A local couple's chance meeting at the Knoxville Zoo has led to one of East Tennessee's most popular safari adventure parks.

Matt and Christy Michel meet at the Knoxville Zoo; he was operating camel rides, she was there with her niece.

Matt, who goes by "Gumby" remembers Christy (who was a student at the UT College of Veterinary Medicine), was looking for employment.

"She was in town with her family and had just moved back here from Arizona and she was taking her niece out to the zoo," said Matt. "She gave me her phone number. We were co-workers for, shoot, 6 or 7 years before we ever dated."

The two ran their camel ride business but always had plans to do something with the property they owned on Thorngrove Pike in Strawberry Plains (Sevier County).

"We were doing the short rides, the novelty rides, and the biggest complaint was the ride was too short and we thought 'you know, it would be really cool to do a longer ride, a 1-hour ride or 2-hour safari' and that's what got us started on it," said Matt.

The couple married in 2004 and in 2005 they expanded both professionally and personally with the opening of Circle G Ranch and the birth of their son, Cash.

"This is his world. You know, he's this is his deal," said Matt. "He's going to take things, a lot of things, to the next level. Gotta trump dad, you know."

Circle G Ranch houses over 500 animals and 40 different species.

"We've got a lot of different stock from all over the world," said Matt. "We've got ostriches, antelope from India, ostrich, emu, guinea fowl,water buffalo, cattle, a lot of variety of things something from almost every continent except, Antarctica, obviously."

Guests can walk around and see pigs, chickens, camels, horses and tortoises or they can drive the 3-mile property and see more exotic animals.

"People love it all. The pigs are very popular with everybody. That and the rabbits. Kids love that rabbit," laughed Matt. "We got an Angus cow, she's super friendly. She loves to lick everybody. Everybody talks about that. It doesn't have to be exotic to be cool it's the experience of getting to touch stuff and handle things and smell their breath and get slobbered on a bit and get your hands dirty."

With the exception of an existing barn, the Michels built Circle G Ranch from the ground up and while the work they've done is hard, they don't consider it a job.

"It's a labor of love, for sure, it's what we love doing. What I love doing. We get to spend time with animals and kids all day long and that's what, you know, we're trying to earn a living. We're trying to avoid a real job."

Circle G Ranch is open seven days a week from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. For more information visit

VIDEO: Growing up in a zoo- an interview with Cash Michel

VIDEO: Take a camel ride at Circle G Ranch

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