Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Wilds

Last Sunday I went out with the University Wildlife Club to The Wilds in Muskingum County. Normally I cover native Ohio plants, animals, and the like, but this post is a bit different.

For those of you who don't know, The Wilds is a wildlife center. It houses endangered (and non-endangered) animals in large pastures that used to be exposed strip mines. AEP donated the top 6-8 inches of land (they kept the underground to still be able to get oil and natural gas) so it could be converted back to a more natural environment. Now, The Wilds is a massive expanse of land (over 9,000 acres) that is dedicated to conservation of endangered species and public education.

Sichuan Takins
It is open to the public from May to October and is...well, it's sort of like a zoo. Except instead of people looking at animals in an enclosure, the humans are the ones in the enclosure while the animals are free. You tour the facilities in a bus that drives through the giant pastures, so animals can literally be outside the bus window. You get amazing views of many animals, like the Sichuan Takins above.

The Wilds was not open to the public when we went (they open in May), and as far as I could tell we were the only non-worker people that were on the grounds that day. As a result, we were able to get some "special treatment" and behind the scenes access. One of the activities we were able to experience was the Columbus Zoo's Animal Ambassadors program (The Wilds works alongside the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium). The Animal Ambassadors is a public outreach program where people can get up close with some interesting animals, like the Tamandua above. They also brought out a young American Alligator, hedgehog, cornsnake, and Three-Banded Armadillo and allowed us to pet the alligator, cornsnake, and armadillo.

Petting a rhino
We were then taken behind the scenes to the rhino house. I had no idea this was going to be part of the trip, but it was definitely the most amazing part. Not only did we get up close with Indian and Southern-White rhinos, but we were allowed to pet the 9 individuals too! Petting a rhino was definitely on my list of "Things I'll probably never get the chance to do," but sometimes life surprises you.

We were also allowed to hand-feed one of the rhinos. Their upper lip is prehensile and was almost like an elephant trunk. It would reach out and grab the grass out of your hand.

Baby rhino
They currently had two baby rhinos as well. They sort of acted like dogs; they loved the attention and would run and jump trying to play with you. It wasn't all fun and games though; rhinos have a very poor sense of body-awareness, and as a result you had to be very careful around them. There was a big metal fence between us, but that didn't do much. The mom of this individual sneezed at one point, scaring him. I was petting his horn-stub at the time and the baby jumped from fright and almost smashed my hand against the metal fence. The mom almost hit a few people with her massive horn on accident too. It's not that they're trying to hurt you though; they have poor eyesight, and couple that with huge bodies and unbelievable power and you get an animal that doesn't always realize what it's doing to other things around it.

Fear aside, it was completely exhilarating to be this close to such amazing animals. It honestly felt like the part in Jurassic Park where Dr. Grant and Dr. Sattler have their first encounter with a dinosaur (the sick triceratops), and they're overcome with amazement as they pet it.

Of course, The Wilds isn't just for captive animals. The Wilds is also known for its amazing birding, and I (along with two other birders) were birding the entire time. The swan above is a Trumpeter Swan, one of the three species of swans that normally occur in Ohio. Of those three, only two are native (the Trumpeter and Tundra Swan). The other, the Mute Swan, is an invasive species. The Trumpeter Swan almost went extinct decades ago, but has since began rebounding due to conservation programs. The Wilds is part of a Trumpeter Swan conservation program and has raised and released many individuals. This one however is a wild-born one, as can be told by the lack of a green band on its neck. Other species from that day included dozens of Eastern Meadowlarks, Buffleheads, Ring-Necked Ducks, Tree Swallows, Eastern Phoebe, and many more.

And here is the group that went! I am the one on the very left with a gray "Ohio University" shirt on. It was definitely an amazing trip and I hope it will happen again next year. If you're looking for a zoo-like experience, but want something a little bit different from the usual zoo trip, definitely think about going to The Wilds. You won't regret it.

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