Hill Country nonprofit Longneck Manor fosters conservation by letting people mingle with animals

click to enlarge Longneck Manor founder Rick Barongi feeds a friend. - Michael Karlis
Michael Karlis
Longneck Manor founder Rick Barongi feeds a friend.
Correction: Due to a reporting error, Reed Gardner’s position with Longneck Manor was misstated. He is an employee of the nonprofit.

Imagine waking up to find the two-foot-long purple tongue of a giraffe licking your window. You grab your morning cup of coffee only after hand-feeding the hungry animal from the comfort of your living room.

After breakfast, you step outside for fresh air and enjoy the Texas Hill Country’s scenic views, then wave hello to the rhinos roaming your backyard.

That’s the kind of morning zoologist Rick Barongi daydreamed about while he worked for zoos and Disney’s Animal Kingdom theme park. The conservationist’s dream has always been saving animals in the wild. But he knew he needed help to make it happen.

“The way to get to people is to touch their heart,” said Barongi, owner of Longneck Manor, a 110-acre wildlife ranch recently opened near Fredericksburg that’s dedicated to animal conservation. “The way to do that isn’t by telling people how endangered they are and all the horrible stuff going on with giraffes and rhinos. You do that by getting people out here to connect with the animals.”

As Barongi thought about retiring from a five-decade career that included stints at the San Diego Zoo, the Houston Zoo and Disney’s theme park, he realized few places enabled the kind of intimate human-and-animal connection he envisioned.

“Rather than just writing checks to conservation organizations, I wanted to do something more impactful,” Barongi said. “I thought that if I stay healthy, and I got the drive to do it — and my wife was patient enough — that I would do this. I figured that I’d invest in this.”

Several years ago, the Barongis purchased a ranch in Fredericksburg. Not only was the 110-acre plot large enough to keep animals, but its climate is comparable to that of sub-Saharan Africa. So, instead of selling the land, which had appreciated in value, and retiring in Sarasota as the couple once envisioned, Barongi created Longneck Manor.

Opened in October of 2021, the $2 million complex is home to three giraffes and three white rhinos. Barongi said he decided to focus exclusively on giraffes and rhinos because they’re “iconic species” of the African savannah and in the most need of human assistance.

“They are both endangered or threatened with extinction in many parts of their range,” he said. “There are less than 15,000 white rhinos left in the wild and less than 120,000 giraffes in all of Africa. They need help now.”

Not a zoo

Still, Barongi insists Longneck Manor isn’t a zoo. Nor is it comparable to several exotic animal ranches within driving distance of San Antonio. The animals that call Longneck Manor home were bred in captivity and hail from the Dallas Zoo, San Diego Zoo and the White Oak Rhino Conservation in Florida.

Beyond that, Longneck Manor is organized as a nonprofit, which donates proceeds raised by welcoming visitors to conservation groups that protect endangered species in the wild.

In other words, Barongi isn’t a Lone Star State version of Joe Exotic, the controversial showman at the heart of the Netflix docuseries Tiger King. Instead, the New York native is an exhibitor licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which inspects Longneck Manor often, and said he expects to soon be accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.

Overnight stays

The facility is the embodiment of Barongi’s vision to build lasting connections between humans and animals. One way he facilitates that link is by allowing guests to stay on the property overnight.

Longneck Manor’s Giraffe Suite, which garnered some 3 million views on the @txvacation TikTok account, features large windows looking into the property’s giraffe barn, and it allows guests to hand-feed the animals alfalfa from the comfort of the suite’s living room.

The 1,200-square-foot room also features personal touches from Barongi, including watercolor paintings, Zulu handbaskets and Meerkat sculptures — all collected during his more than 50 trips to Africa. The suite is booked through 2023.

Although the suite’s cost of $1,800 — not including taxes — for a two-night stay, puts it out of reach for many visitors, Longneck Manor holds daily tours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The $95 tours, often led by Reed Gardner, a Longneck Manor employee and fellow wildlife enthusiast, allow guests to hand-feed giraffes and scratch the bellies of white rhinos.

Barongi doesn’t want the experience to be limited to the privileged few and plans to invite schools to the property to foster a new generation of conservationists.

And although he wants to expand, eventually constructing a 100-room manor house where guests can hand-feed giraffes from the balconies of their rooms, he doesn’t want to jeopardize the intimate experience.

“I’m never going to get too big,” Barongi said. “Disney taught me about guest service and the quality of guest service. But I can’t do what Disney does, and they can’t do what I do. ... You make a lot of money, but you lose sight of the mission.”

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Michael Karlis

Michael Karlis is a Staff Writer at the San Antonio Current. He is a graduate of American University in Washington, D.C., whose work has been featured in Salon, Alternet, Creative Loafing Tampa Bay, Orlando Weekly, NewsBreak, 420 Magazine and Mexico Travel Today. He reports primarily on breaking news, politics...

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