Letter from the director...
Ever since the first day we started taking in animals 39 years ago, I know that I always wanted TWAS to be different. I didn’t want to rescue animals and then stick them in cages that might be a little better than where they came from, and I definitely didn’t want to just feed them a little better food or just give them a little cleaner surface to lie on.
There was no point in saving their lives if we weren’t going to be able to make a major difference for each and every animal we took in. So, from the very first animal we rescued, I made a promise that TWAS would break the mold of a typical zoo or shelter and create something entirely different.
Of course that was easier said than done. The first obstacle in my path to creating an oasis for rescued animals was government regulations. You see, back in 1979 most all of the regulations that pertained to captive wildlife required animals like lions, tigers and bears to be kept in concrete and steel cages. But the last thing I wanted to do was to stuff a rescued animal into a tiny concrete and steel cage and warehouse it until the day it died. That was absolutely out of the question. I had to come up with a way to circumvent the status quo.
So initially I had to build zoo-like cages for the animals we rescued, to get licensed by state and federal agencies. At the same time, I realized that loopholes in the law would allow me to let the animals out of their cages to exercise on a daily basis. I was able to build large-acreage habitats that the animals could be released into each day so they could spend every bit of their waking moments running freely in natural spaces.
This is the origin of concept of TWAS as it exists today. By being allowed to experiment with large-acreage habitats, while still asking the animals to come back to their enclosures to sleep at night, I was able to learn a great deal about how these animals interpret territory, social encounters, family building and a whole host of other critical traits and instincts.
This information was critically important if TWAS were going to eventually create a whole new way to house and care for captive wildlife.
During our first decade, I garnered an incredible amount of insight into how these animals see each other--and human beings. I was amazed at the complexity of their societies and the difference between each species. I came to understand important perceptions they had that related to their environment and how they adapted to being restrained in captive situations.
We now understood how for thousands of years man has misinterpreted the way we should integrate with animals, both in the wild and in captive settings. Our entire standardized system of displaying animals in captivity has been wrong, and so has the way we venture forth into the wilds to see animals in their natural habitat.
You see, all animals, from the wildest of lions to the tamest of rabbits, chickens, dogs or goats, require their own territory. This instinct even exists within each of us as human beings.
All creatures on earth need a space where they can function in a manner that will provide the food, shelter and safety. So even though most of us can see how wild lions and tigers need to protect their territory from other carnivores, we tend to become blind to those same needs in captive animals.
Look at how we function as humans, with each of us living in a house, apartment or other shelter that we call home. This is our innermost territory, a place where we can shut out the world and come home to at the end of a long day to feel safe and gain sustenance. For many, this is the space where we feel safe enough to raise our human cubs, and it’s also the space where we stockpile our food, clothing and other supplies and protect ourselves when we are the most vulnerable (as we sleep).
Our domestic pets are more or less forced to adapt to our established territories and accept them as theirs. They utilize our house or apartment to gain many of the same securities and life-sustaining elements needed to survive. And animals that live on farms or ranches must do the same by finding ways to utilize the facilities and general confinement they are given.
In the end, we as humans build houses and fence in our back yards to clearly define our territory to the rest of the world and to prevent others from breaching our security zone. We create secondary territories where we go to work, shop and do many of the things we repeat on a regular basis.
However, two instinctual behaviors distinguish our living within civilization from an animal living in the wild. We know that in the wild animals have what are known as the “fight or flight” mechanisms in dangerous situations. In an ideal setting when a lion or a tiger encounters another lion or tiger encroaching on its territory, it will chose to fight or flee, depending on the circumstance.
If its survival will be jeopardized by the intrusion, most likely the lion or tiger will fight to defend its territory. If it begins to lose the fight, it may run away to survive. This concept seems understandable to us when we think of animals in wild situations, but it also applies to all of us, no matter where we are.
For captive animals with barriers that limit their movement, they see their territory as being the space they live within, no matter how large or small that may be. For them, in most cases, their ability to fight has been compromised, as they cannot breach the barrier between them and any animal or human that approaches their territory.
With their ability to defend their territory disabled, they have no option but to retreat, to go as far away as possible. In most cases, the zoo or other facility will choose to close the door to their den yet they will remain visible to onlookers. This creates a situation where they feel trapped between the incredible pressure of dozens, or sometimes hundreds, of strangers standing at the edge of their territory and the added confusion related to a sudden inability to enter their den.
This is when they begin to lose the ability to function normally. They will usually start to pace back and forth. This type of reaction is called stereotypic behavior, which means the animal is doing something abnormal to discharge tension or express frustration with this perceived life-threatening situation.
Basically, they’re caught between a rock and a hard spot. Ideally, they would at least be given the chance to go into their dens and get away from the threatening people, but the vast majority of zoos and parks choose to close off their dens while they will remain in full public view.
Here at TWAS, we decided we would not be able to have the public view the animals and learn about the vital work we do if it involved the broken animal display system that had been in place for centuries. The only way we would ever allow guests on a regular basis would be if we found a way to relieve the pressure of strangers encroaching on the animals’ territory.
The good news is we were able to use the insight and understanding we garnered early on to accomplish this goal.
One very clear aspect of an animal’s perception of territory revolves around the idea that air—sky--is not part of what is considered to be their territory, and everything that does mean “territory” exists only at ground level.
If I or any of our volunteers or staff were up on a roof or somehow elevated above the animals as we worked on buildings or infrastructure, it was obvious they seemed not to care about our presence--no matter how much noise or commotion we were creating. For whatever reason, lions, tigers and many other animals choose to disconnect threats when they are not at ground level.
That fact was a real game changer for us. It allowed us to protect the sovereignty of the animals’ domain while allowing the public to be present. Our elevated observation decks and walkways allowed us to educate the public about our work relating to the captive wildlife crisis, and guaranteed that the animals we rescued would be able to continue to enjoy their newly enriched lives here at TWAS...
This single shift in understanding the way wild animals, captive animals and people need to have their territorial instincts respected and protected to coexist peacefully should become the new basis for animal exhibition in modern-day society.
We see the proof of this every day, as thousands of people come to TWAS to view rescued animals from our elevated platforms and walkway and witness animals enjoying their new home in complete tranquility.
It was never our goal to be open to the public, nor was it our goal to change the way animals are viewed in captive situations. However, we realized that education would always be a critical component in solving many of the problems associated with captive wildlife, and we came to terms with the idea that we would have no choice but to resolve the undeniable conflicts associated with mingling strangers and animals.
We were fortunate to have so many dedicated supporters who believed in our ability to create a sanctuary where an animal’s well-being would always remain top priority. We will never be able to thank everyone enough for making our unique and pioneering observation system a reality. Over time, we have found great solace in receiving new contacts from zoos and other sanctuaries on a regular basis asking how they can change their old-world public viewing protocols into something that would relieve the pressure on their animals.
I believe the concept of elevated walkways and observation platforms is the future of human/animal observation, and that every person who cares about the well-being of any animal viewed by the public (both in captivity and in the wild) should petition every institution or wildlife adventure operator to utilize elevated platform--or discontinue allowing their animals’ territorial instincts to be violated.
The great thing about this important change is how obvious it is to even the least experienced person who visits TWAS. Everyone from small children to adults quickly interprets the ease and calm demeanor of our animals as being a direct result of the absence of this pressure. I always enjoy taking the time to walk our Mile Into The Wild Walkway, as every person I meet is more than anxious to engage me in a conversation about how different our animals are. They are happy to let me know how amazing our animals’ behaviors are, and how they seem so happy and devoid of concern with their presence.
It does my heart good to hear their praise, as I know how important their understanding of this new concept truly is. For they are the vehicle with which our message will travel back into the world at large, and through whom real change will come about for animals that are still foundering in ground-based settings.
I owe every visitor to TWAS my sincere gratitude for taking the time to come learn about the captive wildlife crisis and the work we do to combat it–and for discerning the difference our elevated viewing system makes in the lives of every animal we have saved. Their inspiration gives me hope that one day we will all look back on how people used to view wildlife, no matter what setting they were in, and that our children and grandchildren will ask us why we ever allowed it to be that way.
I want to thank you for being a major part of our success, and for helping us to achieve our goals no matter how odd they may seem at times. Through your trust and support comes meaningful change, and I am more than humbled by your belief in what we do as a public non-profit entity.
Knowing how happy and content our animals are with their lives brings everyone great pleasure, and we will continue to take their success stories and employ them as motivational fuel in our continued efforts to save the lives of other animals in need.
Thank you for everything you do to help the animals…