Yesterday I had the distinct pleasure of visiting The Wild Animal Sanctuary, which is the biggest and certainly most impressive large carnivore rescue sanctuary in North America. It is located about 40 miles from Denver, near Hudson, and well worth visiting — certainly better than any cramped and crowded zoo. The facility itself is huge — situated on over 300 acres with many well-designed, multi-acreage compounds that provide the animals with something that approximates their natural habitats.
The amount of work, time, money, and effort on display at the Sanctuary is awe inspiring and humbling. The previous experiences of these animals — before being rescued and placed in this extraordinary environment — is truly heart breaking. If it weren’t for the good works of the founder Pat Craig and his hard working volunteers, one’s faith in humanity could easily be shattered by the horror stories surrounding each of these previously abused animals. Why is it that humans, alone among animals, seem to have a near monopoly on cruel and stupid?
All this aside, the many large carnivores cavorting at the Sanctuary include tigers (many), lions, leopards, mountain lions, bobcats, servals, grizzly bears, black bears, and wolves (along with an incongruous assortment of coatimundis, raccoons, camels, and horses who were rescued from abuse). Observing these magnificent creatures roaming their large, well-conceived compounds in social groups is a sight to behold.
While watching the larger carnivores (one grizzly weighs in at over 1,100 pounds!) — lions, leopards, tigers, bears, pumas, and wolves — I could not help but be struck by their regal and terrifying majesty. These are dangerous creatures that hunter-gatherers would have routinely encountered, sometimes with fatal consequences. In Africa and Asia, our hominid ancestors had to deal with lions and leopards (not to mention hyenas and crocodiles, which are not at the Sanctuary), and after dispersing out of Africa would have encountered tigers, bears, wolves, pumas, and jaguars. Before the late Pleistocene extinctions, the carnivore array would have been even more impressive and included saber-toothed cats.
In the end, it is quite easy to understand the awe and respect accorded these animals by nomadic hunter-gatherers, and how they became revered as creatures imbued with mystical and supernatural powers. For many, Amerindians in particular, encountering one of these animals in a vision or dream endowed the recipient with some of those powers (i.e., became a guardian spirit) and was a marker of great distinction. Visit the Wild Animal Sanctuary and you will know exactly what I mean.