By Ken Singer
First of all, it is not a zoo. Home to over 500 animals rescued or confiscated from roadside zoos, circuses, and private owners who couldn’t care for them (or had them removed by animal welfare organizations), The Wildlife
Animal Sanctuary (TWAS) was the final Parks & Recreation trip for local seniors last week.
Located on more than 900 acres in Keenesburg, about an hour east of Lyons, 16 visitors from the town (plus three more out-of-town relatives of Jim and Kate Kerr) toured the facility to see the many animals that live in over 80 “areas” that provide habitats which are much more humane and natural than the ones they once inhabited.
A one and one-half mile elevated boardwalk (not a loop, so the tour is three miles; wheelchairs are available for visitors unable to walk that far) takes visitors over the habitats so the animals don’t feel threatened. While the mostly treeless panorama is typical of the Eastern Plains, concrete pipes allow the animals to shelter from the heat in summer and other pipes are buried in the ground which keeps the temperatures there at about 60 degrees. There are also climbing platforms and bridges in some of the enclosures.
There are fences that prevent different species or aggressive animals from harming each other, but each new carnivore spends weeks or months in separate enclosures to permit them to get used to new neighbors and the new sights, smells, and humans (many previous owners of the animals were often cruel to them). Then, they are brought into their habitats to socialize with similar animals.
Volunteer guides provide answers from the 200,000 annual visitors, with questions like, “How many pounds of meat do the animals get?” (20,000 lbs a week),”Where do you get the meat from?” (surprisingly from Walmart for the most part, donating about-to-expire chicken, pork, and beef from 58 stores along the Front Range), “How is it prepared, do you just toss chickens into the areas?” (the meat is ground up with added nutrients, put in pans holding five lbs, and frozen. That way, the animals can take their time to eat and not get territorial in hoarding a carcass. The older animals or those whose teeth were filed down get softer, thawed food.)
The bears get an additional 15,000 lbs of food to prepare them for hibernation. They also get bacon, sausage, fish, fruit, and other goodies that the other carnivores don’t get. In addition to brown and black bears, TWAS is home to two Kodiak grizzlies, each weighing ¾ of a ton. All of the food is taken to a building known as the Carnivore Nutrition Center where the two delivery trucks bring the donated food for processing.
A full time veterinarian is on staff along with a fully equipped hospital which provides vaccinations, deworming and complex surgeries. However, the costs are not subsidized by governments and the facility depends on donations from Walmart and others for food ($8,000 a year for each of the big animals; $6,000 for leopards, mountain lions and wolves; and small animals, such as bobcats, run $4,000 apiece.)
Most of the 500 animals have names, according to the visitors’ guide. They also come with a story of how they were obtained. Some of the stories are fairly heartbreaking. A municipal zoo in Argentina that was rated as one of the ten worst zoos in the world, shut down and TWAS took in three tigers, two lions and two grizzly bears. The Bolivian government closed a number of circuses in 2011, and TWAS took in 25 lions. (There is a “60 Minutes” piece on the Bolivian lions that you can see on You Tube.)
Other sad examples included roadside zoos or gas stations, which caged bears, tigers or lions for tourists. Sometimes, zoos around the US and other countries rescued mistreated animals and in turn couldn’t handle the “rescues” and looked to TWAS to take them off their hands. A particularly awful story was that of two grizzlies who were in a Russian circus where they lived in a truck for 17 years. The owner had them addicted to nicotine to perform and when they got to TWAS, they had withdrawal symptoms. (No smoking is allowed at the facility and if you accidentally drop your hat or camera/phone from the boardwalk, they tell you in advance that no one will retrieve it for you.)
A surprising number of the rescues came from private citizens around the US and Canada where people thought that they could raise a lion cub, wolf (or hybrid wolf-dog) pup, or other baby animal. When the cub or pup was grown, they realized that it would not be tamed, and either turned the animal over to wildlife authorities or released it into the wild where it didn’t have the natural skills to hunt.
TWAS is licensed by the State of Colorado, the USDA, and the US Fish and Wildlife Services as a zoological facility. There are about 45 paid staff and 150 volunteers. A new facility is being set up on the Eastern Plains. However, it will not be open to the public, but the Keenesburg sanctuary is not closing.
Located about 190 miles from TWAS, this new 9000 acre sanctuary features very different terrain from Keenesburg. It has topography that provides natural ledges, dens, caves, canyons, trees, and accessible water which will make it much closer to the animals’ original habitats. Since it is so remote, staff setting up the fencing and electric lines have to stay in the closest town, Springfield, 25 miles away “as the crow flies.” There are no paved roads nearby and it is in very rural Baca County (population 3,700).
There are no plans to have visitors at the new sanctuary (and from the brochure heralding this project, no word on how they will feed the animals), but the $7 million property is taking donations from the public, so if you are an animal lover, you can contribute to the new project or the existing one in Keenesburg.