Get up-close and personal with all your favorite animals without having to leave the country.

By Anna Halkidis
National Geographic/Beth Caldwell Photography

I got to pet a rhino—that’s something I never thought I’d say! His skin was rougher than I imagined, but a surprising soft spot behind his ears was easier to pet. The friendly guy was surrounded by a bunch of other rhinos at The Wilds, a conservation center in Cumberland, Ohio—and he seemed to adore all the attention. Who would have thought?

At first glance, the rhinos all looked the same to me. But Curt Coleman, an animal management specialist at The Wilds, says he can tell them all apart by small, distinct characteristics, like a different horn or ear shape. And he even calls them by their names. 

These rhinos, along with the other animals at The Wilds, are some of the stars of Nat Geo WILD’s Secrets of the Zoo (season 2 premiered on June 2, 2019). The show dives into animal life at The Wilds and the passionate crew that takes care of them.

The private, non-profit safari park is one of the largest conservation centers in North America—it has more than 9,000 acres with a ton of different species roaming around. Some of them are endangered (high risk of becoming extinct in the wild), while others are threatened (high risk of becoming endangered).

Think giraffes, ostriches, cheetahs, zebras, and a bunch of lesser-known animals, such as African colored dogs, common elands, Persian onagers, and Sichuan takins. (Fun fact: The latter is rumored to be the inspiration for the Beast in Disney’s Beauty and the Beast.)

National Geographic/Beth Caldwell Photography

Cuteness aside, The Wilds prides itself on its conservation efforts. “We have [the animals] here in the hopes that someday we may be able to help bolster the wild populations and until then, they are ambassadors for their relatives in the wild,” says Dan Beetem, the director of animal management at The Wilds, which was founded in the 1990s. 

While some of the animals were brought over from zoos, the majority of them were born at The Wilds through breeding programs. This allows for it to also be a home to three species that went extinct in the wild: Pere David’s Deer from China, Przewalski’s Wild Horse from China and Mongolia, and the Scimitar-Horned Oryx from Africa. “Every one of those species has been returned to the wild and we’re trying to build up populations there to make them safe in the wild again," says Beetem, who also makes appearances on Secrets of the Zoo.

As animals continue to join the endangered list or are threatened to be, like the giraffe, Beetem hopes trips to The Wilds will encourage people to pay closer attention to threats to wildlife around the world. That includes habitat loss from things like agriculture, pollution, and climate change, as well as poachers—every day in Africa, dozens of elephants are killed for their ivory and three rhinos are slaughtered for their horns. “Going up-close to a rhino and seeing what an amazing animal it is, we hope personal experiences like that help connect people,” adds Beetem.

Animals lovers are able to get a close look while cruising through The Wilds from May through October. Families can choose from different packages, including the “Open-Air Safari” where an unenclosed bus with a canvas canopy rides through the open-range animal areas. Or opt for the “Wildside Tour,” which allows for close interactions with the animals guided by staff members (children must be 4 years or older for this one). Other options include a horseback safari allowing visitors to take it all in on the saddle of a horse and a fishing safari on one of the lakes on the premises.

National Geographic/Beth Caldwell Photography

A trip to the zoo

After visiting The Wilds, you can also travel an hour and a half or so to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, a partner of The Wilds and a big part of Secrets of the Zoo. The 12,000-acre zoo is home to 10,000 animals, including everything from lions, leopards, and elephants to pythons, flamingos, and turtles. (If you’re lucky, you might bump into legendary zookeeper and director emeritus, Jack Hanna!)    

Here parents and children can also get a closer look at some of the species, including the friendly giraffes who seem to have no fear when taking lettuce from your hand. And just like the staff at The Wilds, those at the zoo hope to let people in on their conservation efforts and love for their furry friends. That includes Priya Bapodra, BVMH, MS, MRCVS, a staff veterinarian and one of the stars of the show.

“Being a 4-year-old child feeding a giraffe, that’s going to really leave a lifelong impression and that’s what we want—to inspire the future generation to care about our world,” says Dr. Bapodra, who has been at the zoo since 2012. “Every child and every adult that walks through the door of our zoo, we have an opportunity to inspire them and connect them with wildlife.”  

Secrets of the Zoo airs Sundays 9/8C on Nat Geo WILD.

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