My husband and I recently returned from a road trip out to Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, and one of the first stops on our trip was at a wonderful place called The Wilds. Located about an hour and a half from Columbus, The Wilds is the largest wildlife conservation center in North America, and visitors can take an open-air safari throughout part of their nearly 10,000 acres of property. If you love wild animals and yearn to see them roaming in wide-open spaces, The Wilds is the place for you!
About The Wilds
The Wilds is located in Cumberland, OH, on land that had been used for several decades for mining. In the late 70s, the idea for The Wilds was conceived and a nonprofit was created in 1984 with the name International Center for the Preservation of Wild Animals, Inc. This nonprofit was gifted the land The Wilds currently sits upon by a subsidiary of American Electric Power, and work began to make the idea of The Wilds become a reality.
The Wilds is a seriously legit organization, and they have been accredited by the Association of Aquariums and Zoos (the AZA) since 1996. Jack Hanna, an animal expert, conservationist, and TV personality, is on the board of The Wilds and one of the strongest supporters of the work being done there.
The Wilds formed a partnership with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium back in 2001 and they have several other partnerships with conservation and species-survival organizations. Many of the species at The Wilds are extinct or seriously endangered in the wild, and The Wilds participates in various breeding programs to help regrow these animals’ numbers and, in some cases, reintroduce species to their native lands.
Despite the idea for The Wilds being conceived in the 70s, it wasn’t until 1992 that The Wilds was finally ready to release its first species out into pasture: the Przewalski’s Horse. In 1994, The Wilds started offering tours and ten years later they created their open-air safari, which is the tour we took when we visited. You and about 30 others board a bus with no windows and set out onto the approximately 2,000 acres that currently provide a home (and ample room to roam!) to several different animal species.
Getting to The Wilds
Getting to The Wilds is a bit of an adventure if you’re from out of town. It’s pretty much out in the middle of nowhere, and you most likely won’t have cell service to help guide you there unless you were able to put the address into Google Maps or Waze before setting out. To avoid any mishaps, I’d recommend using the directions provided on The Wilds’ website. We did miss a turn on our way there, but we were at least treated with some lovely scenery until we got back on track.
When you arrive at The Wilds, you’ll park in their lot (which costs $6), and there is a shuttle that will drive you up to the visitors center. You can walk if you prefer, but it’s close to a mile away (uphill) so the shuttle is really the way to go.
We had bought our tickets online prior to arriving, but you can buy them onsite as well if you’d like. However, you may want to check the schedule online before driving all the way out there because many of the time slots on the day of our visit were sold out!
The Open-Air Safari Tour at The Wilds
We had a 12:00 tour time, but the 11:30 was running a bit behind and had room for some extra folks to climb aboard, so we hopped on the bus with them. We set out for the first pasture, and we bumped our way down the gravel road. It’s not a smooth ride, folks, and it’s going to be a bit hot and dusty if you visit in the summer. Bring some water and your sunscreen!
We approached the first pasture and our tour guide, Emily, explained that The Wilds uses a double-fence, double-gate system to contain their non-native animals. As it turns out, there is a state and federal rule that requires this level of security if you’re housing animals not native to the area. Just like at the dog park, once you pass through the first door, you have to wait until it’s closed behind you before opening up that second door.
Sometimes there are animals lingering near the gates and the “Animal Management” staff needs to be called to lure the animals away from the gate so that the tour bus can proceed. We saw two other buses get stuck for a while, and we also had a rogue ostrich delay our bus for a bit – they’re wild animals with minds of their own, so be prepared for this kind of delay if you visit!
Once we were through the gate, we were immediately treated to our first animal sighting. Down in the pond were some Père David’s Deer, which are native to China and were extinct in the wild by the late 1800s. The only reason they still exist today is because a French missionary, Père David, had moved some of the deer (illegally) to various wildlife parks throughout Europe.
Through various breeding programs over the past couple centuries, the number of Père David’s Deer has increased and they have since been reintroduced to wildlife preserves in China. There were lots of them at The Wilds, and we heard their funny belch-like mating calls on several occasions during our tour! Apparently, they also like to roll around in dirt and mud and grass before trying to put the moves on the ladies. Sexy…
We also came across some Sichuan Takins, who were slowly walking up the hill towards our bus when we entered. They are also native to China, and they are a bit shy. Supposedly, they aren’t often out and about as much as they were on the day we visited The Wilds, and since they’re very good at hiding, they are also very difficult to research in the wild.
In fact, Emily mentioned that researchers from China have actually come to The Wilds to study the takins since they ARE so hard to find in the wild. The Wilds has the largest herd in North America, and they have plenty of room to roam on the property, making it a great place for researchers to observe their behavior and learn more about them.
Next, we encountered some American Bison, which are native to this country and are the official national mammal of the U.S. Bison used to roam the U.S. in the tens of millions, but fewer than a million remain today, most of which are in preserves, zoos, and conservation centers. As we were driving past the bison, we spotted a solitary rhino and our group was immediately excited, but we needed to drive around in a big loop in order to try to come up alongside her for a closer look.
In the meantime, though, we came across some Persian Onagers, which is a donkey species from Iran. They’re one of the fastest donkeys in the world, able to reach speeds up to 40 mph! Fewer than 700 onagers exist in the wild, so organizations like The Wilds are trying to increase their numbers and have had some success doing so via artificial insemination.
We continued our loop around the hill in the hopes of finding the rhino, Sonia, and, fortunately, she was still there! Sonia is a Greater One-Horned Asian Rhino, named as such because she’s native to Asia and has only one horn. This type of rhino is a solitary animal, but Sonia seemed perfectly happy to be on her own, munching on some grass while we all admired her from up close. Soon after, we headed to the gate to exit the pasture and continue our tour of The Wilds.
We were off to a good start so far and thoroughly enjoying our visit at The Wilds. In addition to riding through the various pastures, the tour also offers two stops for guests to get out and stretch their legs. The first up was at the Lake Trail where we were able to walk the quick little loop trail down to the lake and back.
Some of the kids in our group bought fish food to feed to the catfish at the lake, but for those who chose not to do the loop, they could visit the building by the bus stop which houses Budgerigar birds, a beautiful parakeet from Australia. You can even buy a seed stick and feed them if you’d like!
As we were getting ready to move on, we saw a bit of commotion back at the gate. Apparently, Sonia wanted to come along with us! Unfortunately, she had to stay on her own side of the gate, and Animal Management was called out to entice her away. They were in a truck and as they drove away, Sonia started running after them! She was surprisingly fast and agile for such a big girl. Don’t mess with rhinos, kids!
On our way out the opposite gate, we got to say hello to those Przewalski’s Horses, which were the first animal introduced at The Wilds. They went extinct in the wild back in the 60s, but breeding programs at zoos and other conservation centers have enabled 400 of these horses to have been bred and released back into the wild in their native Mongolia and China.
Our next stop on the tour was at the mid-sized carnivore area. There is a concession stand and bathrooms located here, and there is also a really nice walkway that takes you through the 27-acre complex that is home to Cheetahs, Dholes, and African Painted Dogs.
Despite all the room to roam, all of the carnivores were snoozing away when we visited. The cheetahs and painted dogs were in the far end of their enclosures and the dholes were tucked into their little houses, so this was a fairly unexciting stop on the tour. We did, however, get to see a couple of their younger cheetahs up close, which was pretty cool. They were, of course, also sleeping….
We moved on to the last part of our tour, which was probably my favorite! We first came across some beautiful Grevy’s Zebras. They came up close to our bus, and their stripe patterns were stunning! Like humans’ fingerprints, zebras’ stripe patterns are all different and completely unique. And, sadly, their beautiful patterns have attracted hunters and poachers over the years, leaving fewer than 3,000 of these beautiful creatures in the wild.
Next, we played chicken with an ostrich at the gate. It seemed like it really wanted to come over and chill with the zebras, so Emily wasn’t sure whether to try to go through the gate. She mentioned that the ostriches can be in either of the pastures, but she called it in to Animal Management just to be safe. When we got the go-ahead to drive through the gate, the ostrich seemed perfectly happy to stay put and come over to check us all out.
And it got up reaaaally close to the bus! Its feet were amazing – so strange looking. They don’t fly, but their strong feet can get them up to speeds of 43 mph when they run. This particular ostrich, though, seemed perfectly content just to stare at us with its weird eyes (and fun fact, their eyes are actually larger than their brains!)
The last animal species in this pasture, though, was the best: the giraffes! As we approached, we saw a couple of them munching away at some tree branches. One giraffe across the road, though, decided to come over and say hello and he stood right up next to our bus.
It’s sooo tempting to reach and out and touch them, but they ARE wild animals and you need to help keep them healthy and safe, so you have to resist the urge. This guy had a beautiful pattern and the sweetest little eyes. I could have stayed there and stared at him all day! As we started to drive off, he ran after us a little bit but eventually got bored and went back to join his friends.
Finally, we reached the last pasture, where all the animals were way off in the distance. Fortunately, we brought some binoculars so we could still see all of them. This last pasture is home to the Scimitar-Horned Oryx, Bactrian Deer, and the Southern White Rhinos.
I was bummed not to get a closer look at the rhinos because they’re one of The Wilds’ stars. The Wilds has had an incredibly successful breeding program for the Southern White Rhino and is the only facility outside of Africa where fifth-generation rhinos have been born.
There were quite a few of them in the pasture, and unlike Sonia, these rhinos are more social and tend to thrive in larger groups (they also apparently like to poop in the same pile, too, which we were ever so delighted to see on our way out of the pasture…eww).
On our way back to the visitors center, we had one last stop to visit the Bactrian Camels. There were four of them, one male and three females, all hanging out in the shade under a shelter. Bactrian Camels are native to Mongolia and they have two humps instead of one like Dromedary Camels. Their humps are NOT filled with water but with fat. Sadly, this species is nearing extinction, with fewer than 1,000 Bactrian Camels left in the wild.
Other Things to Do at The Wilds
Unfortunately, our tour was coming to a close, and Emily filled us in on some of the other offerings at The Wilds while driving us back. In addition to the open-air safari, they also offer specialty tours, including horse-back riding in their butterfly habitat and zip-line safaris.
They also offer something called the Wildside Tour, which allows you to visit the animals as part of a smaller group and go off-road to get closer to some of the animals who tend to stay away from the buses. In some cases, you may even get to pet or feed them! It’s quite a bit more expensive than the open-air safari, but I feel like it would be worth every penny.
In addition, they have several lodging options in the event you want to make your visit an overnight stay. They have yurts and cabins, as well as a larger lodge that sleeps up to 12 people. Some of the options include breakfast, dinner, and a tour as part of the overnight fee, too. If you’re traveling from far away, this would certainly be a unique place to stay before heading out on your tour!
And with all that info, our tour concluded. We had a quick snack at the Overlook Cafe and enjoyed the views from the patio for a little while before getting back out on the road. The open-air safari tour lasted about 2.5 hours, and we loved every second of it! Though it was very hot on the bus, I wouldn’t have been sad if the tour were even longer. As an animal lover, I was in awe the entire time, and I particularly enjoyed those moments when the animals came right up to our bus!
Also, I was pleased to hear of all the work The Wilds is doing to help to preserve and grow the numbers of those species they have on-site, and I am happy that they have had some success with reintroducing some of these species back into the wild.
I know many people have mixed feelings about zoos and putting animals in enclosures (I have mixed feelings myself), but The Wilds is doing important work and seem to be doing so in an ethical way. Without their efforts, some of these species may have truly been lost forever.
Overall, if you find yourself traveling through Ohio on I-70, I’d highly recommend that you consider popping down to Cumberland to check out The Wilds. And if you do, let me know how you enjoyed your own visit!
What do you think? Is this a place you’d like to check out? Or have you already been?
And if you live in NYC and don’t think you’ll find yourself in Ohio anytime soon, check out the Staten Island Zoo’s Animal Ambassador experience with the New York Adventure Club. You’re able to get up close and personal with the animals and even pet them, too!
Plan Your Own Visit
Where to Go
- The Wilds: 14000 International Rd, Cumberland, OH 43732
- You won’t likely have cell service on your way to The Wilds, so check out their directions or print out turn-by-turn directions in advance.
When to Go
- Tours are offered daily from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm from May through September and on weekends in October.
- Some of their tours and experiences are offered outside these days and hours, and you can also visit in the winter by reservation. Check their website for specific details.
Tips for Visiting
- It was very hot when we visited and the open-air buses are not air-conditioned. Don’t forget your sunscreen and a water bottle!
- The animals at The Wilds are wild animals. They also have lots of room to roam. As such, no two experiences will be the same, and you never know which animals you’ll spot on your tour. Some will walk right up to the safari bus, and others will stay farther away. If you want to have the best chance at seeing as much as possible, I’d highly recommend bringing some good binoculars so that you’ll be able to see all the animals, including those that are a bit more shy and less interested in visiting your bus.
- Also, the general open-air safari tour does not permit you to interact with the animals. If you want to get a more up-close-and-personal experience, you’ll need to upgrade to one of the specialty tours or their Wildside Tour.
- There isn’t much nearby The Wilds, but they do have a couple little cafes on site. They’re not super extensive as far as offerings go, but they are a good spot to grab a quick bite if you’re famished before (or after!) your tour. I can attest that the soft pretzel is yummy!
- Pets are not permitted anywhere on The Wilds property, nor may they be left in your vehicle in the parking lot, so leave the fur babies at home.
- Cell service in the area is spotty to non-existent, but they do have free WiFi, which will come in handy if you want to put your departure directions into your phone before you leave after your tour.
- Consider spending the night if you want an extra special experience at The Wilds!
- Want to learn more about the history of The Wilds? Check out this excellent timeline!