Feeling a little wild? Make the trek to Bama Bucks for artfully prepared wild game.
Alli-GADOR! Yum!” My four-year-old niece shoves yet another golden-brown nugget of surprisingly tender fried gator in her mouth, still professing her love for the appetizer that she has almost single-handedly finished as she chews.“Catherine Barrett, close your mouth,” my mom says.
“But I vuuuuuv this!” she protests.
“We know, but tell us once you swallow,” my mom pleads again. On a Friday evening – before the COVID-19 pandemic – my family and I are having dinner at Bama Bucks in Boaz, in Alabama’s northeast corner. It’s just about 6 p.m., and despite the restaurant’s somewhat out-of-the way location plus the dark clouds and high winds of the severe weather threat headed our way, the dining room is almost packed. “Sometimes, the wait for a table on a Saturday night hits three hours,” says owner Terry Turk, who I’m chatting with while we eat.They come for expertly prepared and artfully presented dishes of wild game, including selections
like the afore-mentioned gator bites, sausage trio (elk, bison and wild boar), grilled red stag venison and roasted pheasant breast drizzled with raspberry reduction, as well as more traditional proteins such as angus sirloin and pecan-bourbon chicken.
All of these items are enjoyed in lodge-like surroundings, warm wood everywhere, a massive stone fireplace and taxidermized animals anchoring the decor. And while the food is great, the service attentive and the atmosphere welcoming, the restaurant at Bama Bucks is only part of its appeal. The real attractions are out back, grazing and strolling among the 25 acres of Bama Bucks exotic animal park, some of which you can see out the large windows forming the back wall of the dining room.
Now home to elk, antelope, camels, kangaroos, bison, alligators, ostriches, black bears, fallow and whitetail deer, turkeys, owls and more, the foundations of Bama Bucks were laid in Turk’s heart decades earlier, when he was a kid making pets of possums and raccoons and birds he’d round up and adopt.
“I’ve had a love of the outdoors and of animals all of my life,” he says. His affection for wildlife didn’t fade as he grew, and in 1998, the operations superintendent for Marshall-DeKalb Electric Coopeative got his first whitetail deer. “I was in Florence, Alabama, doing restoration work after a storm, and I met a guy who had a game farm up there. He had deer, and I had helped a friend take care of an injured deer a while back and thought it would be nice to have one, so he set me up,” Turk says. Then he got a few more. Soon, he had 250.
Then in 2006, he branched out and got an elk. Not long after, he added a kangaroo, and his menagerie kept growing from there. At some point, he and his wife realized others might enjoy their animals too, so they created Bama Bucks, which opened to the public in late 2018. “We know we are so blessed to be the caretakers of all these animals, and so we wanted to share them,” Turk says.
Up-close and personal
The response was huge, and up until March, Bama Bucks drew approximately 1,200 to 1,500 people each weekend to view the array of animals, most in large, fenced pasture-like enclosures, and to have pretty personal encounters with a few of them, including the opportunity to pet some of the smaller animals (like the wide-eyed ring-tailed lemurs) or to sit atop a camel named Bo and take a leisurely ride.
Friendly staff members are ready and able to answer all kinds of questions, and educating visitors is a key piece of Bama Bucks mission. (As is making sure people know that the animals in the park never end up on the menu; the wild game at the restaurant comes from game farms that raise meat specifically for eating.)
Turk admits he gets
just as much out of guests’ experiences as they do. “I love seeing people have real ‘firsts’ here, like their first time seeing a bull elk up close or their first time holding a baby kangaroo. I love seeing their faces light up,” he says. He also gets a kick out of meeting all of his guests, and they come from all over. “We get people from across the state and all over the Southeast and beyond,” he says.
Making new friends out of visitors is a definite work perk, but the animals are Turk’s true love; he considers them family. Almost all of them have names, and one special deer is even named after his dad, Charlie. Charlie the deer is mostly white with a few bits of a whitetail’s brownish-grey coat peeking through. His interesting appearance often draws questions, giving Turk the chance to tell his story.
One day a few years ago, Turk’s dad got some good news: He’d be able to undergo the surgery needed to remove his brain tumor. That same day, a severely deformed deer was born at Bama Bucks. “The fawn was a piebald (a genetic mutation causing white spots on the coat) and had multiple leg abnormalities, and his own father was trying to kill him. That’s the way things work in the wild,” Turk says. But he rescued the baby deer, and after several surgeries, his legs were fixed, and he grew into a healthy adult. He’s now a guest favorite, and one of the first animals most visitors see, often walking to the fence of the enclosure he shares with a few kangaroos when people approach as if to say “hi.” “Charlie’s a sweetheart, and he gets along good with the kangaroos,” Turk says. “Bo the camel also really loves folks.”
Another facet of the operation, one visitors don’t see, is Turk’s deer breeding program, which began when he got his first deer more than two decades ago. He’s now a licensed game and exhibit breeder, and his program brings about 100 whitetail deer fawns into the world each year.
Turk remains invigorated by the thousands of guests who come to see his animals every month, and he relishes the reviews he gets on the restaurant, too. “We worked hard on the menu, and our kitchen team is top-notch, so it’s great to know people really like the food,” he says, “and looks like that’s true of this one here.” He points to my nephew, who’s fast digging into a 12-ounce bison ribeye resting on creamy mashed potatoes and crowned with fried onions.
But praise isn’t what he most likes to hear. “It’s the stories,” he says. “Being here, around our animals, always gets people talking. They’ll tell me about the time they saw an albino deer, or when they were a kid, fishing with their dad and reeled in a giant bass. That’s the real fun of this. Sharing experiences from the outdoors and about the wonders of nature with others.”
Editor’s note: Bama Bucks was set to reopen after the COVID-19 shutdowns on June 18, before this issue went to press. Bama Bucks has and will continue to follow all current guidelines for safely conducting business.
Bama Bucks Restaurant and Exotic Animal Park
Address: 292 Bryant Road, Boaz, AL 35956
Hours: 4 to 9 p.m. Thursday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Saturday; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday