Elon students get wild at Conservators’ Center

A tiger sleeps lazily at the Conservator’s Center in Mebane. The Center primarly serves big cats. Photo by Claire Esparros, photo editor.

Some Elon University students are completely unaware of their neighbors — even when that includes lions, tigers, wolves and other wild animals.  Only one town over in Mebane, the Conservators’ Center rescues and provides homes for a variety of animals.

The Conservators’ Center was founded in 1999 by Doug Evans and Mindy Stinner, and began as a conservation breeding facility with no intent to house big cats.  But both founders had experience with large felines, and eventually people began seeking their expertise. As time went on, the once small, private conservation breeding facility transformed into a large, public  organization with a three-part mission.

An arctic wolf at the Conservators' Center relaxes in the sun. Photo by Claire Esparros, photo editor.

The mission states the Conservators’ Center is a nonprofit organization that preserves threatened species through rescuing wildlife in need, responsible captive breeding and providing educational programs and support worldwide.

It describes the center’s approach as “the home of last resort.”  They accept and care for the animals that no one else wants, ranging from cases of abuse and neglect, to owners simply being unable to care for these animals on their own.

Mandy Matson handles communications at the Conservators’ Center and said that both founders “have a magical way with abused and neglected animals.”

In addition to rescuing animals, the Conservators’ Center also works to preserve obscure species through selective breeding.  They follow an organized plan to ensure the species’ survival, and are currently working with binturongs, New Guinea singing dogs, Geoffrey’s cats and jungle cats.  They do not breed big cats or wolves.

Education is the last portion of its mission, which supports the other two parts.

“The goal is to introduce people to species through meeting individual animals,” Matson said.  “The animals could be considered ambassadors for their species and people walk away understanding them more.”

This is how the Conservators’ Center differs from the average zoo. Exhibits at zoos are designed for people and are intended to display animals for entertainment and educational purposes.  The Conservators’ Center accomplishes the same goals as a zoo, but through a different approach.

Instead of creating displays focusing on aesthetics to amuse visitors, the Conservators’ Center designs the enclosures with the animals’ needs as the primary concern. Additionally, to support the educational portion of its mission, visitors are taken on guided tours of the facilities instead of walking around alone.

In order for tours to happen, there is a structured, daily routine to ensure all of the animals are healthy and happy.

During the day, the animals are shifted out of their enclosures to smaller holding areas so that workers can go in and clean the area, change the water and leave food and any medications.

“It’s very fortunate that the Conservators’ Center is located in a rural area in a wonderful farming community that allows us to work with farmers and acquire chickens.”

They also have agreements with grocery stores for additional meat.

The Conservators’ Center accepts other forms of support, including intern and volunteer programs.

These programs allow students to work side-by-side with the keepers and learn all about working with the animals and maintaining the facilities.

Senior Anne Randolph Goddard said she wasn’t sure what her volunteer activities would be. She assumed she would mostly help with odd jobs around the compound and wouldn’t have much interaction with the animals.

But she said her actual experience was completely different from her expectations.

“I am amazed with how close we are able to work with the rare and exotic animals,” she said.  “I’m in close contact with tigers, leopards, lions, servals and other exotics on a weekly basis.  Of course, I follow safety rules and regulations and never come within a certain distance of them, but I cannot describe the experience of being able to stare into the eyes of an adult lion or having a tiger ‘chuff’ a hello to you.”

Another senior, Natalie Butler, said she would recommend that others volunteer at the Conservators’ Center.

“It’s been an eye-opening experience for me, in discovering both how intensive exotic animal care is and also in becoming closer than ever before to animals that some people have never even seen,” she said.

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