Recently, my wife and I were invited to take an open-air tour at The Wilds, a wildlife conservation and research center located about an hour east of Columbus, Ohio. If you’re unfamiliar with The Wilds, it is a cross between a zoo, a safari, and Jurassic Park.
Once a large strip mine owned by American Electric Power, over 9,000 acres of reclaimed land were donated to promote the management of both animals and habitat in 1986. In 1996, The Wilds opened its gates to visitors with drive-though tours. Today, the park has expanded to include overnight stays in yurts, zip-line adventures, horseback rides, gift shops, food stands, and Wildside Tours—a chance to get up close and personal with the 25 non-native animal species.
We did the open-air safari, a two and a half hour guided tour, winding slowly over rolling hills and gravel roads.
The day started off with overcast skies, which offered good lighting for photos. A slight drizzle and 70-degree weather gave us a comfortable ride. We did, however, receive occasional gusts of rain, urging us to wrap our seven-month-old baby, Huxley, in his momma’s scarf. We like to call the look “Lawrence of A-baby-ia.”
After passing through the electrified gates, the Pere David’s deer were the first animals that we encountered. They look like the offspring of a common whitetail deer and a western elk. Our guide told us the story of how they came to be named: A French missionary living in China, Armand David, sent specimens of the deer back to Paris in the late 1880s. Once in France, a biologist studying the specimens referred to them as Father David’s deer, and the name stuck.
We watched as the deer sauntered around their enclosure—a wide-open area with a few scattered ponds. They seemed at home in this environment and paid little attention to our safari truck as it bounced along a ridgeline. Apparently, the males decorate their impressive racks with clumps of dirt and grass to attract mates, or maybe as a snack for later.
“Keep your eyes open for any large rocks,” the guide said as we ventured into rhinoceros territory. It wasn’t long before one was spotted about 150 feet away from us. Rhinos really do look like large rocks from a distance. The “Oooohs” and “Aaaahs” on the bus gave way to squeals as a smaller gray rock stood up. It was a baby! We took a few photos, wishing that they were closer.
We rolled along for a little while without seeing any exotic species and enjoyed the scenery instead. At the next stop, our guide pointed out some brown-looking bushes on a very distant hillside—a herd of American bison.
Later on the tour, we came upon a giraffe that was walking down the middle of the road. He stared at us as we passed and then broke into an awkward sprint. We had never seen a giraffe run. Seeing the fellow’s ungainly gate really confirmed the difference between seeing animals at a zoo and taking a trip through The Wilds. While obviously not as natural as viewing animals in their native habitats, The Wilds offers the chance to see exotic and endangered species—like the caramel-colored Przewalski’s horses—grazing, socializing, and roaming.
The only downside to the wide-open landscape is that you don’t necessarily get to see all of the animals. That was the case for us at the Carnivore Center. We saw three African Wild Dogs tussling in the sunlight, but the cheetahs were napping and the Dholes were hiding from the shame of being named Dholes.
The last few miles of the tour offered glimpses of several African creatures including a herd of Sable antelope and some zebras. While some of the animals played near the road, others preferred to lie in the tall grass, offering only a peek at horns, ears, and snouts.
At the end of our journey, we could see the welcome center and gift shop, causing us to reflect on our two and a half hours spent in company of beasts.
No dinosaurs were present on the tour, but we couldn’t help but make references to Jurassic Park each time an electric gate swung open. Fortunately, unlike in Jurassic Park, no one on the tour was maimed by a T-rex when we stopped to take a restroom break.
[Ryan Grundish is a carpenter in the Hocking Hills area of Southeastern Ohio, where he was born and raised. He attended Ohio University for graphic design and enjoys fishing, kayaking, playing airsoft, and planning a food truck empire. He is married to his childhood soulmate, photographer Elizabeth Nihiser. On 12.12.12 at 12:01 a.m., they welcomed their son, Huxley Finn, into the world.]