If you head out to Colorado’s unique Wild Animal Sanctuary, located within easy driving distance of both Boulder and Denver, you might emulate young Dorothy in L. Frank Baum’s Wizard of Oz, and gleefully exclaim, “Lions and tigers, and bears, oh my!” The Wild Animal Sanctuary near Keenesburg, Colorado, is the largest nonprofit carnivore sanctuary in the world. Over 400 rescued lions, tigers, bears, and other large and small carnivores roam freely in natural habitats, and the special viewing of large carnivores is an unusual pleasure. For photographers and nature lovers, with recognition that the animals and their well-being are the sanctuary’s primary and critical purpose with priority over exhibition, there are intriguing wildlife viewing and photographic opportunities.
Stroll a mile into the wild
Amazing viewing access is provided without jeopardizing the comfort and safety of animals through an elevated walkway system. The “Mile Into the Wild” walkway is a system of elevated paths and platforms that allow visitors to traverse multiple habitats at the sanctuary, viewing and photographing, observing and learning, while the sanctuary animals remain undisturbed.
Viewers are “fenced away” on the elevated walkway while the animals are free and protected in their large, natural habitat areas. The elevated walkway allows for interesting, open viewing and photographic shooting without the usual zoo obstructions of glass walls and in-your-face fencing.
Families, naturalists, photographers, and even the most casual visitor on the walkway have open view opportunities to see animals interact, play, mate, spar, eat, sleep, and roam. The decks are fenced up to an adult’s waist height, expansive, and heavy, so “people on exhibit” also are comfortable and safe.
Be wildlife-savvy and show patience
The animals are free to roam as they choose, so it’s wise for photographers to plan plenty of time for a visit. Whether playing or sleeping, what is viewed at the sanctuary happens at the animals’ own schedules and discretions. The sanctuary staff does not create performances. Staff members don’t enter the enclosures to lure animals closer to the boardwalk or feed them to perform for visitors. So, visitors need to be wildlife savvy in their empathy and patience.
That being said, the animals can be very, very visible. The animals are not afraid to sleep, stroll, or play near or under the walkways. Therefore, bring your camera bag as you’ll benefit from the flexibility of shooting with both long and short lenses.
Slideshow of animal views from walkway
The slideshow accompanying this article offers just a glimpse of what a photographer could photograph or what a visitor might see. It’s a delight to get the chance to observe a grizzly cub climbing an immense mound of rocks, scratching its feet, or rolling in dirt. It’s exciting to spot the head of a lion or tiger in swaying, tall grass. It’s fun to watch grizzly bears courting and brown bears climbing a platform. It’s intriguing to see an animal spar or take a dip in cool water. It’s fascinating to observe an albino tiger. It’s even fun to watch an arctic wolf doze!
Three photographer’s tips for visiting the Wild Animal Sanctuary
a. The animals are most active in the morning and late afternoon/early evening. On the days that it’s open, the sanctuary opens at 9 AM and closes at sunset. There’s a convenient, annual table on their website to indicate the sunset closing time for every day of the year.
b. In addition to long and short lenses for camera photography of animals near and distant to the walkway, bring a pair of binoculars or your spotting scope. Just as in the true wild, animals can linger at distant edges of their habitats. With binoculars or a spotting scope, observing interesting wildlife behaviors is enhanced. Equipment getting heavy? Wagons for walkway use can be rented at the sanctuary for $5.
c. If you’re bringing just one lens, a 200 mm lens or a zoom lens that covers that range offers good photographic opportunities. Because it’s so unusual, make use of the large areas that animals are in to capture more than just close ups. For example, photograph the animal subject with a vast expanse of swaying grass as part of the composition.
Directions, fees, and information
The Wild Animal Sanctuary is located at 1946 County Road 53 in Keenesburg, Colorado. The sanctuary’s website offers this helpful advice for drivers: “If you use your GPS to get here – please make sure it takes you up I-76 all the way to the town of Hudson, CO (if you are coming from Denver) – as many of the GPS programs will have you turn off of the Interstate Highway early (on Bromely Lane) – which will take you on the back roads (terrible bumpy dirt roads) if you don’t pay attention – so please make sure you stay on the Interstate Highway all the way to Hudson.” Essentially, the sanctuary is easy to find.
The Wild Animal Sanctuary only schedules closings for four holidays: Christmas, Thanksgiving, Independence Day, and New Year’s Day. Otherwise, it’s open from 9 AM to sunset. However, in case of bad weather, the Wild Animal Sanctuary does close.
No senior or veteran discounts are available, so the fee system is simple with all adults at $15 and children, ages 3 to 12, at $7.50.
Learning and helping
The Wild Animal Sanctuary is the oldest and largest nonprofit sanctuary in the United States dedicated exclusively to rescuing captive exotic and endangered large carnivores. It’s a demanding mission. The Wild Animal Sanctuary currently comprises 720 acres and, when its individual, rescued animals are adapted and ready, shelters its large carnivores in large acreage, species-specific habitats.
The mission of The Wild Animal Sanctuary places the care of animals first, and there are over two dozen, large acreage habitats, large grassland buffers, and room to grow. Accompanying that mission, The Wild Animal Sanctuary also works toward education and developing social consciousness about today’s captive wildlife crisis. The sanctuary’s mission and the wildlife crisis are a worldwide issue. Ways to Help opportunities are offered that include Adopt an Animal, donation strategies, a wish list, a volunteer program, and outreach including a speaker’s bureau, scouting projects, and a Wild Open Spaces campaign.
All animals deserve respect, and the treatment of the earth and its creatures remains a meaningful measure of individual, national, and global humanity. The philosopher Immanuel Kant indicated, “We can judge the heart of a man by his treatment of animals.” Mahatma Gandhi stated, “The greatness of a nation can be judged by the way its animals are treated.” Wisdom lies along a path, where humanity’s actions resonate to Thoreau’s clarion call words in Walden that “Heaven is under our feet as well as over our heads.”
Find the take in this article to be helpful? National and International Travel and Recreation as well as National Education and Industry materials come from a husband and wife creative team, who travel extensively in retirement as photonaturalists and writers. One is an experienced research scientist with a doctorate in Material Sciences and background in optics research. The other holds a graduate degree in humanities and is the former Vice President of GKE (Global Knowledge Exchange), who served as a US Web-based Education Commissioner during the Clinton administration, and was a former US National Tech&Learning Teacher of the Year.
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