It’s a mile and a half, gravel road in the middle of nowhere, that you must take to get to the wildlife sanctuary, Animal Ark. The sanctuary is located on 38 acres of land in northern Reno, Nevada, perfect for wild animals. Animal Ark is open to the public and offers an experience unlike any other.
“We want Animal Ark to be a personal experience. We want you to really get a feel for nature and have a personal experience,” said Alex Worsley, the education coordinator and administrative manager at Animal Ark.
According to the website animalark.org, Animal Ark has been taking in “injured, abandoned or otherwise non-releasable wildlife” since 1981. There are currently 36 animals ranging from the common mountain lion to the unique cheetah.
“We have mostly North American wildlife; mountain lions, bears, jaguars, wolves, foxes, raptors, desert tortoise. We have two exotic species; the tigers and cheetahs.” Worsley said.
As stated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the gray wolf and desert tortoise are endangered in the state of Nevada. There are two gray wolves and two desert tortoises at Animal Ark.
Worsley added that the staff receives a call almost everyday, to take in an animal in need of a home. However, there are certain criteria an animal must meet to be brought to Animal Ark.
“You need time, you need money, you need space and you need to know how to take care of that species and any medical conditions that animal may have,” Worsley explained.
For each animal at Animal Ark, their enclosure mimics the terrain and surroundings it would have in the wild, making each animal feel at home.
So who started Animal Ark?
Thirty-two years ago, animal-lovers Aaron and Diana Hiibel started the wildlife refuge but, there is more to loving animals that inspired Animal Ark.
“One of my best memories as a kid, just seeing the animals down at the San Francisco Zoo. The first time I saw a big cat up close and we were ten feet away from a tiger and that memory never left my mind,” Mr. Hiibel said.
Forty-two years later, Aaron and Diana got married and on a whim, purchased two wolves and mountain lions but shortly after, they understood their purchase was a mistake.
“We quickly realized wild animals belong in the wild, they can’t be kept as pets,” Hiibel said.
The couple shared their passion with others and began to present educational programs about wild animals but after a while, presenting at schools was not enough.
“We started looking for a piece of property and found 70 acres out here to put Animal Ark and that was 1981,” Hiibel said.
Mr. Hiibel is now not only one of the co-founders but is also the executive director.
In addition to being open to the public, Animal Ark also hosts field trips and travels to schools who cannot make it to the park.
“We do field trips, we reach about 8000 school kids every year. It’s all grade based, so a kindergardener will have a very different experience than a middle school, high school or university class,” Worsley explained.
For the schools who cannot afford to travel out to Animal Ark, Animal Ark travels to them.
“We go to schools too. We take skulls and claws and furs. Things that the kids can see and touch,” Worsley added.
If the school is lucky, Zachariah, the Red Tail Hawk, might even make an appearance.
Animal Ark is also a non-profit organization and runs mainly off of admissions.
“We’re like any other non-profit in Reno, we struggle to raise funds,” Hiibel said.
Yet, thanks to visitors, the several volunteers and donations, Animal Ark stays afloat.
“We just have to have a very good budget and we have to be very careful that we are asking for enough donations and people are supporting us. We get donations year-round,” Worsley said.
To add onto the 5000 hours of work volunteers have put in, Animal Ark also stays on budget by harvesting their electricity from natural sources.
“We’re off the grid, we produce all of our electricity through solar and wind power which means we have to be very conservative with our heat lamps and electricity use. Which we need a lot of during our cold winters,” Worsley described.
On a day to day basis at Animal Ark, there are several visitors, many of which return more than once, but for admissions staff member, Meghan Arrance, her frequent visits turned into more than just a love for animals.
“I got involved when I was really little, my meemaw used to bring me out here, she was a volunteer and the obsession with animals started young and it’s really awesome that I got this job for the summer,” Arrance said.
In a couple of weeks, Arrance will be able to interact hands-on with the animals, including one that she used to be afraid of.
“I’ve always had a fear of wolves since I was little. I kind of stayed away from ours just because I didn’t feel really comfortable around them but this last week, we had one of the rescues, he showed up and he got out of the truck and he had them on their giant, chain leashes. I got to pet [the wolf], I was really scared and he walked right up to me just like any other dog,” Arrance recalled.
Arrance hopes to become an animal keeper at Animal Ark.
Working with wild animals everyday is a tough task but at the end of the day, the job is extremely rewarding.
“We definitely get connected, all in love with each of these animals,” Worsley said.
“It’s amazing, honestly. I fell in love with each animal,” Arrance said.
For Mr. Hiibel, it is not only the animals that bring him joy.
“Just seeing kids come through here light up. That’s rewarding and what makes it worth while to us,” Hiibel said.
To visit Animal Ark or for more information visit animalark.org.