Destination: Conservators' Center premium tour
Posted December 10, 2015 9:00 p.m. EST
Updated December 11, 2015 2:36 p.m. EST
Even before we walked through the gates of the Conservators' Center in Mebane, we could hear them - the high pitched sounds of the laughing dogs, the rumble of a big cat. My kids, wide eyed, looked at me.
"Yep," I said. "That's them!"
We were there to experience a premium tour at the Conservators' Center, a nonprofit conservatory that's home to 90 exotic animals - from lions and tigers to lemurs and a wallaby.
All tours at the center, which is about an hour from Raleigh, require appointments. Most are group tours, giving the public a chance to see the animals up close. The center offers a series of tours designed just for families where visitors can learn more about the treats and toys the animals enjoy or a family twilight tour featuring the center's nocturnal animals.
Premium tours allow individual groups of up to 15 (depending on the tour) to have a private tour tailored to their specific interests. There's a photo safari for photographers. For lovers of a particular animal, there's a focus on the lions or tigers or wolves, for instance. The center also allows visitors to build their own adventure. If they just want to focus on animal behaviors or the stories of each of the animals, they can make special requests.
The premium tours can be pricey - as much as $275 or $375. But, when the cost is split up among a group or a few families, it can make that price tag more manageable. (Group tours run between $10 and $14 per person).
"It's really an opportunity for people who want to have that one-on-one experience with the guide," said Mandy Matson, the center's communication director and a regular tour guide. "It's up to you."
Matson, along with Kasey Thornton, the communications supervisor, led me, my kids and my mom on a premium tour called "Lions, Tigers and Bearcats, Oh My." As soon as we walked through the gates, Matson asked the kids what they wanted to see. Lions and tigers topped the list so we headed there first.
We met Arthur, the white tiger, who arrived at the center in 2008 as a malnourished cub. He had been seized by a government agency and placed at the Conservators' Center.
There was Wic, the tiger, who was born at the center in 2004 after his mother was rescued from a breeding facility in Ohio that closed after receiving more than 900 citations for animal welfare act violations. Unlike other tigers at the facility, Wic actually lives with lions. My younger daughter was so taken with him that she now calls a stuffed tiger "Wic" at home.
At Arthur the lion's enclosure, we watched as the massive animal stood on his back legs to receive a treat. Thornton told us they'd train the animals to stand up for treats so they could check them for any wounds or issues on their bellies.
During the course of the tour, Matson and Thornton took us to the individual animal enclosures where we learned the stories behind the animals and why they're at the center and then learned a bit about their lives now. They come from all over. Some are retired from zoos. Others were once well-loved pets. Sometimes, the center serves as a home of last resort for animals that have been mistreated or rescued.
Most arrive at the center because a facility is closing down or has too many animals, Matson told us.
"There's always going to be a need for rehousing," she said.
The center includes an impressive collection of big cats - 16 lions and three tigers. But it also houses numerous smaller cats and other exotic animals. We saw a binturong climb high up in his enclosure, a lemur fluffing his tail and singing dogs raising their voices in unison.
At one point, Matson, Thornton and other staff started howling together, encouraging all of the big cats to roar and growl at the same time, which is the way they greet each other and let the other cats know who is there. One by one, the animals started "speaking." The sound - a mix of loud and low growls and roars - was amazing to hear.
We all came away with a new appreciation for the animals. Thornton tells me that is why she loves giving the tours. She loves seeing the reaction on people's faces as they see a lion roar for the first time or a lemur jump around his cage.
"I really like that that instills a value of conservation in their lives that they will carry with them forever," she said.
A trip to the Conservators' Center is an amazing and really unique experience. A premium tour would be great fun for an extended family visiting during the holidays. The center also offers gift cards so people can receive a gift card to the center and then schedule their group or premium tour for later in the year.
The center's annual Tree Toss, where the animals get a chance to play with unsold Christmas trees, is next month. During the Tree Toss, the animals enjoy the smells and textures of the trees as they play with them. Tree Toss events are scheduled for Jan. 9 and Jan. 23. Tickets, which typically sell out and must be purchased in advance, are on sale now. Tickets are $24.