Chapel Hill: Opinion

Blair Pollock: Where the wild things are

It’s possible the Conservators’ Center in southern Caswell County may be the one place in the world where lions roar then wolves howl in response. Sometimes it’s vice-versa.

That roar is so deep and you can get so close you can feel it in your chest. The wolf howl even when prompted by humans howling first, brings a primal chill down the spine of us upright bipeds. Good thing two fences are between us and them. But our tour guide assured us they were just “talking.” We we were told that sometimes the pack of New Guinean singing dogs domiciled in a nearby enclosure join the chorus, just not the day we visited. Not the tigers either, all they do is ‘chuff’ or give a low rumble of what we’re told, is friendly approval of their human visitors.

All this non-human chatter takes place every day at this animal rescue sanctuary and education center on 45 acres a bit over 25 miles from my house. The Conservators’ Center was begun as a non-profit in 1999 by David Evans and Mindy Stinner, veterans of another similar organization in Chatham County, Carolina Tiger Rescue, formerly Carnivore Preservation Trust. Mindy was a recovering school teacher and in the mid-’90s actively casting around for another line of work. She found a great fit in animal rescue, conservation and education. She says, “Now I can teach what I love all the time.”

Around that same time, Dave toured Carnivore Preservation Trust with its founder, the late animal geneticist Dr. Michael Bleyman and was instantly hooked, telling me that only 100 yards into his first visit he turned to Bleyman and asked, “How did you do that?” A plumber by trade and a Brooklyn native; he’s been at the wild endangered carnivore rescue business ever since.

After a few years at Carolina Tiger Resuce, Mindy and Dave both found a need to get together and start their own place to carry out the mission of rescue, conservation and education around large cats and other smaller wild creatures, some of which are threatened, some in need of creating viable captive breeding populations and others who just needproper care. Many of the 90-odd animals who have arrived at this sanctuary are elderly, have special care needs, came as babies, orphans or were victims of abuse and neglect and their rescuers found a home for them at the Conservators’ Center.

The animals, even in repose, are of course stunning and captivating. Everyone from the very skunky smelling red fox to the binturongs who smell like popcorn charmed all of us on the tour with their mere existence. Getting within five feet of wild exotic creatures gives an inherent thrill and hearing our volunteer guide Kevin tell their individual stories with humor and zest added a distinct flavor. Learning that Sasha one of the servals, a small African cat being bred here, is considered the “super model” of the bunch and loves to pose for photos or seeing Kira, a slightly crippled female lion and Arthur an enormous white tiger lounging in the same enclosure as life-long buddies gives entrée to a world where species intermingle and perhaps creates even more empathy for them from us humans.

While spending two hours in the company of these wondrous nineteen mostly carnivorous species with all their varying colors, fur patterns, odors, sounds and appearance is uplifting, the effort, passion and energy from the hard working humans who run the place is more amazing still. Along with founders Mindy and Dave, are a core team including husband and wife Julie and John David Wagner who met at the Center, Julie’s mother Mandy Matson and eight other paid staff. Some have chosen to remit their salaries for this year so that the Center can meet its development needs. There is also a group of what are termed ‘staff- level volunteers’ including the nine tour guides. If the quality of our guide Kevin indicates the overall quality of volunteers there, clearly they are far beyond what any organization relying on volunteers might ever expect.

Knowledge, dedication and connection to each other, the animals and the visitors are obvious throughout. The veterinarians who provide medical care have developed such a bond that the animals will often come to the fence and lie down to get their injections right through the chain links. Julie told us that they hold funeral ceremonies for animals who die there. There is even a strong bond with the neighboring humans who could easily be unnerved by the presence of nearby lions, tigers and wolves. The lions’ roars are audible for up to five miles and the neighbors do call sometimes, not to complain but to request a “roar,” because they’re having friends over and want them to hear the “locals.” In this isolated section of a very quiet and sparsely populated county lies a minor miracle worth the drive and price of admission.

You can reach Blair Pollock at