Ohio facility opens center for cheetahs, other carnivores

Two-story building, mid-sized carnivores like cheetahs, wild dogs from Asia and Africa part of $5 million project
By Bob Downing
Beacon journal staff writer

CUMBERLAND – There’s something new at The Wilds.

The wild animal/conservation facility is opening a new venue in east-central Ohio: the $5 million Mid-Sized Carnivore Conservation Center. That’s where visitors will be able to see and learn about cheetahs, African wild dogs and dholes.

Dholes are Asian wild dogs. They are the so-called red dogs of The Jungle Book.

The Wilds will become the second facility in the United States and the third in North America to house dholes. Dhole numbers have plummeted in Asia due to loss of habitat, persecution as a pest and vermin and dog-related illnesses.

The new center, scheduled to open early this month, covers 60 acres and includes 22 enclosures ranging in size from one to three acres with special fencing to keep the predators in.

A two-story building will house offices, a veterinary clinic and a public viewing deck. Elevated walkways will connect the main building to viewing overlooks and a central park area.

The facility was built with $1 million in state money and $600,000 in federal funds.

The center is the first major animal addition in years to The Wilds, a refocused operation that defies easy description. It is part Noah’s Ark for endangered species, part drive-through zoo, part animal breeding farm, part scientific research facility and part tourist attraction.

Its mission is conservation and research but it needs tourism to survive. It has been called the conservation center for the 21st century and tries to showcase its work, not exhibits.

The Wilds was nearly forced to close in 2001 and 2002 due to financial problems. But it was reorganized and is doing well.

The facility also offers workshops and classes and other activities including bird and butterfly watching, mountain biking and fly fishing.

Officially known as the International Center for the Preservation of Wild Animals, The Wilds is only two hours from Akron and makes a pretty cool one-day trip for families. Located between Zanesville and Cambridge, about 70 miles east of Columbus, it is expecting 70,000 visitors this year, said director Evan S. Blumer.

400 mammals

The Wilds is a place that appeals to Discovery Channel viewers and nature lovers. It has nearly 400 mammals of 25 species from all parts of the globe, many in grassy fenced-off pastures that visitors can view on guided trips aboard open-air vehicles or air-conditioned buses.

Some are familiar: giraffes (there are three species), bison, rhinoceros and zebra. Some are not exactly household names: Przewalski’s wild horses, bantengs, gorals and scimitar-horned oryxes.

Its emphasis up to the opening of the new carnivore center has been hoofed mammals — species like the Sichuan takin, Bactrian camels, common eland, Persian onager and sable antelope.

About 75 percent of the animals at The Wilds are extinct in the wild or threatened. For example, the Pere David deer were hunted to extinction in China. The animals — with webbed hoofs and antlers that are on backward from other deer — survived only on the grounds of the emperor’s palace in Beijing.

In the late 1800s, zoologist and missionary Father Armand Davis became entranced by the deer and had 18 of them shipped to Europe. The animals that remained in China died or were killed off.

Most of the animals at The Wilds are on loan from zoos.

Some of the animals you will likely see up close. Others may require binoculars to get a good view. It all depends on how cooperative the critters are on the day of your visit.

On my recent visit, one Masai giraffe came close, within 25 feet. And the wild horses from Asia — a personal favorite of mine — blocked our tram for a few minutes. But the zebra and the rhinos were visible only from long distance.

The narrated tours start from the visitor center atop a ridge on the 10,000 acres that was once a strip mine in Muskingum County. The land was donated by the American Electric Power of Columbus.

The two-hour trips include stops at a lake where you can feed catfish and a wetland where a guide showed youngsters a 25-pound snapping turtle.

New this year: Bus passengers can get off at the four stops and board other buses. Previously, you rode the same bus through the facility. The change is designed to let visitors spend the time they want at four stops.

If zoos are broad and shallow, then The Wilds is narrow and deep, Blumer said.

Survival, education

The Wilds is not after random breeding. It is after the best matchups possible to create the best gene pools to improve each species’ chances of survival under species’ survival plans.

Blumer has a vision for The Wilds.

He wants to see it become an international center for wildlife conservation and, at the same time, to become a Chautauqua Institute-type facility that would appeal to families interested in nature, the environment and wildlife conservation.

“That’s really our direction — and there’s nothing like it in the Midwest,” he said. He sees more “in-depth immersive experiences” offered to the public in the future.

The Wilds is offering an array of special programs including family camps, teen veterinary camps and camps for youngsters 8 to 19. Campers will stay in the yurt village at The Wilds. The Wilds has been getting 1,000 overnight campers and 1,400 day campers per year. Blumer likened the potential appeal of The Wilds to space camps that draw youngsters and adults.

The Wilds also rents one 12-person lodge next to a fishing lake on the grounds and additional overnight facilities are envisioned to draw corporate retreats and vacationers.

Today, 17 colleges and universities conduct research at The Wilds, and a new building to house the researchers is on the drawing boards, Blumer said. Its grasslands have been designated an Important Bird Area by the Audubon Society. There is a Birding Station off state Route 284. More than 150 bird species live and breed at The Wilds. It also gets migrating visitors like golden eagles.

There are 15 miles of mountain bike trails north of state Route 146. Fly-fishing excursions for members on 100 lakes and ponds will be arranged by Mad River Outfitters in Columbus. (www.madriveroutfitters.com).

Open to public since ’94

The Wilds was incorporated in 1984 and took in its first animals in 1991. It opened to the public in 1994. It was initially supported by five Ohio zoos (Akron was one) and the Pittsburgh Zoo. That agreement is no longer in place, but The Wilds has an agreement with the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium that helped keep it alive. It drew its peak attendance, 91,000, in 1998.

Today, The Wilds operates on a yearly budget of $3.2 million with about $500,000 or 18 percent of the budget coming from the state of Ohio. The state allocation has dropped from $1 million a year.

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays in May, September and October. It is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays in June, July and August.

For bus tours that last 90 minutes, tickets are $18 for adults, $17 for senior citizens and $13 for children 4 through 12. For open-air trips that run two hours, tickets are $25.

The Wilds also offers sunset trips that include a buffet dinner on Saturdays from June through September. Tickets are $60 a person.

To get to The Wilds from Akron, take Interstate 77 south to Cambridge. Head west on I-70 toward Columbus. Exit at state Route 83 (Exit 169). Go south 12 miles to Cumberland. Go west five miles on state Route 146 to Zion Ridge Road. Drive 3.5 miles and turn left on state Route 284. Proceed one mile and turn left on International Road. Proceed a half mile to the entrance. Be warned that the three main routes off the interstates to The Wilds are on back roads and are not well signed. No pets allowed on the property.

For more information, contact The Wilds at 14000 International Road, Cumberland, OH 43732, 740-638-5030, Ext. 2286. The Internet site is www.thewilds.org.

Bob Downing can be reached at 330-996-3745 or bdowning@thebeaconjournal.com.

http://www.ohio.com/mld/beaconjournal/living/17314559.htm

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