Did you know there’s a place in Ohio where rhinos, camels and giraffes roam free on a 9,000-acre compound and conservation experts are hard at work to ensure the survival of dozens of animal and plant species?
There is, and it’s called The Wilds.
Visitors can get an up-close view of nearly all the Asian and African animals that call The Wilds their home by taking a safari tour via bus or open-air vehicle or by ziplining over the pastures, fields and lakes that the animals inhabit. Located in Cumberland, Ohio, The Wilds is about 150 miles (a three-hour drive) from Portsmouth, Ohio.
But The Wilds is much more than just a safari. “We aren’t just a place that has a few wild animals,” explained Roseanna “Rosie” Pryor, an interactive guide at The Wilds since 2001. “We are also a research center with many learning opportunities.”
The open-air safari tour that Rosie leads is an education in itself. Her two-and-a-half-hour guided tour is full of history and facts on The Wilds and its animals; a bit of trivia; and, by her own admission, a few corny jokes. Like the one she delivers as she drops our group off for a 45-minute stop at the Carnivore Center, home to African wild dogs, Asian doles, and cheetahs.
“I’m sure you’ll see a cheetah. They’re always spotted,” Rosie quipped.
Spot them we did – two of the fastest land mammals in the world – sleeping under a tree on a warm July afternoon.
Rosie’s enthusiasm is never higher than when she spots a baby animal following closely behind its mother. “Success!!!” she squeals before pointing out the first newborn of that afternoon’s tour – a two-day old zebra. “We have a lot of babies right now. That means we must be doing something right.”
Currently, 31 rare and endangered species live there, including zebras, giraffes, camels, antelope, deer, goats, ostrich, bison, wild horses, and rhinoceros. The white rhino herd at The Wilds is the only one known to be producing fourth generation offspring while in human care. Thirteen of the animals are federally-listed endangered species, and 20 are part of programs managed by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
Research at The Wilds has directly impacted animal breeding programs. Two endangered Persian onager foals born in 2010, for example, were the first wild equids ever produced by artificial insemination.
The Wilds selects its residents based primarily on one question: What animal can we help the most? “We do look at animals with particular challenges,” said Heather Bell, operations coordinator, “but we are also trying to get large herds, if possible. We have to be sure we can accommodate them well. There are some you just can’t manage well in large open fields.”
The 9,154-acre park (about 14 square miles) includes 2,000 acres of pastures, a 27-acre Carnivore Conservation Center, more than 15 miles of mountain bike and hiking trails and approximately 100 lakes.
Many of the lakes are man-made, remnants of the strip mining that took place on the site from the 1940s to 1980s. American Electric Power Company donated the land in 1984 through its subsidiary Central Ohio Coal Company to The International Center for the Preservation of Wild Animals – the non-profit organization behind The Wilds.
The first species – Przewalski’s wild horses – was released into the pastures in 1992, and The Wilds opened for public tours in 1994. The year in between, (coincidentally?) Steven Spielberg made a little film – about some genetically engineered dinosaurs running amok at an island park – Jurassic Park.
Leaving the perimeter (or buffer) area of The Wilds, where deer, rabbit, raccoon and other wild animals native to Ohio roam freely, and going into the electrified-fence acreage, where the endangered animals live does bring a few Jurassic Park-like thoughts to mind. But safety is a top priority at The Wilds. Similar to salleyports at jails and prisons, the ones at The Wilds between the perimeter and secure area have gates at each end, only one of which can be open at a time.
Yes, some animals do get within reach, but a quick warning from Rosie that camel spit smells like skunk is a good deterrent to anyone who might be thinking of trying to sneak a quick pet.
Rosie, like all the guides, is full of other useful information, too. Like, who knew that a pile of rhino dung is one way rhinos communicate with each other? One sniff and they know who’s been in the area and when – a sort of “primitive p-mail,” Rosie joked. Or, the fact that the wild horses at The Wilds have a different number of chromosomes than other horses, which makes them truly wild. “They will fight (each other) to the death,” Rosie said.
Not all the species at The Wilds are on the tour. A bit smaller than the rhinos, camels and wild horses, but just as important, is the breeding colony of American burying beetles, a federally-protected endangered species in Ohio. The Wilds is also currently involved in a project with the Columbus Zoo to understand the health of freshwatermussels, one of the fastest declining animal groups on the planet.
There is so much to see and do at The Wilds that visitors could easily spend a few days. On-site accommodations range from the 12-person lodge, with private lake access, to the various yurts located at Nomad Ridge.
What is a yurt, you ask? It’s a nomadic-style structure made of canvas stretched over a wooden frame. The well-appointed Asian-inspired yurts at Nomad Ridge (for adults only, open May through October) feature bamboo floors, warm tones and private bathrooms. Yurt guests also receive discounts on the various safaris.
Each yurt has an observation deck from which you can look for animals roaming in the pastures. It’s what The Wilds likes to call a “unique glamping (glamorous camping) experience.”
“You can watch the Nature Channel, and you don’t have to argue about who gets the remote,” Bell said.
14000 International Road
Photos compliments of The Wilds