Meeting the exotic animals at the ever-expanding Barn Hill Preserve

The mention of barnyard animals might make you think of sheep, goats and other livestock—and Barn Hill Preserve definitely has those. But you’re more likely to make the trek out to this isolated attraction near Ethel for the giraffes, the sloths, the kangaroos and a chance to swim with otters.

Yes, otters. It’s the biggest draw here, according to Barn Hill’s CEO Gabe Ligon. There are few exhibits like it in the country, making it a destination for locals and out-of-state visitors.

Ligon says he’s always loved animals and helping educate others about them through hands-on experiences. He got his start bringing parrots and other small animals to birthday parties and events.

“Then I decided it seemed like a cool thing to get into more seriously. So I bought one acre of land,” he says. “This is the original barn (which houses the gift shop and offices), and I started buying more land. We started a pumpkin patch, doing field trips, animal shows, and we started slowly acquiring more animals.”

Now in its ninth year, the count at Barn Hill is 165 animals representing more than 50 species cared for by a staff of 17. There’s a 9-month-old giraffe (still taller than any of us) named T’challa that you can feed with a bottle. There’s an enclosure of sleepy sloths resting overhead but just within arm’s reach if you want to feed them a handful of strawberries. There’s an African serval—a type of wild cat—that’s docile enough for the educators to walk it around on a leash to greet tours.

And then there are those playful otters. Barn Hill has several Asian small-clawed otters and a shallow, temperature-controlled saltwater pool where guests can wade while they swim about—occasionally jumping into your arms or using your shoulders as a perch before their next dive.

Images courtesy Barn Hill Preserve

The success of the animal encounters has helped Barn Hill become an ever-expanding adventureland in the woods of East Feliciana Parish. Last year, Ligon opened Magnolia Ridge, a 32-acre zipline and obstacle course park, just south of Barn Hill along the Comite River. Guests meet at Barn Hill and are then shuttled to the zipline site, or they can buy a full package to experience both the preserve and the ziplines.

Barn Hill houses a variety of macaws that are rescues or had been abandoned by their owners. The birds can live to about 80 years old, which makes them hard for families to maintain. The oldest—the red macaw in the background—just celebrated its 74th birthday. Ligon says the macaws are usually allowed to fly freely around the preserve.

Ligon says he was partially inspired to build the adventure park by the COVID-19 stay-at-home order and the desire to be outdoors. “Honestly, I was bored during COVID, and I saw this beautiful property down the road,” he says. “We wanted to do something outdoors. So we took the gamble. And we opened in the heat of COVID. But it’s been really great.”

Next up is an 11-acre safari park, where guests will be able to drive through and see a variety of friendly animals. It’s also where that young giraffe T’challa will eventually move, and you’ll be able to observe him from the comfort of your car window.

Ligon also has plans for a lodge where guests can stay overnight for weddings, field trips and other special events. Over its nearly decade-long growth, the attraction has hosted weddings, birthday parties, wine tastings and even kangaroo yoga events on its grounds.

That’s quite a wild journey for a place that was once just a barn on a hill.


Barn Hill Preserve is at 11342 LA-955 near Ethel. All visits are guided and require reservations. Tours are held daily until 4 p.m. Find out more at barnhillpreserve.com. Reservations are also required for the ziplines at Magnolia Ridge. Find out more at magnoliaridgeadventurepark.com.

This article was originally published in the June 2021 issue of 225 magazine.