The Wanderer Visits
The Wild Animal Sanctuary
Written by John Andreula. Edited by Kodid Laraque-Two Elk
Photos by Ivy Andreula
After living in Colorado for more than two decades there’s still plenty of breathtaking places to experience for the first time. Considering the Centennial State’s size, it’s no surprise.
In actuality it feels as if I’ve barely scratched the surface. From the plethora of hot springs, fourteeners, and scenic mountain towns to all of Colorado’s national and state parks and monuments, there’s always unique and unfamiliar places to wander around.
This past weekend I packed the family into the car and trekked the 45 minutes east to The Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colorado where we knocked another of those attractions off the list.
Friends who previously visited The Wild Animal Sanctuary warned us it gets hot and that we should arrive early. Unfortunately, arriving early–or leaving early for that matter–isn’t a thing my family does. No one should expect to see us out before 10 AM . Even ten’s pushing the envelope.
Despite those tips from friends and our own knowledge of how large animals operate under sweltering sun, the weather was set to be overcast. The forecast seemed fortuitous for a spectacular visit.
We loaded a cooler filled with sandwiches, beverages and ice packs, and a box of dry snacks into the car. Aside from a short delay watching the BNSF trains hauling their coal cars across the sleepy town of Hudson, the drive was scenic and smooth.
Once through the Sanctuary‘s entrance gates we parked near a steel hangar. I set the snacks, cooler, and a couple camping chairs into a foldable wagon I brought along for our excursion. It crossed my mind that the small convenience store and deli’s worth of food might bring some unwanted attention from the animals, but fortunately no one ended up getting eaten.
We headed inside.
The wagon was visually inspected at the ticket counter. The food I had lugged in would be allowed, but the camping chairs were prohibited. Despite lightly pleading with the orange-shirted ticket man about the elders of the group needing to rest their legs, the chairs had to be put back in the car. Luckily there was plenty of convenient parking, so the walk wasn’t a big deal.
I presented two “FREE ADMISSION” certificates I had been saving to the ticket man. Things didn’t go any better with those. Christian, as I had come to discover the man’s name was, bluntly informed me, “We can’t take those. They’re old. You see, there’s no barcode.”
The passes may or may not have been given to me six plus years earlier. They have been under a magnet on the fridge since.
“Why not? There’s no expiration date.”
“Doesn’t matter. Comes directly from our owner.”
(FYI: The Wild Animal Sanctuary is 501(c)(3) nonprofit. They have a founder and directors, but not an owner. He was only trying to be helpful though.)
Christian told me there was nothing he could do.
I let him know he was doing something actually. He was providing a poor customer service experience.
Frustrated, I asked to speak with a manager. Christian brushed his hand toward the other ticket counters and said “We’re all managers.”
He went on to tell me they were some sort of Socialist Libertarian Sadist organization or something. In truth, I don’t know what he was actually saying. Once I got the sense he wasn’t going to accept my passes I tuned him out. I resigned to paying the $50 per adult/$30 per child entrance fee. Thankfully both grandmas and grandpa offered to purchase their own entrances. A second mortgage on my house wouldn’t be necessary.
The walk of A.I.T.A.H. shame back to the car to stow the chairs allowed me time to cool off. I took a moment to appreciate my surroundings and the privilege of experiencing amazing things with wonderful people. I went back inside and reconvened with the group.
There was a brief video about the Sanctuary and its animals on a projector screen just past the ticket booths. After watching for a couple minutes my family led us away to. . .the gift shop.
Gift shops are about as high on my list as getting eaten by wild animals and Christian the ticket extortionist. I volunteered to stay outside and guard the wagon.
Minutes later my mom emerged sporting a cute sun hat matching her shirt. My daughter was clutching a stuffed white tiger named “Icicle.” The hat would come in handy throughout the excursion. The stuffy…well, it made the kid happy.
My daughter stopped to snap photos of the brass statues scattered throughout the lobby. Then she pointed out the café and ice cream parlor. I wondered to myself if we would actually get to experience any animals. Luckily and finally, we set off up the ramps that led out to the grounds.
Coming out from the hangar the sun had emerged from behind the clouds. We stepped onto a spacious observation deck looking out over an assortment of fenced enclosures. I meandered to the eastern end of the patio. My soul relaxed into the immensity of the view spread out in front of me.
I spotted movement off in the distance. A Coke bottle eyeglasses prescription might be obnoxious most days, but picking out bears and lions just below the horizon put my optical life’s struggle into perspective. I pointed out animals lumbering to my family. Seeing their reaction lifted my spirits even more.
No matter how much the day cost or how much heat we were feeling this was going to turn out to be a perfect day!
The three mile out and back along the walkway provided dynamic views of the various animals. We saw a pair of tiger heads pop up above tall grass as a truck drove past their enclosure. Brown bears were wrestling inside their drinking water/bath tub. Three coyotes played hide and seek as a family of foxes slept in the shade of the walkway in the grass just below us.
The majesty of the female white wolves and the maned male lions was matched only by the absurdity of the black bear masturbating in full view of one the three covered rest shelters
We paused to watch drama unfold as three bear cubs bullied a fourth with a lighter coat. A larger mama bear arrived to break up the scrum and walked the lighter cub over to a pen as if she were grounding it. After the larger bear was no more than twenty paces away from the pen the young’n reemerged and headed directly back to the triplets.
Aside from knowing what a great service The Wild Animal Sanctuary provides these formerly neglected and abused critters, one of the best aspects of the experience was seeing the animals off in the distance and guessing what they were. Is that a buffalo, a bear, or something else? Are those llamas? . . .camels? Are those two ostriches or emus?
Leaning on the handrail I was at peace.
There was a somber element to The Wild Animal Sanctuary as well.
Lions and tigers and bears were being rehabilitated from past-lives as exotic pets and sideshow performers. Many arrived addicted to food, nicotine, and whatever else villains exploiting them previously used to control the animals’ instincts and disposition. You could see the toll the time before they were rescued had taken on their immense bodies and beings. This more than anything else that cemented how okay it was having $100 less in the bank account. 85,000 lbs of food per week costs money. So does medicine and clean water. It almost made sense having such vigilant gatekeepers as Christian keeping the money flowing in.
Following the trip back from the end of steel walkway we stopped into the ice cream shop for my daughter’s second cool sugary dessert that day. After the workout we had just undertaken I knew she needed to replenish some calories.
The ice cream was provided by Glacier of Englewood. Glacier’s one of my favorite ice cream shops in my stomping grounds up in Boulder, so this was a pleasant surprise to bookend the visit.
On the way out the door my child asked the girls behind the counter if the money they made selling scoops went directly to the animals. They let her know all of it did. I didn’t think a child who’d just been handed an ice cream cone could smile any bigger. I was wrong.
The walk through The Wild Animal Sanctuary was a longer trek than expected. It was intense, both physically and emotionally. In the end there were no complaints or regrets. Everyone settled into pleasant exhaustion during the car trip home. Smiles and pleasant memories came along for the ride.
If we had arrived earlier that day–or before sunset, as one of the many knowledgeable docents had informed us–we would have witnessed more activity and action. There’s next time for that.
In the end I won’t be going on Yelp or Trip Advisor to complain about vouchers as I warned Christian I would. I’ll just chalk it up to the fact that big cat and bear caretakers aren’t as interested in taking care of their human guests as they are of the animals. If they were, the Sanctuary might become overcrowded, thus corrupting the intimate and serene experience they provide.
The day at The Wild Animal Sanctuary wasn’t cheap. It wasn’t easy either, but it sure was a wonderful Colorado outdoor experience. In fact it was two quarters’ worth!
The Wild Animal Sanctuary is 501(c)(3) public nonprofit.
They rely entirely on private contributions, fundraising, and grants to operate. Please consider visiting or donating so they can continue the incredible rescue work they provide.