Back in the summer of 1993 I eagerly awaited the release of Jurassic Park and its promise of computer-generated, live action footage of dinosaurs.
Dinosaurs are the creatures that hooked me on nature. I collected and played with the hard plastic models and would have done anything to see live dinosaurs.
I’ll never forget an early scene in Jurassic Park depicting an enormous, browsing Brachiosaurus and a herd of much smaller duck-billed dinos. I literally got goose bumps and felt my boyhood dreams had come true.
Of course, it was just a movie, pure fiction. If such a place were to exist today, it would be populated with living creatures, perhaps endangered ones, and it might be called The Wilds.
Last week I visited that place. It is called The Wilds and it’s located in central Ohio. On a tour of a small portion of nearly 10,000 acres of restored strip mines, we moved through a system of electronically controlled gates reminiscent of those in Jurassic Park.
From Nomad Ridge, as far as my eyes could see, The Wilds sprawled. On a distant hilltop a herd of nearly 100 bison grazed. Just below my vantage point, a group of Pere David’s deer rested near one of the more than 120 lakes that dot the landscape. These China natives are extinct in the wild.
Across the lake I used binoculars to spot greater one-horned rhinos, Grevy’s zebras, Persian onagers (a type of wild ass), Pzrewalski’s wild horses and Bactrian camels (two humps) — all endangered in their native lands.
If I sound wide-eyed, I was and still am. In fact, Dan Beetem, director of animal management, told me that was his reaction when he interviewed for the job.
“I’d never seen anything quite like The Wilds,” Beetem said, “and I told my wife she had to see it to really comprehend its scope. When she joined me here after I got the job, she understood.”
The land that makes up The Wilds was donated by American Electric Power Company in 1986. After several years of planning and construction, The Wilds opened with a simple mission: “to advance conservation through science, education, and personal experience.”
Today visitors can tour The Wilds in a variety of open and closed vehicles for an experience that can last anywhere from several hours to several days.
Circular yurts are situated on Nomad Ridge near the Wilds’ visitor center area are available for overnight stays. A yurt is a nomadic-style structure made of canvas stretched over a wooden frame. Think of it as a high-end tent complete with a private bathroom and shower.
Because of the sheer size of The Wilds, the best way to see the most wildlife is via one of several safari-type vehicles. For those of us who never expect to safari in Africa, China or Mongolia, this is the next best thing.
Shortly after arriving at The Wilds, I spent a few hours with Dr. Nicole Cavender, director of restoration ecology.
“One of the great things about this place from a scientific perspective,” she said, “is that we can do anything. In addition to all the work with exotic wildlife, we study native grassland nesting birds, ospreys, trumpeter swans, salamanders and even endangered burying beetles. We are particularly interested in restoring native grasses and creating butterfly habitat for native species.”
The Mid-sized Carnivore Conservation Center features three endangered predators — cheetahs, African wild dogs, and dholes (an Asian wild dog). Each enclosure is so large the animals are completely relaxed.
I watched several African wild dogs frolic in a small water hole, and a male dhole actually came to the fence when a large group of visitors approached.
My favorite animal at The Wilds was one I’d never even heard of — the Sichuan takin. It’s a large goat-like creature most closely related to a musk ox. From a distance, it looks like a shaggy bear.
The day I arrived a new takin was born, and the next day I accompanied Beetem as he searched for the newborn. It was already up and part of the herd.
For more information and to plan a trip to the Wilds, visit www.thewilds.org.
(Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or via e-mail at his Web site, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.)