The Wild Animal Sanctuary has been in operation for over 31 years. However, the Sanctuary was not open to the visiting public until 2003. The reasons behind our not being open hinged entirely on our desire to protect the animals’ health and welfare. Once the Sanctuary was able to create the proper setting - ensuring our animals’ health and happiness - we were glad to have the public visit and learn about our work.
Traditional viewing of captive large carnivores – as in typical zoo situations – is done with relatively small enclosures that are designed to offer visitors an up close view of the animal. This kind of display is usually great for visitors, but provides no respect for the animals’ comfort.
Large carnivores are very territorial and extremely intelligent. Their comfort depends on feeling safe and unrestricted within their territory. This includes having the freedom to choose how much interaction they want to have with each other… as well as how much they would like to have with humans.
In a typical zoo setting, the carnivores are outside and relaxed prior to the facility being opened to the public each day. In these off hours, animals are allowed to move from their indoor areas, to their outdoor areas, uninhibited. During this downtime the animals are generally calm and well adjusted.
However, just prior to the gates being opened for the public - in most situations - the animals’ den doors are purposely closed. This procedure “locks” animals on exhibit, and is done to keep them in direct sight of the visiting public. Yet, this restriction creates serious problems for the animals.
In one respect, they feel enormous pressure as wave after wave of people continue to encroach on their territory... and on the other hand, they find they are unable to move to a safe and secluded space when their den doors are closed.
This is usually when stereotypical pacing so common to zoo settings begins. This nervous behavior emerges when animals feel trapped between the pressures of having strangers infringing on their territory… and their escape route being purposely blocked.
Solution To The Problem
These kinds of pressures are unacceptable, and in order for the Sanctuary to open for public education, a solution had to be found. First and foremost, the animals’ territorial instinct would have to be respected. And secondarily, their freedom would have to be protected at all costs.
After decades of working with large carnivores, the Sanctuary’s Founder and Director, Pat Craig, knew that large carnivores did not consider air or the sky to be territory. This meant the invasive pressure from humans could be alleviated as long as visitors were relegated to elevated walkways and decks.
In addition, giving the animals the option to move away from people if they wanted to – by never restricting their movement - would also help alleviate pressure. And finally, giving the animals’ large acreage habitats with natural vegetation and other amenities would also be an important part of the equation.
Implementing The Solution
In the beginning, as a small non-profit organization, the Sanctuary relied heavily on volunteer labor, as well as donated supplies and cash contributions. Building the necessary infrastructure of elevated walkways and observation decks would be costly, so the Sanctuary had to wait until it could garner the resources needed to complete such a project.
In 2002 the Sanctuary had gathered enough resources to build an initial system of elevated walkways and observation decks. This allowed the Sanctuary to be open to the public – while protecting the welfare of the animals it rescued. A balance was struck between the Sanctuary’s desire to educate people about its mission… and wanting to continue providing the very best environment possible for the animals.
Initially, the system worked extremely well – creating an environment where the animals felt no pressure from the visiting public… while providing unprecedented access for the Sanctuary’s modest number of visitors. The main compound and open habitats created a wonderful educational platform for visitors, and the animals enjoyed plenty of freedom.
Expanding The Success
Over time, as visitors would tell friends and family about the Sanctuary - encouraging them to visit us as well – attendance numbers continually grew. And as more animals were rescued, the Sanctuary’s habitat system continued to grow as well. With all this natural growth, it was clear the original observation system would need to be expanded.
By 2010 the Sanctuary had nearly 50,000 annual visitors, and its animal habitat system covered nearly 240 acres of land. The observation system would need to be expanded in order to handle more human traffic - as well as to allow people to access the Sanctuary’s broadening system of habitats. Plans were made to begin expanding the walkways and observation decks within the next few years.
However, in early 2011, with the arrival of the 25 Lions rescued from Bolivia, the Sanctuary expanded its habitat system by another 80 acres, and also added a state-of-the-art 15,000 sq. ft. lion house. With extensive national and international media coverage, the Sanctuary’s annual attendance figures quickly doubled to over 100,000 visitors. It was clear the “Mile Into The Wild” walkway expansion project needed to be initiated sooner than expected.
By mid-summer 2011, the Sanctuary had begun the initial phase of its “Mile Into The Wild” walkway project. The new system of elevated walkways and observation decks would add an additional 4,600 feet of walkways to the existing system, and would connect the Sanctuary’s original complex at the south end of the refuge, to the rest of its habitats and Bolivian Lion Complex at the northern edge of its current habitat system.
As of April of 2012, visitors are now able to view all of the Sanctuary’s animals by utilizing the elevated walkway to stroll over dozens of habitats filled with Tiger families, Wolf packs, Grizzly Bears and many other rescued exotic and endangered species - as they make their way to the Bolivian Lion Complex. When they reach the Lion House at the end of the first phase of the Mile Into The Wild walkway, visitors will enjoy the view from inside the Lion House via its 22’ elevated observation deck that spans more than 4,000 sq. ft.
With the purchase of an additional 400 acres in 2011, the Sanctuary expects to further develop its habitats in the coming years. As new habitats get completed, the Mile Into The Wild walkway will continue to be expanded over those areas as well. Once completed, the walkway will be well over 15,000 feet long – providing visitors with nearly 3 miles of unparalleled viewing and learning experiences.
Groundbreaking Concept For Carnivores
Much like the San Diego Wild Animal Park was to traditional zoos – by being the first zoo to provide wide open living conditions for roaming herds of Gazelle and other exotic hoof-stock… the Wild Animal Sanctuary will continue to be the only facility in the United States that provides free roaming large acreage habitats for rescued carnivores. The facility is like no other, a place where visitors can see prides of African Lions roaming freely… groups of Tigers swimming in lakes… and Bears and Wolves wandering freely in wide open spaces.
Since the Sanctuary is open until sunset, giving visitors even more unique access to the animals. “Wild Nights” are a great way for visitors to skip the heat of the day, while gaining the benefit of seeing lots of exciting activity during the cool evening hours. At sunset, the Sanctuary’s numerous lion prides and wolf packs begin to roar and howl in order to mark their territories - creating a truly magnificent wildlife concert!
With the addition of the Mile Into The Wild walkway, Denver and The Wild Animal Sanctuary are quickly becoming a world class destination. People from all over the United States and many countries around the world have come to the Sanctuary to experience its wide open spaces and see hundreds of rescued animals roaming freely.
Support And Enjoy The Experience
The Sanctuary is open year round and its staff and volunteers look forward to talking with visitors to help them learn more about America’s Captive Wildlife Crisis. For more information about donating to this wonderful project – and getting your own personalized plaque on the Mile Into The Wild walkway - go to the Sanctuary’s e-commerce web site – www.WildAnimalSanctuaryStore.com – and then click on the Mile Into The Wild icon.