and do some film and television work. One person who has an established career in working with animals in film and television trains the animals specifically for these tasks. Because he is so familiar with the industry, it works well for him and the zoo. Still, it's a balance. A recent job asked for four wolves to film for two to three days.
"We simply couldn't send four wolves with four handlers even for a few days because it would negatively impact what we do here. The company was able to only take three wolves with three handlers, which we could do without comprising our operation. You never want to break down a good thing you have going to stretch yourself too thin."
All This and a Family, Too
With so much going on, one would think that Hope Bennett only had time for work, but she and her husband have two young daughters who are a top priority.
"Though my brain never stops, I have a four-hour window in the evening set aside with no business just to be with family," Hope says. "I have to keep my priorities in order."
The Bennetts' daughters are being raised in and around the zoo, and Hope says that is a "most miraculous adventure." Her oldest daughter is very nurturing toward the animals and has a tender spirit while the younger one is bold and has to be reined in from being too adventurous. And, though Hope wants them to follow God's call on their lives whether that involves working with the zoo or not, they are around animals all the time. Right now the family has two baby otters living with them!
The Bennetts have many dreams and plans for the future such as providing event space. And, did I mention the giraffe? Plans are in the works to build everything that is needed to bring a giraffe to the zoo and then provide giraffe encounters.
Staying true to their calling to put people first, Hope also sees some possible plans to provide a place of healing for hurting people.
"I have all these dreams, and I trust how God brings all of my dreams together as I follow Him."
Lessons Learned and Advice about Fresh Paths
The path to today's organization encompassing Wildlife Wonders, the North Georgia Zoo, and Paradise Valley Farm has not been easy. There have been great highs and great lows and times when they weren't sure they would make it. Hope Bennett has realized that the organization isn't best served by her always being on the front lines. Instead, she spends a great deal of time praying over the zoo and the people who work there.
"Every hard time has made us better and all the steps are all in God's plan for us. All of your failures lead up to a success if you keep working at it. Even if the zoo ended today, I will still praise God for all the miraculous things He's done."
As a person who knows a thing or two about following fresh paths, here is her advice if you are considering a fresh path of your own.
"Know that God loves you so much. Ask Him to show you His unconditional love and accept it. He will show you the fresh path He has for you and give you the courage to pursue it."
Note: Most of the photos for this piece were provided by North Georgia Zoo. The pictures of Jeff and me give you a taste of the great time we had on our Winter Wolf Encounter.