Sanctuary housing exotic animals is something wild

Weld County facility lets visitors view amazing creatures from elevated walkway

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It was a sunny, pleasant fall day for a drive through the plains in southern Weld County and many of the inhabitants of the Wild Animal Sanctuary were basking — on the grass, on platforms, in the openings to underground shelters, next to small wooden structures — at home on the Colorado prairie, although they are certainly not native species, with a few exceptions. Each one has a story and most were rescued from truly difficult situations. A guidebook tells their stories ...

Before the animals came to the sanctuary, they were often confined in cages, without adequate food or veterinary care — some came from badly run zoos, others from roadside attractions — or from owners who bought a cute baby tiger or bear cub at an exotic animal auction and soon found it was not a cuddly pet after all. They may have been confined in a rickety building or a concrete pen without fresh air or sunlight or enough food ...

Fortunately, the sanctuary has an on-site veterinary hospital and two veterinarians who can supervise care as needed. The veterinary school at Colorado State University is also available to help.

Each animal has a name: Mafalda, who had serious dental problems, and Walter, who had been declawed and is blind, are grizzlies from a terrible zoo in Argentina, where fortunately, concerned citizens and some government employees complained. The zoo was forced to close and the grizzlies were rescued and now live in a large area, with brick paths to help Walter navigate to his den and to food and water. (Also rescued from that zoo were two lions and three tigers.)

Readers who have lived in the metro area for a while may recall an account of the rescue of 25 lions from Bolivian circuses in 2011 after a law was passed there forbidding using animals in circus performances. Included: Bam Bam, Morena, Marta, Rosa, Rosario and Campeon.

Lions live together in prides in nature and these social organizations seem to occur at the sanctuary with patient management that introduces animals slowly under a watchful eye.

Also on the grounds, in separate areas: wolves, jaguars, black bears, wolf hybrids, mountain lions, a few coati mundis and a few kit foxes, a porcupine, an emu and some alpacas. Included are some who were among 18 caged animals found in a “wildlife education” exhibit in a mall in Iowa that was closed down by the USDA.

We saw a black bear happily swimming in a large pool, while another sat and watched. We didn’t see any feeding times, although my daughter and son-in-law recall a happy bear who was very possessive of a watermelon on a previous visit they made.

At another spot on the land, there is a special tiger pool, where animals can be introduced to each other in a spot that isn’t anyone’s territory. Tigers are naturally very territorial and may be slow to become accustomed to another like animal, so supervised swim time can help the getting-acquainted process along ...

We were impressed by the volunteers in orange shirts, who interacted with visitors, telling about individual animals like the 1,000-pound male grizzly bear and his 900-pound female mate, easily spotted.

Soon, it will be time for the resident bears to tank up on food and hibernate in their provided underground dens, so a mid-winter visitor won’t be likely to see them, although we were told that they do come out briefly at times for a snack.

One views the animals from a mile and a half long walkway that carries one high above the furry residents. Apparently, when one stands behind a fence looking in, animals feel uncomfortable and territorial behavior results, but we were told that they aren’t concerned by overhead visitors.

Recent good news: The Wild Animal Sanctuary, which is pretty well filled, has been able to buy a large piece of ranch land near La Junta, with natural caves, rock formations, trees and more, where safe spots can be available for future needy animals. The owner is willing to carry a loan and it will be paid through donations, allowing space for many more needy animals as years go by. Called a refuge, it will probably not be open for visitors as this remarkable sanctuary is.

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