The Wilds: Escape to an African savanna in southeast Ohio

Go on an African safari in southeast Ohio


A lone yellow oil pump stands out in a spacious, green valley in southeast Ohio, a reminder that this 10,000-acre swath of land was once drilled for oil and mined for coal by a dragline called Big Muskie.

But the land now known as the Wilds has been reclaimed, and most of the heavy equipment has been replaced by a collection of wild animals. Indeed, giraffes now move like cranes through the recovered meadows of the largest wildlife conservation center in North America. Rhinos, too, plow through tall grass, as do antelopes, zebras, camels and more than two dozen endangered species.

It seems like another world, but only because it’s so close to home in Columbus. For animal lovers and conservationists, the Wilds in Cumberland, Ohio, provides a bounty of adventure and education, as I recently learned while attending a weekend campout with my daughter, Rosie, and her Girl Scout troop.

The non-profit park opened in 1994 and began a partnership with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in 2001. Options include guided safari tours, horseback riding trails, fishing ponds, mountain bike paths and zip-line courses on 2,000 acres of pastures and lakes. There’s also a 27-acre Carnivore Conservation Center, which houses African wild dogs, cheetah and dholes.

We stayed overnight at the Robert W. Teater Conservation Education Camp, which accommodates 48 people in four yurts. The comfortable and modern camp is available for school groups and families, too. Otherwise stay at the family-friendly lodge or glam it up on a romantic getaway at Nomad Ridge – high-end yurts for adults only.

Our guide, named “J,” took us on bumpy tours in an old school bus and led us on night hikes, where we called for barred owls and encountered a snapping turtle.

We saw that spots where seams of coal were removed are now high cliffs. Places that had been bulldozed and flattened are now meadows. Native aviary species have returned, making the area a haven for bird-watching.

The best part, though, was seeing animals we’d only seen at the zoo seemingly roaming freely in Ohio. Oh yeah, and petting a rhinoceros was pretty cool, too. “It felt like a hairy rock,” Rosie said.

For more information, visit thewilds.org.


Embrace this hare-raising experience


Pat Barron wants you to think of rabbits as companion animals, just like cats and dogs.

As a volunteer at the Ohio House Rabbit Rescue in Columbus, Barron spends a lot of time introducing humans to rabbits in the hopes that she’ll pair a hare with a forever home.

“We think they make great family pets,” says Barron about the 35 spayed and neutered rabbits that are currently up for adoption at the rescue. “They’re quiet, litter trained and you don’t have to walk them.”

Each year in Ohio hundreds of unwanted pet rabbits are surrendered to animal shelters or released into the wild. The Ohio House Rabbit Rescue seeks a better alternative for these abandoned rabbits – one that includes unconditional love, a proper diet and regular veterinary care.

More than 100 rabbits are adopted annually through the program at a cost of $40 per bunny.

“We’re the only adoption center just for rabbits in Ohio,” Barron says. “Other places, like the Humane Society, have dogs, cats and some bunnies, but we have by far the most rabbits in the state.”

The rescue opened in 2013 in a 4,000 square-foot-space that’s overseen by a volunteer staff. It includes an intake area, treatment room and lots of play space.

Each bunny has its own 4-by-4-foot pen containing a cardboard shelter, litter pan, toys and food. The staff is happy to tell you about rabbit ownership and match you to the rabbit that best fits your personality and home environment.

“We want you to talk to the rabbits,” says Barron to me and my daughter, Rosie, during a Saturday visit. “Your voice is a signal to them that you’re not going to hurt them.”

Barron hops over a side of an enclosure. Like a magician, she lifts the cardboard box, revealing a black rabbit with bright eyes and twitching whiskers.

“Hi, Ebony! How are you, sweetheart?”

Visitors are taught how to socialize the rabbits so they’re more adoptable. Volunteer opportunities exist, too, including the position of “bunny socializer” – people who simply spend time with the rabbits, talking to them and petting them.

Barron teaches us the proper technique for petting bunnies. We start at their foreheads and stroke backward, focusing our attention on their ears.

“Don’t pet their noses or their behinds,” Barron says. “They don’t like that.

We also learn that they don’t like it when people make cartoony rabbit sounds, wave their hands in front of their faces, try to feed them hay or play with their toys.

“Good bunny,” Rosie says to a gentle, brown rabbit named Cupid.  “You’re such a good boy.”

Ohio House Rabbit Rescue is located at 5485 N. High St., Columbus. Public visiting hours are 5:30-7:30 p.m. Wednesday; and noon-4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, or by appointment by calling (614) 263-8557.

Visitors who wish to interact with the rabbits should be at least 8 years old.

Learn even more about bunny ownership at the Midwest BunFest in October.



Which creatures will thrill you at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium?


My two children and I join a gathering crowd at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. We press our noses against a wall of glass to view trout swimming in a massive tank. The sun’s rays glisten through the rippling water.

“Let’s go,” says my 4-year-old son, Max. “This is boring.”

Just then a white creature sticks its pointy nose into the water’s surface. We see the animal’s face from below and gasp with excitement. The giant female polar bear dives in, heading toward the bottom of the tank in search of a snack. In a moment she spirals back up and stands atop a glass ceiling to eat her treat in the fresh air. We’re now under her, admiring the mammoth feet of one of the world’s largest predators.

“Oh my gosh,” exclaims Max. “This is awesome!”

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Close encounters with animals we’d flee in the wild are among my family’s favorite experiences at the 87-year-old zoo, ranked No. 1 in the United States by USA Travel Guide.

Under the watch of Director Emeritus Jack Hanna, the zoo has created clever habitats that permit visitors to intimately observe animals such as African lions, Siberian tigers and Alaskan grizzly bears. Expect to see gorillas, sharks and pythons, and even hand-feed leaves to giraffes from a raised platform.

During an early spring visit, I load the kids into their wagon and set off on an adventure. Max and his 6-year-old sister, Rosie, pretend they’re on a bus, heading to faraway places in Asia, Africa and Australia, with stops at exotic playgrounds along the way.

We begin in the North America region, where we marvel at the dexterity of grizzly bears as they delicately use their giant claws to eat treats. Next stop is the Polar Playground, where Max and Rosie work off some energy while bounding from atop an igloo to inside a safari truck to down a twisty slide.

We head to Asia Quest and settle in near the tigers. The observation window is adjacent to their watering hole, and one tiger gazes into our eyes as it passes by for a drink.

After an ice-cream break, we zip past the lions and Conservation Lake, toward an area called Shores. There, we visit the zoo’s 85,000-gallon aquarium, a popular hangout for parents with young children.

I catch my breath as my children admire a constant stream of colorful fish, including one they call “Long Nose.”

“Let’s pretend we’re sea turtles,” says Rosie as she pretends to swim alongside the tank.

Later, at Manatee Coast and Expedition Congo, we observe even bigger creatures munching on lettuce—first, several chubby manatees, then some beefy gorillas.

We culminate our adventure aboard the most endearing of zoo features—the antique carousel, which boasts a band organ and 52 original horses and chariots. I gladly pony up $1 per child for a spin.

As we head toward the exit, Max contemplates the illustrated zoo map.

“I want to ride the slide,” he says.

He’s looking at Dolphin Dash at the neighboring Zoombezi Bay water park. I tell Max he’ll have to wait until the weather warms up.

“Next time we come to the zoo, we’re wearing our swimsuits,” he says.

For more information about the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, visit www.colszoo.org.

Experience Columbus is offering a “Roar and Explore Adventure Getaway” package for $411. It includes a two-night stay at a Drury Hotel, four tickets to COSI, four tickets to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and four tickets to Zoombezi Bay. Learn more at www.columbusfamilyfun.com.

Learn about farm life at nature preserve


It was a warm spring day, and I wanted to spend it outdoors exploring a new place with my 2-year-old son, Max.

I discovered the Stratford Ecological Center in Delaware, Ohio, while flipping through a county visitor’s guide.

I had never before heard of this educational farm and nature preserve, located a half hour’s drive north or Columbus. The nonprofit organization is dedicated to educating children and adults about the relationships between living things and their environment.

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Situated on 236 acres, the center includes a 95-acre state nature preserve, 3 miles of hiking trails and a small organic farm with cows, sheep, chickens and pigs. The farm is open to the public for exploration, and also contains gardens, greenhouses, an orchard and a maple-sugaring operation.

Hours are 9 a.m.-5 p.m., Monday through Friday, and 9 a.m.-1 p.m., Saturday. So Max and I were in luck for our impromptu adventure.

I eagerly drove out to country with my car windows down. But when we arrived, if felt as though we were the only ones around at what appeared to be a private, family farm.

I stepped inside the information center and met volunteer coordinator Jane Walsh, who encouraged us to explore the property on our own. She also invited us to tag along with a group of 60 home-schooled children, who’d be arriving soon.

“You’ll want to see our crop of new lambs,” Walsh said.

I couldn’t refuse.

When the children arrived, the place lit up with laughter and excitement. Other volunteers began to appear out of barns and greenhouses. The children and their parents were divided into groups for a tour. Max and I fit right in, joining one of the groups.

Volunteer Bethanie Bidinger led our group, beginning with a tour of one of the greenhouses. It smelled of fresh rosemary, lettuce and spinach.

Bidinger, a graduate of Ohio State’s natural resources program, plucked a beet from the dirt. She then cut open the red, edible root and dabbed a bit of its juicy flesh on her cheeks and lips.

“Beets make a wonderful, natural makeup,” Bidinger said.

The children laughed and then clamored to have their own faces and hands painted red, too.

Bidinger then led us to a fenced-in area full of colorful, roaming chickens. She opened the gate and we headed inside, along with the strutting roosters and hens.

“Does anyone eat chicken nuggets?” Bidinger asked, to my surprise.

Many of the children raised their hands.

“Well, this is where they come from.”

Bidinger also taught the children where eggs, beef, ham and milk come from. Upon leaving the chicken coop, she instructed everyone to thank the chickens for all they give us.

“Thank you, chickens,” the children said.

Max and I ended our adventure in the farm’s big red barn, where we met 18 lambs, dairy goats and a llama with a serious under-bite.

It was the perfect ending to an impromptu adventure.

The Stratford Ecological Center is located at 3083 Liberty Rd., Delaware. It offers children’s farm and field trips, adult tours, family programs and farm camps that teach youngsters, ages 3 to 17, how to care for animals and raise a garden.

There is no cost to visit, but a donation is suggested.

For more information, including upcoming activities and costs of specific programs, call 740-363-2548 or visit www.stratfordecologicalcenter.org.

Wild animals plus millions of lights makes visit to zoo merry, bright


The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium is making the holiday season even brighter this year with its “green” Wildlights display, running now through early January. It’s one of the best ways for central Ohio families to spend a holiday evening if it’s not raining or too frigid outside.

The two million shiny lights in this years’ display illuminate more and use less electricity than traditional bulbs because they’re LEDs (light-emitting diodes). They also last longer.

But nevermind the technical stuff. The zoo’s annual holiday display wows visitors with its fun animal shapes, musical choreography and intensity. The lights are strung among the zoo’s eight geographic regions, where more than 5,000 animals are housed.

It’s a pleasure to walk through this light show, not drive by it or through it. The grandest display is around the zoo’s pond. The lights reflect upon the water, creating a brilliant scene. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for a late autumn snowfall, which no doubt would yield a magical backdrop.

The zoo also is planning special activities in conjunction with the lights display such as Santa’s Reindeer Corral, where guests can meet four of Santa’s reindeer friends that reside at the zoo, and Animals on Safari, an energetic animal show with performing dogs, cats and other creatures. Kids also can decorate a cookie in Mrs. Claus’ Kitchen and get their photos taken with Santa.

If you’re chilly, there are plenty of indoor exhibits to duck into. We enjoyed visiting the elephants.

The Columbus Zoo is a wonderful place to visit because of encounters such as these. Recently the USA Travel Guide named it the No. 1 zoo in the country. A lot of the publicity comes courtesy of Jungle Jack Hanna, the director emeritus whose many public appearances through the years have propelled the zoo into the national spotlight.

The zoo is located just north of Columbus in Powell at 4850 W. Powell Rd. Wildlights hours are 5-9 p.m., Monday-Thursday; 5-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday; and 5-9 p.m., Sunday. The zoo will be closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

For more information, visit www.colszoo.org.

Metro park pleases families and birds


Whittier Peninsula was never a place to take your kids. For decades, the 160-acre tract of land located south of downtown Columbus was a mangled mess of junked cars, buried trash and sewer water.

But things are different now – thanks in part to the birds that annually migrate through the Scioto River headland.

Nesting herons and dozens of other species of native Ohio birds inspired Columbus, Franklin County Metro Parks and the Ohio chapter of the National Audubon Society to reclaim the land that was once a city dump. They transformed it into the Scioto Audubon Metro Park, a 72-acre urban playground with walking trails, a picnic area and bird-watching decks, and a 35-foot outdoor climbing wall.

The park’s centerpiece is the Grange Insurance Audubon Center, which opened this summer at 505 W. Whittier St. The state-of-the-art building, made possible by a $4 million gift from Grange Insurance, features a 200-seat auditorium, classrooms for nature-based learning and an observation room with birding books and binoculars for viewing birds. The 18,000 square-foot center also meets LEED certification, so it’s ecologically sustainable, too.

The center offers hands-on educational programs, said to be a valuable resource for the nearby urban schools. Students will learn bird banding, data collection and mathematical analysis while observing the weather, plants and wildlife.

The center also offers a variety of public programs based on community suggestions such as urban stargazing, bat watching, nature photography, canoe trips and family movie nights.

For more information, visit www.grange.audubon.org.

Pause at tiger exhibit while prowling around Columbus Zoo and Aquarium


Chimpanzees have always been my favorite attraction at the zoo because their humanlike qualities make me contemplate life as we know it. Recently, though, I’ve become captivated by tigers – Amur tigers to be exact.

Three of them are on display at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium near the suburb of Dublin, and I’ve gotten to know them better thanks to a family zoo pass that we purchased. Our family has visited the zoo several times this year, giving us varying views of the tigers. Each time these prowling felines put on an amazing show, simply by being themselves, with a beauty and grace not seen in most other animals.

In February, we saw one tiger peacefully lying atop its cement cave during a snowstorm. Another time we watched one pace about its enclosure through a pane of glass. Its massive body slinked by us, a hands-length away. It looked me in the eye, sending a chill up my spine.

The Columbus Zoo is a great place to visit because of encounters such as these. Recently the USA Travel Guide named it the No. 1 zoo in the country. A lot of the publicity comes courtesy of Jungle Jack Hanna, the director emeritus whose many public appearances through the years have propelled the zoo into the national spotlight.

But let’s not forget the animals.

The Columbus Zoo has one male tiger, named Foli, and two females, named Kisa and Irisa. Foli is Kisa’s brother, and he’s been at the zoo since the Asia Quest exhibit opened in 2006. The males can weigh up to 800 pounds, making them the largest tigers in the world.

Amur tigers come from the forests of Eastern Russia, northeastern China and the northern regions of North Korea.

“These forests can look like jungles in the summer, but they become very cold and snowy in the winter,” says Patty Peters, who works in promotions at the zoo. “Its large paws help it cross the snow, as though it’s wearing snowshoes.”

Whether rain, shine or snow, I like to think that these tigers and I are becoming fast friends.

For more information, visit www.colszoo.org.