The Animal Park at the Conservators Center

Story by Taylor Sharp
Photos by The Animal Park at the Conservators Center

For many, winter in North Carolina serves as an excuse to hide away at home. It’s unfortunate, because there is no more magical time to get outdoors! The crisp, clean air and the occasional gentle blanket of snowfall is the perfect backdrop for a unique adventure right here in the Piedmont… if you know where to go.

At the Animal Park at the Conservators Center, winter is a time when many of our animals are decidedly in their element. We house 20 species here, and several of them undergo fascinating and enthralling changes when the weather cools down. Our bobcats, lynxes, and tigers develop lush, fanned-out beards or “scruff” that frame their faces. Our wolves’ coats double or triple in thickness, making them look far larger than their actual body weight. Our arctic fox, Casper, truly shines in the winter, with his plush, pure-white fur giving him the heart breakingly adorable appearance of a living marshmallow with eyes. More exciting than their looks is their behavior – those species that are naturally adapted to the cold thrive in the winter, joyfully rolling around and frolicking in the white snow.

This winter will be the first that we have with our youngest residents: wolf pups Sitka and Rayne. Though they were just born in April of 2019, by the time this is published they will likely be nearly as big as our adult wolves! Our wolf pack, comprised of two adult Arctic wolves and the Northwestern wolf pups, will surely be a joy to observe this winter as both of these subspecies of gray wolf are native to snowy environments. The pups’ black coats, which we expect to eventually become a mottled white, are already thickening in anticipation of the season. Given the exciting reactions the pups had when offered frozen treats this summer, we predict that they will absolutely adore a bit of snowy fun!

Winter, of course, comes with its challenges. Whether or not an animal is inherently suited for the cold, we provide special accommodations for all 80 of our residents. Our Winter in the Wild Tours offer an in-depth look into how we care for our animals during the colder months, educating our guests about specially-designed heating systems, natural substrate supplementations to keep our denboxes insulated, and all of the other ways we keep our beloved animal ambassadors warm and cozy. Many of our animals, like the tropically-native lemurs or our desert-dwelling fennec fox (who begins shivering at about 68 degrees Fahrenheit), have climate-controlled indoor habitats that keep them much warmer than the animal keepers who care for them. Before or after a tour, our guests are given the opportunity to warm up by exploring our Education Room, which is home to some indoor animals including corn snakes and a ridiculously adorable Flemish giant rabbit named Delilah.

In the months leading up to winter, we must also work hard to prepare our park for the chance of inclement weather and the complications that can arise with heavy snow or ice. Our keepers and construction crew must foresee all possible scenarios and reinforce all structures to withstand the weather. Generators are filled with gas, snow shovels stand at the ready, and a stockpile of hot cocoa materializes in our cupboards. When there is a chance of inclement weather, we have an overnight team that stays onsite, carefully monitoring every variable and reacting as necessary.

One of our most popular, most exciting events happens in the winter – Tree Toss! This event, which will be held on January 4th and January 18th of 2020, speaks to the incredible relationship we have with our community. Before we even opened to the public in 2007, Cranberry Tree Farm began donating their unsold Christmas trees to us as enrichment for the animals. Enrichment, in case you don’t know, is just what it sounds like: things that enrich an animal’s life. Here at the Animal Park, we believe in more than just keeping our residents fed, watered, and clean; we believe in providing them with new experiences, mental stimulation, and activities that challenge them and encourage them to express the natural behaviors they have in the wild. As it turns out, pine trees are ideal enrichment items! Our animals love the scratchy textures and strong scents of these trees, and we love watching our animals enjoy new things. At the event itself, guests are invited to wrap presents (with animal-safe materials) to give to their favorite resident, drink hot cocoa by our bonfire, and observe as our animals discover the new enrichment right before their eyes. It’s truly an experience unlike any other, and I highly recommend it for any family who wants to celebrate the season in a unique and unforgettable way.

Oh, and speaking of moments that last forever, be sure to stop by when Santa visits the Animal Park on December 14th and get a family Christmas photo!

So, as tempting as it can be to curl up on the couch for a quarter of the year, doing so can cause you to miss out on some of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring experiences that this area has to offer. We at the Animal Park encourage you to take your family outdoors during this magical time, especially to visit us and our incredible animals.

The Animal Park at the Conservators Center (formerly known as 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