Lions and tigers and bears, oh my! The nonprofit Animal Ark is home to some of the world’s most exciting animals
I’ve seen very few things in my life that were so beautiful I wanted to cry. Standing mere inches from a cheetah, listening to him purr while he sniffed my hand, was definitely one of them. I was given this rare opportunity last week when I paid my first visit to the Animal Ark Wildlife Sanctuary.
“He’s just ‘reading the newspaper,’” said Aaron Hiibel, executive director and co-founder of the Animal Ark, explaining that this awesome animal, Jamar, was rubbing his nose against my flattened hand to take in my scent, not to contemplate attacking me. Jamar’s brother, Moyo, hopped down from his perch and landed with a high-pitched “mew,” sounding like my housecat.
Meeting the fastest land mammal on Earth is truly one of the most surprising, incredible experiences I’ve ever had. And I can’t believe that even though I’m only 25 miles from home, I’ve never been here before.Two by two
Of course, touching cheetahs isn’t typical at the Animal Ark, a nonprofit organization housed on 38 acres off Red Rock Road that is a haven for injured, abandoned or un-releasable wildlife. As a member of the American Sanctuary Association, the Animal Ark is not a zoo. It offers protection to its animals for the rest of their natural lives and gives guests a tremendous opportunity to see animals from just inches away, through glass.
“Our philosophy is that all wild animals belong in the wild,” says Hiibel, “but in reality that doesn’t always happen.”
The reality is that buying and selling protected wildlife is a multibillion-dollar business in the United States, falling just behind arms and drug smuggling in terms of criminal earnings. When people try to keep exotics as pets, their woeful lack of understanding of how to keep, feed and protect them leads often to abuse, injury, illness and even the death of the animal or owner. Each year, thousands of people attempt to “donate” their exotic pets to zoos, which aren’t able to take them. Fortunately, in some cases, Animal Ark can.
Currently, nearly 40 animals call the Animal Ark home. Aside from the three cheetahs, there are orange-and-black tigers, a white tiger, a lynx, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, several varieties of fox, black bears, a badger, a raccoon, several raptors including owls, a kestrel and a peregrine falcon, and wolves, which started it all in the late ’70s.
“My wife, Diana, and I got into this business for the wrong reasons,” says Aaron Hiibel. “We started out owning these animals as pets. We had two wolves, and later a mountain lion, but we quickly realized they weren’t meant to be kept as pets. But the wolves had this tremendous social order. They were so neat, so we started doing educational programs about them and found we had a gift for it.”Ark-itecture
After accruing six animals, which lived with the Hiibels at their Golden Valley home, it was time to start looking for property, and by 1981, they had established the Animal Ark at its current location. Aaron built their large home by hand, using green practices like solar heating and native rock. The practice now extends to the entire Animal Ark, which operates completely off the grid with its own solar and wind energy.
Throughout its 28 years, Animal Ark has made great strides—especially considering that aside from a few fees paid by the Washoe County School District, the Ark receives no governmental support, and relies entirely on private donations, memberships, park admissions and the gift shop, a small room filled with animal-themed items that alone brings in about $35,000 a year for the Ark and helps with the care and feeding of the animals, park maintenance and dozens of annual educational programs.
“For that first 10 years, it was just my wife and me, paying for all of it out of pocket,” says Hiibel. “It took a few thousand a year to maintain the animals. It takes about $350,000 to care for them all now, and fortunately, we’ve always been in the black.” Also fortunately, the Hiibels have developed great relationships with several area vets, who often donate their services.
Thanks to a successful capital campaign two years ago, they have made about $180,000 worth of improvements to the animal enclosures, as well as adding a playground and an Honor Garden, to recognize loyal donors. With the remaining $450,000, the Animal Ark nonprofit corporation purchased the property and the Hiibels’ former residence. Future plans include turning the house into an education center with offices and caretaker quarters, as well as building three new animal enclosures, including one for brown bears and grizzlies.
There’s a remarkable amount of information provided about animals through interpretive signs, as well as through the individual stories posted at each enclosure about how each animal arrived here. Some of the stories are heartbreaking—from the tale of a mountain lion who was hit by two cars, to the bobcat raised in a rabbit hutch, and who grew too weak to jump. Yet the animals thrive here. They eat well, they exercise, they play, and they love when people come to visit.Where the wild things are
That’s not to say that the economy hasn’t hurt the Animal Ark; it has. That and its remote location mean that it’s a constant uphill battle to remind locals that it’s there.
“In this economy, people are looking to stay close to home, and taking your kids to a movie costs a small fortune,” says Hiibel. “Admission here is a good deal, and there aren’t too many places where you can see a black bear from 15 feet away. Once people come out here, they say, ‘Wow, I didn’t expect this.’ So half the people coming here are returning and bringing friends. But a lot of locals still don’t know we’re here, or they just don’t ever come.”
Animal Ark has its signature fundraising event, “Out of Africa,” on Aug. 22. It provides a rare opportunity to see cheetahs running at top speed—up to 70 mph. Also appearing is the African Birds in Flight show on Saturday mornings, when Master Falconer Martin Stiasny brings an African pied crow, eagles, falcons and homing pigeons to perform amazing stunts.