Meet the woman behind Wild Hearts African Farm & Petting Zoo, a little piece of paradise

Credit: Libby Ballengee

Meet Amanda Badger, the woman behind Wild Hearts African Farm & Petting Zoo, a little piece of paradise

Credit: Libby Ballengee

Lewisburg destination offers tours by appointment only

When I asked Amanda Badger why she wanted to own a zoo, she proudly proclaimed: “I’m a zoo woman!”

Then she corrected me. She doesn’t “own” a zoo.

“I’m building one,” she said.

What would make a marketing professional quit a 9-5 job and build a zoo? That’s what I wanted to find out when I first visited her property a few years ago.

The drive is a pleasant one: straight out I-70 West for approximately 20 minutes, then a short jaunt through Brookville. Pulling up the driveway, there’s a farmhouse to the right and a large barn to the left, a typical layout in rural areas.

“Welcome to Wild Hearts African Farm,” Amanda says as she greets me enthusiastically.

Wild Hearts African Farm is a little slice of paradise
Wild Hearts African Farm is a little slice of paradise

Credit: Wild Hearts African Farm

Credit: Wild Hearts African Farm

I’ve been acquainted with Amanda for quite a while, before she had dreams of building a zoo. In 2014, I saw her at a holiday party when she had initially told me she wanted to open a zoo. I was shocked because I had no clue how much she loved animals.

“Going to the zoo was a luxury when I was growing up,” she explained. “I got to go to the Cincinnati Zoo one time when I was in elementary school. Otherwise, it was totally inaccessible financially.”

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First career

Amanda also felt that her interest in biology was not encouraged. She was told to pick a “serious” subject that would lead to a job. She graduated from the Miami Valley Career Technology Center with a focus on visual communications and studied graphic design at Sinclair for two years. She then earned her bachelor’s degree in marketing from Capital University.

This was a real milestone for Amanda, as she was one of the first college graduates in her family. After graduation, she pursued her marketing career, got married and settled down. Even though she “had it all” by many standards, she was left with that nagging feeling that there was something more she could be doing.

Wild Hearts African Farm is a little piece of paradise
Wild Hearts African Farm is a little piece of paradise

Credit: Libby Ballengee

Credit: Libby Ballengee

“I felt like I was just a consumer, living for the weekend. I wasn’t contributing anything,” Amanda continued, describing what led to the zoo journey. “Then, I got bit by a bat.”

Life-changing moment

Most people would stay away from animals after such an incident, not nurture them. Turns out, she actually really liked bats and getting bit by one inspired her to learn more about them. She took a 10-week course at the Ohio State University Extension Office to become an Ohio Certified Volunteer Naturalist. That course sparked a quest for knowledge that she pursues to this day.

With her new certification, she started a two-year volunteer term with Heaven’s Corner, a small zoo in West Alexandria. Using her marketing background and her contacts with the Preble County Chamber of Commerce, she was able to help bring publicity, and more importantly, lots of people, to Heaven’s Corner. She realized she was a natural at bringing people and animals together, while making it fun and educational.

In 2012, Amanda joined Hueston Woods State Park as a full-time naturalist. She was finally getting paid to do what she loved. A year later, she interned for and was subsequently hired by the Cincinnati Zoo’s Education Department.

Around this same time, as her dreams were taking off, her marriage ended. Having her freedom and getting out of the office world, Amanda finally felt like the person she was supposed to be.

Amanda Badger teaches at Wild Hearts African Farm
Amanda Badger teaches at Wild Hearts African Farm

Credit: Wild Hearts African Farm

Credit: Wild Hearts African Farm

“I would have friends call me on a Saturday night, trying to get me to go to bars and party with them. I didn’t need that release anymore. My life wasn’t something I was trying to escape from,” she said.

She recalled mopping the floor of the reptile house on that same Saturday night, with one of the snakes mimicking her back and forth motion and a cockatoo bouncing on her shoulder.

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‘I’m a zoo woman'

“Those moments made me realize that I’m a zoo woman. A lot of people like animals, but few want to take care of them in a truly committed way. I enjoy this life.”

Amanda says changing her life and pursuing her dream was like when Dorothy opened the door to Oz, and everything was in vibrant color.

An injured bald eagle is one of the animals you'll see at Wild Hearts African Farm
An injured bald eagle is one of the animals you'll see at Wild Hearts African Farm

Credit: Libby Ballengee

Credit: Libby Ballengee

While working at Hueston Woods, she decided to go back to college and get her master’s degree in zoology from Miami University through a program called Project Dragonfly.

During that time, she put together a business plan and pitched it to an investor-philanthropist from Preble County. The investor agreed to purchase 31 acres for Amanda to build her dream. Currently, 27 acres are still used for corn and soybean farming. The remaining 4 acres make up the gorgeous grounds that is Wild Hearts African Farm & Petting Zoo.

What to expect at Wild Hearts

The setting is truly beautiful: a scenic pond with a fountain, carefully planted hibiscus flowers edging the trails, colorful signage, and festively painted animal enclosures.

Wild Hearts African Farm is a little slice of paradise
Wild Hearts African Farm is a little slice of paradise

The outdoor exhibits have expanded considerably since my first visit to the zoo in 2015. The original Patagonian maras and pair of red-tailed hawks have a lot more company now. Amanda has added an African cape porcupine, a sand cat, turtles, goats, reptiles, and birds of all varieties, including a bald eagle.

The most significant addition to the zoo is Brian Badger, Amanda’s new husband. The pair met in Africa, while Amanda was studying big cat conservation in Namibia. Originally from London, Brian spent a considerable time working in Africa as the Operation Director at the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF).

There was a spark between them, but living on different continents made dating impossible, so they both continued on their separate journeys. The following year, Brian traveled to the U.S. for a Conservation Lecture Tour. While giving a talk at the Cincinnati Zoo, Brian and Amanda reconnected. Shortly after, they got engaged and Brian moved to Ohio to assist Amanda full time with her zoo.

Amanda and Brian Badger in Africa.
Amanda and Brian Badger in Africa.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Brian’s expertise has elevated Amanda’s education and holistic conservation efforts. When she talks about how people can learn to live with wildlife in a sustainable way, her eyes light up with passion and purpose. She’s particularly proud to be the first zoo in Ohio to become “humane certified.”

Wild Hearts ‘humane certified’

Many of the animals at Wild Hearts have been rescued. The sand cat’s parents were saved from war-torn Sudan. The bald eagle, red-tailed hawk and owls were all injured, and can no longer live on their own in the wild, she said.

When touring the zoo, it doesn’t feel like you’re seeing animals in cages. Instead, they feel like children she genuinely loves and cares for.

Amanda Badger pets her African crested porcupine.
Amanda Badger pets her African crested porcupine.

Credit: Libby Ballengee

Credit: Libby Ballengee

Although the animals bring her joy, Amanda’s journey to build her zoo has not been an easy one. Wild animal laws enacted after the Zanesville tragedy in the fall of 2011 have made it nearly impossible for small zoos to exist in Ohio. Places like Heaven’s Corner were virtually shut down overnight, removing dangerous animals from their facility, after legitimately being in business for over 20 years.

When Wild Hearts first opened, there was a significant push back by her neighbors, who misunderstood Amanda’s intentions, she said. To ease their concerns, Amanda agreed to not add dangerous animals to her zoo. Her dream is to expand upon the zoo’s additional acreage and add zebras and other larger animals with a drive-in safari for visitors. She’d also like to add an African style lodge for events.

The concept plan for Wild Hearts African Farm & Petting Zoo.
The concept plan for Wild Hearts African Farm & Petting Zoo.

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Amanda hopes this project will bring an economic boost to Preble County. She also hopes teaching locals about conservation will lead them to apply those lessons at home. Most of all, she loves giving children in the Dayton area accessibility to a zoo. In particular, she wants to encourage girls to pursue scientific studies and careers.

Along with the property, Amanda has a popular Mobile Teaching Zoo, which has been a hit at birthday parties and community festivals. Since the coronavirus pandemic hit, she’s also developed online learning modules to continue her community outreach. The zoo itself is still open by reservation only, which lends itself to social distancing.

Amanda Badger's Wild Hearts Mobile Teaching Zoo
Amanda Badger's Wild Hearts Mobile Teaching Zoo

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

‘Piece of paradise'

“This is my piece of paradise. I’ve created a life I don’t need a vacation from,” she says as she looks around the property. “Plus, I can’t leave the animals,” she adds. “You don’t own a zoo; the zoo owns you.”

“Oh, before you go, I want to take your photo with our Wild Heart sign,” she says.

Amanda comes back with a paper sign that declares “I am a Wild Heart.” Then she makes me take the oath: ”To be a Wild Heart, you are declaring you will stay true to yourself by following your dreams, to make a difference through action, and believe you can accomplish anything through hard work,” she says.

I nod in genuine agreement and smile for the photo.

Libby Ballengee visits Wild Hearts African Farm in Lewisburg, Ohio
Libby Ballengee visits Wild Hearts African Farm in Lewisburg, Ohio

Credit: Contributed

Credit: Contributed

Pulling out of the driveway, I am satisfied that I really am a Wild Heart, and much more so after visiting with Amanda. Talking with her made me recall Randy Pausch’s famous “last lecture” about achieving your childhood dreams. Cheers to those, like Amanda, who actually pursue those dreams.

HOW TO GO

What: Wild Hearts African Farm & Petting Zoo

Where: 8079 Salem Road, Lewisburg

When: Visits are by appointment only. To make a reservation, email contact@wildheartsafricanfarm.org or call 937-416-5520 for in-person visits or to reserve the Mobile Teaching Zoo, inquire about online learning, or to find out more about sponsorship opportunities.

Cost: Pricing is $11 – Adults ages 13 & up; $8 – Children ages 3-12; FREE – Toddlers ages 2 and under.

More info: Visit wildheartsafricanfarm.org.

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