(by Whitney Wilson Coy, Westside Editor – July 14, 2007)
As you round a corner, you see three camels crossing a wide open meadow to your right and a mother rhinoceros with her two youngsters to your left.
Within the next fifteen minutes, you also spot giraffes, bison, antelopes, zebras, and wild ponies – just to name a few.
Believe it or not, you are still in Ohio – just about an hour southeast of Columbus.
The Wilds is a wildlife conservation center situated on 10,000 acres of reclaimed strip mined land located just outside of Zanesville. Here, knowledgeable guides take you through open-range animal areas where you can see endangered and exotic species roaming freely in their natural settings.
Visitors to the facility board buses for tours. While many choose open-air buses, closed buses are also available for those who choose to view the animals from an air conditioned setting.
While the bus is traveling the many paved winding roads throughout the park, visitors are not permitted to exit the bus, or to feed or touch the animals.
Animals roam free at the Wilds, so there is no guarantee that visitors will catch more than a glimpse of their favorite animal.
Most of the animals living at the Wilds, however, were born in captivity. Not only are they comfortable with humans, but they are actually curious.
Many animals gather in herds along the road (this is also, conveniently, where they are fed) and bus drivers are happy to stop for a closer look and for photo opportunities.
There are, however, several stops along the way, including Lake Trail, The Wetlands, and The Outpost. These stops are a great place to get out, stretch your legs, and really get a good look around.
Although the Wilds has been in existence since the late 1980s, it has constantly been in a state of change and this summer is no exception.
On July 6, the park took their first visitors through the latest stop on the tour, a new Mid-Sized Carnivore Conservation Center, located on 60 acres of the Wilds.
According to the Wilds Executive Director Evan Blumer, the idea for this center, which currently houses six cheetahs and a group of African wild dogs, began over four years ago.
The Carnivore Center includes elevated walkways and a second-story observation center.
It also includes a cheetah run. This is a mechanical device that uses a cloth lure to exercise the cheetah. Using the run, visitors will be able to see the cheetahs travel up to 40 miles per hour for short periods of time.
“This is the most innovative and maybe the largest center for mid-sized carnivores in the world,” said Blumer.
The project, which cost an estimated $2 million, was funded through the grants from the state of Ohio and the federal government. They also received monetary donations for the project through both corporate partners and private sponsors.
Dan Beetem, director of animal management for the Wilds, explained that a facility such as the center was in dire need in order to help these endangered species repopulate themselves.
“These species are stressed, mainly due to humans,” said Beetem.
Beetem explained that while many facilities, including the Columbus Zoo, house species such as the cheetah for viewing, those facilities aren’t able to offer the animals the space they need to properly breed.
“As you can see, we’ve got a lot to offer,” Beetem added.
Although the center is now open to the public, it is still under construction. While visitors can take advantage of the second-story observation deck and the walkways extended over the cheetah habitats, there is still much more to come.
At its completion, the area will consist of 22 large animal enclosures, as well as facilities for veterinary care and research and intensive animal management.
Visitors walking towards the observation deck will be able to see into the windows of the veterinary areas.
“This is going to give people a chance to see the things that go on here and to get a better understanding of what we do here,” Beetem said.
“It’s a great place,” added Beetem, “We’ve done a a lot here and we’re glad to finally be able to show it off.”
Also in the near future, the Wilds plans to add more cheetahs, as well as dholes, a canine from Asia.
The mission of the Wilds is to advance conservation through science education and personal experience. It is open to the public from May through October.
For more information about the Wilds, visit their Web site at www.thewilds.org.