BRANSON – The Promised Land Zoo here has unicorns … sort of. Actually, the zoo cares for the Scimitar Horned Oryx, an animal that may have inspired early legends of the unicorn – and that is now almost as rare as the unicorn.
“These are extinct outside of zoos and private collections,” Jim Venske, project manager at the faith-based zoo said, pointing to a herd of the desert-dwelling, antelope-looking animals that have two scimitar-shaped, razor-sharp horns rising backward from their heads.
“They trace the idea of the unicorn back to these, and I have some theories,” he said. “If you look at them from the side, it looks like one big horn on their head, when in reality they have two.”
With Missouri locations in Eagle Rock and Branson, the Promised Land Zoo was founded by Jeff and Diane Sanders in 1992 to “raise rare and endangered species,” like the Scimitar Horned Oryx.
Of course, the Scimitar Horned Oryx isn’t the zoo’s only animal. They have owls, sloths, spider monkeys, goats, tigers, lions, lemurs, hyenas, a giraffe, singing dogs and many other animals.
Basic Admission at the zoo includes a 2-mile driving tour, as well as a foot-safari and opportunities to feed animals like goats, kangaroos and camels. But higher value admission tickets allow even more access to the animals: for example, holding baby spider monkeys and pythons, feeding sloths, and – with the Ultimate Excursion admission – riding up to bison and other animals in a Guided RTV Tour.
Visitors not only have a hands-on, fun experience at the zoo, but they can find spiritual encouragement from the Bible verses posted throughout the property. At the beginning of the drive-through tour, visitors can read the “Roman Road,” explaining God’s plan of salvation through Christ Jesus.
Laura Sanders-Remenar, the founders’ daughter, now serves as director of operations. She calls the zoo a modern-day “ark” for these animals.
“When God made the promise that He would never destroy the world in a flood, I always thought it was made only to Noah and his family,” Venske said. “I don’t know how I’ve missed this all these years, but He also made it to every living creature. So it’s a promise not only to man, but to the animals themselves.”
“We’re here for the animals,” Venske added. “We view ourselves as caretakers, stewards.”
But animals at the zoo and around the world, he said, are also gifts from God. “They’re here for a purpose, and I think part of the purpose is to help us.”
This is a lesson Venske has learned personally: After his parents died within 11 days of each other, he was understandably sad and discouraged. “On bad days, I’d go out in the pasture and reflect and ask God to give me a little comfort,” he said. “My horse would appear out of nowhere and start rubbing my shoulder.”
Venske hopes animals at the zoo comfort other people, pointing them – whether staff or visitors – to God. Unofficially dubbed the “Zoo Dad,” he often comforts and prays for zoo staff when they’re going through difficulties in life, and when the opportunity arises he loves sharing with visitors how animals at the zoo highlight God’s creativity.
Take, for example, the Scimitar Horned Onyx, again. Venske said God designed them perfectly for their natural, desert habitat. Their feet, for example, are splayed when they walk through the desert, he explained, preventing them from sinking into the sand much the same way that snowshoes keep people’s feet from sinking into the snow.
“They can go a week between watering holes,” he added. They raise their body temperatures during the day to keep from wasting water in their bodies by needlessly sweating. Then, at night, their temperatures drop again. “So God took care of them with some unique capabilities.”
To learn more about the Promised Land Zoo, visit https://www.plzoo.com/.