(Wild) dog-day afternoon

Staff Writer
Columbus Parent

We were at the Wilds, the 10,000-acre home of mostly endangered animals, who are safe, happy and raising families to stave off extinction. Their natural habitats range from Africa, Mongolia and Asia to other exotic faraway places. We were riding in a canopied open van that wandered up and down the rutted roadway, listening to our tour guide, Sandy. She was a font of fascinating information.

When we came upon a group of animals, she stopped the van and encouraged us to take photos. I was on the trip to write this story, but often forgot to take notes, being fascinated by Sandy's running commentary.

As most of our readers know, I am often accompanied on press trips by my grandsons, Michael and Evan. Michael, 16, increasingly prefers to stay home and hang with his friends. I was happy to have along Evan (12) and his friend Ben, who at 10 years old is smart and curious and into photography. Evan's grandpa also joined us. We had a wonderful time and learned much more than we thought we would.

Sandy told us how the area had been strip-mined by a coal company owned by a local power corporation. The power company gave the 10,000 acres to an animal conservation group, which became the Wilds.

The first visitors explored the facility in 1994. The idea was to teach the public about conservation projects that relate to rare and endangered species from around the world, by letting people in the open-range animal areas.

As we bounced along the dirt roads, Sandy told us we were headed for the inner sanctum where the exotic non-indigenous animals live and thrive. It wasn't long until we saw three one-horned Asian rhinos snoozing rump to rump under a tree.

Sandy stopped the van and told us about the rhinos as we snapped photos. "Most people," she said, "compare the skin of the rhino to plates of armor, and that's what it looks like. But actually, their skin is very delicate and in the winter it must be moisturized so it doesn't dry out."

This brought up a question that communications officer Toni Keller told me later was one of the most-asked by visitors. "What do you do with the animals from Africa, where it is very hot year-round, during the Ohio winter?" Sandy assured us they are kept inside in special heated houses from November until May. In the fall, the Wilds is open only on weekends in September and October and then closes for the winter.

It wasn't long until we came upon a herd of Mongolian wild horses on one side of the road and three giraffes on the other. The horses were totally extinct in the wild, but thanks to intensive conservation efforts, there are now around 500 of them in the world.

The horses came up to the van out of curiosity, but kids were advised not to touch them since they are not usually friendly. The giraffes, however, remained aloof and weren't the least bit curious about their visitors.

As we passed through solar-operated gates on the 2 1/2-hour trip, we saw many animals, birds and fish.

We bumped along to the Carnivore Center, which was added in 2007. We saw wild dogs, a cheetah, and the red fox-like dhole. Sandy told us female cheetahs are very choosy about the available males at breeding time.

If they don't like them, they won't mate with them - which happened at the Wilds. The researchers invited a reproduction specialist from the National Zoo, and a female cheetah was anesthetized and artificially inseminated. I guess there's more than one way to skin a cat and to make a baby cheetah.

The layout of the Wilds is required by law for safety. The innermost facility is the Carnivore Center with two sets of fencing.

The separately enclosed Center is inside the fence that encircles the foreign species. Beyond that is a larger section where North American indigenous species live. And beyond that is an unfenced area where bison are allowed to roam free.

There is so much more to tell, but you really must take the family to see the Wilds. Our boys loved it. Evan declared it was the most fun he'd had since he went to Disney World several years ago.

The Wilds is open every weekend in September and October.

The Web site is a must-see: www.thewilds.org.


The Wilds

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Conservation is the name of The Wilds' game