Following a dirt road that winds past hand-painted animals, back towards a building that ends up in a large parking lot, there are multiple opportunities to park in the shade of a big tree.
The morning sun shines through the pine needles, the wind blows through the tree branches and the birds sing their morning song. At the gate to the right of the gift shop, a woman with a bright smile and slick silver pony tail walks towards the parking lot.
Following her down several winding paths and arriving at a wheelbarrow parked in front of a little building is the beginning of a day spent shadowing volunteers.
The wheelbarrow was teeming with treats and animal food. At first glance, it looked like a suitable breakfast for anybody.
Three people, all volunteers for Wildlife West Nature Park, happily finish gathering breakfast and enrichment tools for their charges.
On top of the bounty of produce, there were offerings of peanut butter jars with peanut butter scrapings left on the sides and in the bottom and little bits of kibble stuck to the sides, plain kibble, enrichment bags filled with granola, feeding pellets, cracked corn, hay, giant cat toys made from riding crops, various types of meat, chicken jerky and various buckets and jugs.
The first pen of the day was coyotes, and the unmistakeable sound of their tails wagging could be heard before they were in sight. As they came into view they were wagging their tails so profusely that their hind ends were shaking with excitement.
They yipped their excitement at the knowledge that breakfast was served, and like any canine, rolled around on their backs and smiled the biggest smiles—complete with kisses of approval.
Just when the thought “maybe a coyote would make a great pet” starts to creep in, the pungent smell of urine hits the nose and that is probably the moment that one would notice that coyotes pee on their food and in their water. In fact, they pee all over everything at an alarming rate, according to the volunteers.
Walking through a wooded area filled with blooming juniper trees, following a winding path that looked like a game trail, wheelbarrow in tow, volunteers come upon the next pen: foxes.
Foxes have a reputation of being elusive, sly and clever.
These foxes have a pensive stare that could be misconstrued as curiosity if it weren’t for the fact that they were content to stay at the tops of the trees; the farthest away from humans that they can possibly be in captivity.
More content to maintain their fox style totem pole, clever enough to know the routine of the volunteers and be disinterested completely until all signs of them were gone. According to the team, its a fairly normal day in the fox pen.
Sometimes the volunteers say they see the foxes come down when they’re tending the elk.
Further down is where Koshari the black bear lives.
This bear one of the largest black bears in captivity, according to the team. Each enclosure has a small staging pen that can temporarily lock the animals in so that the volunteers can safely place food inside.
The team coaxes Koshari into the confinement area with chicken jerky. He reached his lips out gently and grabbed his treats without his teeth in a way that was reminiscent of a horse taking a sugar cube, all lips and snorts.
Koshari lazily meandered toward his breakfast. Like a picky child he poked around at his breakfast, eating his favorites first, one piece at a time, using only his lips.
Following the path again, volunteers approach the area where the elk live.
A male elk can be 5 feet tall at the shoulder and females can be 4.3 feet tall at the shoulder. Deer are not quite as big but they aren’t small either.
The elk’s size is evident even from a distance, but volunteers at the park didn’t seem to be intimidated by them in any way. They immediately approached the elk with treats, enrichment toys, breakfast and pets.
The enrichment toy was a paper bag filled with granola and taped with paper tape so the elk have to figure out how to open it, and very soon after they put it in the pen the elk were curious.
The deer reacted the very same way, excitedly approaching as soon as the food is in sight. They are not wary of humans like deer in the wild.
Another winding path leads to the big cats ,starting with the mountain lions. After being temporarily penned so the volunteers could hide chunks of meat around the enclosure, the cats immediately start looking around for their meals.
As the volunteers used giant cat toys, the hissing and spitting sounds of the cougars were so loud they awaken the instincts in an ancient sort of way. To stand even a food away with a big cage around them is humbling.
Bobcats in the wild tend to be shy and avoid contact with humans. The bobcats at the park are both friendly like house cats to this particular group of volunteers. They immediately went into their designated areas and waited patiently through the breakfast routine just like a domestic cat.
The volunteers wind through more juniper trees to the hybrid-wolf pen which is next door to two other coyotes, who are happier to live alone.
A coyote name Wile-E Coyote, is mostly white and is likely the fattest coyote to ever live in Edgewood. Wile-E is charming and a favorite of one of the volunteers whom I am shadowing.
All that was left were to feed the skunk and the raccoons.
The park has two enclosures for raccoons. One holds a family and the other houses an elderly raccoon named Rachel—so old she rarely comes out of her igloo and several years past her life expectancy in the wild. She moves slowly and has shaky little hands.
A skunk, Violet, is very friendly, like a cat. She is not scared of humans. She doesn’t mind being handled and likes to eat raw eggs.
It takes a special type of person to volunteer, and the volunteers at Wildlife West Nature Park are no different. They show up no matter what the weather conditions are, and help animals who can no longer survive in the wild.
Karry Davis was a veterinary assistant at a local animal clinic for 15 years before she started volunteering at the park. She has been volunteering at Wildlife West for 10 years. “It’s all about the animals,” she said.
Hugh Carter is an Army veteran who has been volunteering for the last two years. “This is great treatment for PTSD and I encourage other vets to get out and volunteer with animals to get the same benefit as me,” he said.
Margaret Davis, also both an Army veteran and a former veterinary clinic assistant, has been volunteering for a little over a year.
The 126-acre park houses native animals in a zoo-like park, taking in native animals who have been in accidents or rescued from an inhumane environments. Black bears, hawks, coyotes, javelinas, skunks and cougars alike find shelter in custom-built habitats and are able to live out the rest of their lives with professional caregiving, enrichment, access to regular food and water and love.
The idea for the park started more than 25 years ago with Roger Alink. Alink has always had a passion for animals and youth empowerment. He purchased a vacant piece of land, and made his idea of helping the wildlife come to life by creating a rescue for local animals.
Wildlife West is also a non-profit organization and very involved in the local community. They have worked with the Youth Conservation Corps to build most features at the park.
The park also hosts Chuckwagon Dinners during the summer which feature live music, barbecue and access to the park. In the spring, look for its annual Wind festival, when folks are invited to come fly kites.
For more information about the park visit wildlifewest.org or call 505-281-7655. The park is open currently and adhering to Covid-safe practices.