Where are they now? Joel Clinger forged own path by building his own zoo
WRIGHT CITY — From the gravel parking lot, the plot of land tucked next to the tree-lined, two-lane Highway M doesn’t look like much. Visitors can see a one-story tin structure and several feet of wire fencing strung through wooden posts. The only clue that indicates that more than 60 species of animal live behind the fencing is the sound.
Competing shrieks from different bird species pierce the air. The bleating of goats occasionally drifts through the cacophony. At one point, two cries from a rooster force all the other noise to the background.
This is Big Joel’s Safari, a private zoo owned and operated by former Missouri offensive lineman Joel Clinger. Clinger graduated from Missouri in 2007; his jersey hangs framed in the park’s gift shop. After signing with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent but failing to make the team, he played four seasons in the Arena Football League. He eventually gave up on his goal of playing in the NFL to fulfill another longtime dream: opening his own zoo.
Clinger has always loved animals. He studied animal science at Missouri, and even before he opened Big Joel’s Safari, he raised “whatever my parents could take care of” at their farm on the outskirts of St. Louis. Even in college, he talked about opening his own zoo. In the summer of 2012, along with his wife, Mimi, and his parents, Clinger opened the park. Six years later, it’s not only surviving, but thriving. Last year, Clinger bought additional land neighboring the zoo in order to expand.
Clinger’s original vision had been a traveling petting zoo, but one day during his arena football career, that changed. In the offseason, he pieced together a living by performing a variety of odd jobs, one of which was delivering miniature horses for his uncle, who bred them. One day, as he prepared to make a delivery, the recipient called Clinger and told him to keep driving once he got to the property, no matter what approached his car. Clinger was greeted by camels, zebras and other exotic animals. If someone else could manage those animals on their own land, he figured, he could, too.
“If you can work with regular livestock and you’re good at that, it just transfers over easy,” Clinger said. “I had worked at a lot of private facilities, and because of my size, I was a good person to call if you needed to round up animals.”
Sporting a t-shirt with the sleeves cut off and a wild, rust-colored beard, Clinger looks like he could still suit up at tackle for Missouri. His soft demeanor contrasts that appearance. Clinger talks about the park with nonchalance, his voice often trailing off mid-sentence, as if he shouldn’t need to finish explaining why the zebras in his zoo can’t be touched by the public, but the camels can. He addresses a few animals like most people would talk to a pet dog — at one point walking to the camel exhibit, sticking his hand through the fence and clicking his tongue.
“Here, D.C.! Come over here.”
Clinger built the park from scratch. Originally, the only employees were himself, Mimi, his parents, and a cashier for the gift shop. When the park was buying or selling an animal, it was him who would drive to drop the animal off or pick it up (he still does this whenever necessary, traveling as far as Michigan and Minnesota). He built all the fencing, lean-tos and other structure that make up the animal exhibits.
“Pretty much every fence here, I put in,” Clinger said. “We used to start with big telephone poles, and they asked me how I got it in there. I’m like, ‘picked them up.’”
In the first few years of the park’s existence, Clinger constantly worried about exceeding his budget. During a particularly rainy spring or hot summer, Clinger would worry that not enough guests would come to the park to offset the costs of feeding and caring for the animals, and he’d go out of business. The structures and fencing he assembled weren’t always uniform — Clinger would use whatever lumber or other materials he could find on sale, even if they didn’t exactly match.
“A lot of times when you’re on a budget, you’re having to make do with what you’ve got,” he said. “So if you see these panels on sale, you buy those.”
Now, Clinger says Big Joel’s Safari is on more stable financial ground. His pride in his creation is visible. Every animal seems to have a name, and as he walks through the zoo he relays tidbits about several of them — how he knows the prairie dogs have dug to the bottom of their 12-foot deep pen because they’ve started bringing up bits of rock, or how D.C., the camel, grunts when the staff puts a saddle on him, but only if other people are watching. After I finish asking him questions, he encourages me to hang around and check out all the animals.
On this warm June day, a handful of guests are already lined up outside the tin shelter when the park opens at 9 a.m. A dozen or so staff members wearing lime green t-shirts buzz around the park, feeding some animals or stationing themselves so that they’ll be able to supervise guests as they pet the animals. That’s one unique aspect of Big Joel’s Safari — guests can touch several of the animal species and feed even more. When anyone approaches the fencing around the goat exhibit, or the chickens, or the multi-species herd of deer, the animals swarm, eager for food. Clinger said he always envisioned providing guests a more intimate experience than they’d get at, say, the St. Louis Zoo.
“The idea was to get you closer,” Clinger said. “When you go to the zoo, you’re far away. And we work with all the animals all the time, so it’s not like they really freak out when people are around.”
Clinger said the concept of Big Joel’s Safari isn’t especially unique. Lots of exotic animal collectors try to open their own private zoos. But not many survive past the first couple years. For one, Clinger said, acquiring the necessary state and county zoning permits can get complicated. Then, of course, there’s the issue of funding. Finally, taking care of that many different animal species can takes both extensive knowledge and constant effort. Clinger credits his football experience for instilling his work ethic.
“I’m used to a strict program, and if I’m late for something, I’m scared to death,” Clinger said with a laugh. “I can thank (Gary) Pinkel for that one.”
While managing Big Joel’s Safari may mean long hours and frequent challenges, Clinger appears content. In his mind, the rewards of his job outweigh the rigors. Clinger notes the small triumphs, such as finally getting all the fencing to look the same and owning his own construction equipment rather than borrowing it from someone else. But more than anything, managing Big Joel’s Safari allows Clinger to live out his passion every day by working with animals. He views the zoo’s inhabitants almost like children, even joking that he and Mimi “don’t have any human primates yet, just non-human primates.” Watch Clinger stroke a camel on the snout or tell a curious guest about the longhorns, and it’s easy to see the pride he takes in the hodgepodge of animals he built behind the one-story tin hut in rural Missouri.
“It’s something I like to do,” Clinger said. “Otherwise it’d be a lot of work.”