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After a long career with some of the nation’s most famous zoos, Rick Barongi ’74 realized his vision for a conservation park in Texas

By Lindsay Lennon

It was January 2022, and an 11-second video that had just hit TikTok was about to be a game-changer for Rick Barongi ’74. Posted by a Texas tourism account, it was shot in the Giraffe Suite of Longneck Manor, the 100-acre nonprofit conservation park and guest facility that Barongi had opened several months earlier in pastoral Fredericksburg—a tiny city steeped in German heritage at the heart of the state’s burgeoning wine country.

“Imagine a place in Texas where you can wake up with giraffes and rhinos outside your door?” said the description of the video, which has received more than 3 million likes.

A suite-style room with a live giraffe outside the window
The famed Giraffe Suite.

As the TikTok hinted, the suite boasts picture windows overlooking giraffes from every room.

The luxurious, safari-themed space is housed on the second level of a 10,000-square-foot giraffe barn, and equipped with its own climate control and air purification systems.

There’s even a small door in the wall to offer snacks (under the watchful eye of staff), and guests can take supervised strolls on a catwalk for even more face time with the residents.

Imagine a place in Texas where you can wake up with giraffes and rhinos outside your door?

Texas Travel via TikTok

“Our phone started ringing off the hook,” Barongi says of reaction to the video, still in awe more than a year later. “We booked out every night for the whole year within two or three days.”

(The suite remains reserved through 2024, and additional villas opened this year.)

A man poses with a rhino
Longneck’s rhinos include Justin.

Barongi founded Longneck Manor as a niche destination—both for tourists (it’s an easy day trip from Austin or San Antonio) and diehard giraffe enthusiasts.

After spending nearly half a century at some of the country’s most notable animal attractions, including Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the San Diego Zoo, he’d long craved the opportunity to give visitors a more bespoke experience.

Before embarking on Longneck, Barongi—who holds a master’s in zoology from Rutgers—spent 15 years as director of the Houston Zoo, until his retirement in 2015.

He sits on several wildlife conservation boards, including the International Rhino Foundation, and has traveled to Africa more than 50 times, both on conservation missions and photography safaris.

After working in various positions for the San Diego Zoo, Barongi spent most of the ’90s as director of animal programs for the Walt Disney Company, where he helped lead the design and construction of Animal Kingdom.

(The job sparked an enduring friendship with famed conservationist Jane Goodall, who consulted on the park’s development.)

Safari Mickey Mouse and Rick Barongi at Animal Kingdom
With “Safari Mickey” atop the Tree of Life during construction of Disney’s Animal Kingdom, which opened in 1998.

Barongi also spearheaded creation of the Disney Conservation Fund, which the company says has directed more than $120 million in grant funding and other support for wildlife protection efforts since 1995.

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“These big zoos are very good facilities—but they have thousands of people visiting every day,” says Barongi. “I always thought, when I got older, I’d do something much more intensive, immersive, personalized, exclusive—where I can really reach people.”

Visitors to Longneck Manor receive private tours that include encounters with all its residents: the tower of giraffes (the proper term for a group of them) as well as rhinos, a pair of yellow Labs, and the newest arrival, a two-toed sloth named Bruno.

Since the park is now fully staffed, Barongi doesn’t lead as many tours as he used to. But he still enjoys sharing stories with visitors, whether of the animals or his trips to Africa—a place he calls “a second home.”

He still travels there regularly—including a 70th birthday climb to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro with buddy Bill Konstant ’74, who chronicled the journey for Cornellians.

(They were a day from the summit when his eldest female giraffe, Betty White, gave birth; the staff named the baby girl Kilimanjaro, or Kili for short.)

A sloth hanging upside down in a cage.
Bruno, Longneck’s newest addition.

As a child on Long Island, Barongi says, he was always fascinated with Africa, and relished visits to the Bronx Zoo and Manhattan’s Museum of Natural History.

Although he was on a pre-vet path as a life sciences major in CALS, a five-month trip volunteering with a field veterinarian in East Africa prompted him to shift gears.

“I realized I didn’t really want to be a vet,” he recalls, “but I wanted to work with wild animals.”

A man at the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro
Marking his 70th atop Kilimanjaro.

Barongi stresses that Longneck is “built on a conservation mission”—to save threatened giraffes and endangered rhinos in the wild, as well as to provide optimal care for its own residents, who come from other zoos.

In 2022 alone, Barongi says, the Longneck Manor Conservation Foundation awarded $100,000 to support such efforts around the world.

Barongi stresses that Longneck is “built on a conservation mission.”

“If we can’t save animals in the wild, there’s no sense putting them on display in zoos; I don’t think that’s right,” says Barongi. “We’re making money so we can improve our facilities and the care of our animals, and any excess goes into saving their habitats, so those animals can thrive.”

As Goodall herself wrote in a letter of support for Longneck in 2021: “Rick’s new endeavour will adhere to the highest standards of animal welfare and conservation, while inspiring hope for the future for all species.”

Three humans and two baby chimpanzees
Barongi and Goodall visit a sanctuary for orphaned chimpanzees in West Africa in 2006.

But, as Barongi—who spends much of the year living in a house he built on the Longneck property—admits with a smile, he also had an ulterior motive for founding the conservation park.

“I’ve always wanted to wake up in the morning, look out my window,” he says, “and see giraffes and rhinos in my backyard.”

All images provided.

Published June 7, 2023


  1. Allan Griff, Class of 1954

    Good to read your history. I lived my first 6 yrs in Bronx (no zoo) but raised my children in Manhattan a few minutes from museum and CP zoo, wrote them songs about animals incl giraffe which I’ll try to call so can sing to you. I live in CA now.
    Allan Griff ChemEng 54.

  2. Elizabeth S Broome

    I’m a veterinarian. Had an incredible career before retiring on disability. A NC Zoo externship (my senior yr in vet school) gave me the opportunity to have an exotics specialty while practicing that few vets get to pursue & I am so thankful for that! I am back there now in a PT position & I get to spend a lot of my time with giraffes and rhinos (probably my favorites, along with elephants…but sssshhhhhh! I don’t want the other animals to know this 😉) amongst others & it is the closest thing to Heaven that I can imagine! (I heard Jane Goodall speak many times, met her twice @ speaking arrangements. As well as meeting Jim from Mutual of Omaha’s wild kingdom, Jack Hannah & Steve Irwin along the way!) Exotics have always been my passion. So glad that this has become a reality for Barongi! I will be planning a visit at some point! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Regenia Hicks, Ph.D., Class of 1974

    I’m a Human Ecology HDFS grad. Living in Houston. Congratulations on Barongi. Can’t wait to visit with my 5 year old granddaughter Ezri Grace. Went on safari in Zambia in 2019 which cemented my love of giraffes.

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