Story and photos by Taylor Sharp
Every morning, when I pull into the driveway of the Conservators Center, tucked away in rural Caswell County, I am greeted by a symphony. The dewy air hangs heavy with the songs of howling wolves, oofing lions, chuffling tigers, “waowing” jungle cats, chittering lemurs, and the melodic voices of New Guinea singing dogs. It’s a musical cacophony that never gets old.
When I began my role as the Center’s communications coordinator in June of 2018, I truly had no idea what I was getting myself into. I expected to create some content for social media, design some ads, and write some articles; I didn’t know that I was entering into a family bound by love: an intense love for these animals coupled with a passion for educating the public about wildlife conservation.
The Center is home to more than 80 animals of more than 20 species, both exotic and native. Every staff member and volunteer has spent hundreds to thousands of hours visiting with each and every animal, observing behavior, and learning everything we can about them. This year, 2019, marks the 20th anniversary of the Conservators Center. Our founders, Mindy Stinner and Doug Evans, have truly dedicated their lives to this place. Mindy, a lifelong educator, is one of the most knowledgeable people I’ve ever met. She soaks in information about our animal residents like a sponge and is gifted in translating that information into teachable material. With education at the forefront of our mission, you’d be hard-pressed to come up with a question about our animals that our team cannot answer. And on the rare occasion that that happens, they make it a priority to further their knowledge—again, so they can teach others.
The grand majority of our Conservators Center family is composed of volunteers. Many of our volunteer staff members have full-time jobs, but choose to spend countless unpaid hours coordinating events, training tour guides, organizing volunteer work groups, hand-making toys and enrichment for the animals, helping with construction or maintenance tasks, and generally keeping this organization running. I can’t count the number of times our volunteers have told me that their work at the Center is like therapy for them. It’s their happy place.
It took a couple of months before I had the “ah-ha” moment that is inevitable here. I was standing in front of what was then called “Mixed Pride,” a habitat that was home to a male lion, two lionesses, and a male tiger. All 14 years old, they had lived together their whole lives and the species mish-mash was always a guest favorite. When Calvin Lion passed away last year and the social hierarchy of the habitat shifted, Wic Tiger was moved to his own enclosure and “Mixed Pride” became “Ladies’ Pride.” But at the time of my revelatory moment, Wic, Calvin, Savik, and Katrina were lazing around on their platforms while I watched. I made eye contact with Wic, and we stared at each other for some time. When I began to walk away and broke eye contact, Wic jumped down from his platform, noiselessly despite his 400-plus pound body, and chuffled as he met me at the habitat fence. It was the first time I felt a real connection to an animal here. It is impossible to describe, that kinship that blooms between human and animal. It’s wordless, it’s felt but unseen—it feels a lot like faith. Or falling in love. From then on, he became my “Wicster” and I make a point to visit him whenever I’m in the park.
So few people are given the opportunity to spend time in the company of such incredible creatures, and those fortunate few of us are uniquely positioned to advocate for these species. We feel it is our responsibility to create and encourage a world in which species under threat—due largely to human corruption of their natural environments—have a fighting chance to thrive in the wild.
The sheer breadth of information that exists in the minds of our staff is incomprehensible. And that information never goes to waste; everything we learn, we share. Not only with the general public, but also with other facilities. Our educational collaborations allow us to constantly raise the bar of industry standards and animal husbandry. Our staff regularly participates in industry conferences, including the Felid Taxon Advisory Group (TAG), the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), the Zoological Association of America (ZAA), the Feline Conservation Federation (FCF), and many other short-term or regional collaborations, symposia, and seminars.
We share more than information here. We also share community. Nearly every event we have involves collaboration with small, local businesses. Iron Gate Winery has a series of wines that feature some of our animals on the labels, and they provide wine at many of our events. Our most popular event of the year, Tree Toss, was born from the partnership between the Center and Cranberry Tree Farm, when, before we were even open to the public, they began donating their unsold Christmas trees to us as a special form of enrichment for our animals. Lions, Tigers, and Beer, held every year, is all about local creators. For this event, local chefs and craft breweries come together to make meal and beer pairings inspired by our animals or their species’ place of origin. We believe that strong communities make strong organizations.
We are strong. Our community makes us strong, and our animals give us the reason to be strong. We hope all who are reading this will come visit so that we can share this magical, musical place with all of you.
The Conservators Center is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization located at 676 E. Hughes Mill Road, Burlington, NC. More information about the Center and its tours can be found at www.ConservatorsCenter.org