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Denver's Wild Animal Sanctuary: a zoo without walls

The Wild Animal Sanctuary


We weren't really sure what to expect with a "wild animal sanctuary" as much of Colorado seemed to be a sanctuary of sorts for animals, wild and otherwise. From the descriptions, it sounded both forbidding and inviting--I just knew that we had to go there to see for ourselves.

Lions, tigers, bears, wolves, all seen from the elevated Mile Walkway into the Wild
Lions, tigers, bears, wolves, all seen from the elevated Mile Walkway into the Wild
Judith Nelson
A moving truck billboard points the way to the Wild Animal Sanctuary
Judith Nelson

But in the 3 years since we moved to Colorado, we hadn't been. Part of the reason was not really knowing exactly where it was and how to get there, and the other part was waiting for the "right" weather conditions. Ironically, the weekend in mid-May we decided to go, it snowed! We gave up that plan and waited until the following weekend when it was 85 degrees. Since it appeared we would only have extremes from which to choose, we foraged for hats and sunscreen, and decided to brave the heat.

We plotted out the location on 2 different mapping apps and finally found a feasible route to what seemed the middle of nowhere. Living south of Denver, we decided to ignore the I-25 route suggested by one app in favor of the toll E-470 route which was much better and faster. But, it definitely seemed to be in the middle of nowhere. Fortunately, signs have been erected to direct clueless travelers after exiting the main road, and an old moving truck, painted like a billboard, tells you where to take your final turn. The website had warned against stopping on the country road that lead to the entrance to the Sanctuary, but it was tempting. The actual wire fences of the sanctuary's border were right at the side of the road. Seeing strangely colored alpacas and huge brown bears almost made us come to a halt for photos, but we complied. I guess it is verboten because, in a more visited time it would create a traffic jam of sorts, if everyone stopped and gaped.

We turned at the entrance and parked easily near the gift shop. This is where you enter and buy your "donation", then begin the short introduction by a staff member prior to entering the raised walkway. Naturally, after this rather long drive, my first question was about available rest room facilities, and the young female volunteer told me where to expect rest facilities on the long walkway. Since I didn't know what to expect, it was good to hear that the walkway had some forms of human comfort.

As it turned out, it was delightful, even if quite hot. One of the suggestions about visiting the sanctuary was choosing a nice day that was not too hot or too cold. The way things change so quickly in Colorado, that was more of a challenge than I imagined. Even though I walk much farther than a mile on the trails here, the "Mile into the Wild Walkway" concerned me a little. Would it be too hot? Could you really see the animals? And, of course, the concern over whether or not there would be rest facilities!

The Sanctuary's 720 acres are broken into habitats for far fewer species of animals than I had imagined. Just beyond the Welcome Center is the transitional area for newly rescued and often abused animals. This allows them to get used to the surroundings before being released to the large habitats. Here we saw mostly tigers. The volunteer who gave us our personal informational talk said that many of the animals had been terribly neglected and abused, and could never really function in the true wilderness again. This was reinforced by the signs labeling each habitat, which identified several specific animals and told about how and why they were rescued. These included two grizzly bears that were part of a Russian circus and lived in a truck for many years. The circus had closed, and the bears suffered nicotine withdrawal after arriving at the sanctuary because the trainer had purposely addicted them to nicotine to enforce their training. Another was seized by the USDA from a photographer who used the bear as a prop in photo shoots. Two others were rescued from a taxidermy business. Others were kept by and rescued from private citizens who misguidedly tried to keep the huge beasts as "pets". Each of the animals has its own sad story, but now each has its own happy ending in The Wild Animal Sanctuary.

One thing that surprised me was that there were fences, albeit ones surrounding large stretches of property. But, it makes sense, as the animals are safest and most comfortable when with only their own kind. Another surprising thing about TWAS was how relatively flat and un-treed it was, as it was located on the plains. For shade and shelter, the animals were given huge sewer-type pipes and sometimes a shaded enclosure. There were stacked empty wire rolls for the big cats to climb, as well as staggered stone hanging perches, as you would expect to see (in a smaller and carpeted fashion) for house cats. The bears also had tire swings. But perhaps the most interesting of all the habitats was the bears' because of their hibernation tunnels.

Soon after beginning your trek on the walkway, you come to a round hut with a restroom (unisex) in the middle. this is the Education Center above the Tiger Roundhouse. The restroom is surrounded by many different video areas showing different aspects of the rescues, transportation of the animals, and hidden parts of the grounds. It was in one video that I saw the well laid out tunnel system for the bears, all of which terminate in a large cement underground hibernation chamber. There are "tunnel" entrances all around the bears' habitats.

Some early comments we read were from visitors who were disappointed at not being able to see all the animals. However, the whole point of this wonderful sanctuary is that it is solely for the benefit of the beleaguered animals, not the visitors. But, we were able to see plenty of the animals. It is good to take a long-lens camera, as the distances may be great, and an iPhone just doesn't cut it. Another reason not to use an unattached phone as your camera is the warning that, you drop it, you lose it--unless, that is, it poses any threat to the animals. In fact, we saw one unfortunate sanctuary worker spend at least an hour poking a pole, with what looked like a coat hanger on the end, through the fence of the tiger enclosure. Someone had dropped their iPhone, and the tigers' interest was piqued--but just barely. The poor worker trying to retrieve the phone had an awful time, and I don't know if she ever actually snagged it--we got tired of watching the futile efforts.

Basically, there are lions and tigers and bears (oh my!), as well as wolves, an occasional bobcat, leopards--and tons of seagulls! How in the world seagulls got there, or why they are interested, is beyond me! Other than the new rescues and other enclosures, all the different species have very large, albeit flat and treeless, habitats. The animals looked very hot the day we were there, and the wolves looked miserable. Most were sacked out under a shade enclosure next to the walkway. The bears had pools to cool off in, and it was funny to see how many of the pools were in need of repair from being crushed by the huge animals. An especially delightful habitat is a relatively small enclosure in the bear area next to the walkway. Watching the tunnel opening, we eventually saw the huge head of a mama bear emerge, then her huge paw, trying to contain her three rambunctuous young cubs. I heard someone say the cubs were born in hibernation, and just recently came out. They were hilarious, wrapping around a pole and chasing each other, while the mother temporarily gave up trying to coral them, and hopped into her big pool to cool off. When she was refreshed, she hopped out to try to shoo the cubs back into the tunnel.

The wire enclosures, although quite large, in general, are enclosed, and are bounded by an electric fence. There is a narrow walkway between the different species' enclosures. We were curious about what the animals ate, other than the bustling population of rabbits, which one worker called "appetizers". They explained that they are fed a prepared and balanced diet suitable to their species. The only evidence of food we saw was a medium-sized black bear trying to carry what looked like a packet of compressed food in his mouth. He comically kept dropping it, and other bears came to cash in on his inability to keep it secured. In spite of being wired and enclosed, the habitats are really like large playpens for a comparatively small number of animals.

The Lions are incredibly majestic, especially the males with their massive manes. We were surprised to see a couple of males and a female "hanging out" together, with no apparent problems. All the cats seem to be interested in perching high on anything piled up. The tigers were magnificent, as well. From the Central Observation Deck you can see a variety of habitats, as well as cool off with a popsicle, ice cream, or catch lunch with a sandwich. The food is surprisingly good and inexpensive. We were so hungry on the walk back that we ordered an angus burger and a Philly cheese steak--each was delicious, and each cost only about $4.

The end of the walkway takes you to the Bolivian Lion House, where you can temporarily escape from the sun, and see the lions performing their normal routines. One appeared to be coughing up a hairball when we were there. They are cats, after all! Walking back, at the Wishing Well, there is a handicapped walkway ramp which goes to the handicapped entrance. This we found somewhat worthwhile to walk, as it allowed a different perspective on the bears lounging behind their large fountain-pool, and several rabbits that were either sleeping or dead. There were other smaller species that were identified on the signs, but not easily seen when we were there, such as porcupines, coati mundi, a camel, foxes, raccoons, servals, and lynxes. By far, the most numerous and most interesting were the lions, bears and tigers.

All in all, it was extremely enjoyable, good exercise, and a well-spent donation. These people have a monumental job, rescuing and caring for these discarded and abused beasts. They show a fascinating collection of ways that they transport the animals, including huge air conditioned trailer trucks and even FedEx containers! It is all done with love, and these animals would have no prayer without these very good people. Most who work at TWAS are volunteers. Proceeds from the food and drink join the donations in subsidizing the expanding 720 acres of animal habitats.

The animals all look extremely well fed, healthy, and content in their new home. It is something everyone should see--and contribute to. Although there were several small children there, this may not be as "entertaining" to little ones a zoo, where the enclosures are smaller, and the visitors can come face to face with the animals. The elevated walkway was specifically designed to be high enough so that the animals were not disturbed. It is definitely a different perspective, looking down on many of the animals, but better for the animals. Perhaps not quite as comfortable for the visitors, especially in the heat, but you still feel good, knowing that you are being allowed a rare glimpse into the lives of these wild animals.