by Emily Kemme
When you’re planning an adventure-filled day, part of that often includes a meal. And if the day’s activity involves a three-mile round trip walk into the wild at The Wild Animal Sanctuary (TWAS) near Keenesburg, Colorado, you’re sure to get hungry. Adventuring has a way of revving up the appetite, particularly while scouting for photo ops of a few of the 450 wild carnivores sunning themselves on 720 acres of natural grassland, catching some z’s inside concrete culverts and brooding in burrows.
The easiest to spot — and most playful — of the animals noted on a recent visit to TWAS were a pair of grizzly bears who were having a grand old time splashing and mauling each other within the close confines of a metal tub of water. In the way of children given a choice between an expensive toy or a cardboard box, they could have played in an expansive pool designed just for them. The small tub was their choice. Eddy, a black leopard, was the most illusive. Eddy’s head was visible, but the Animal Planet star of “Growing Up Black Leopard” was in a mood to ignore his fans, content to contemplate the wide expanse of grassland he calls home. Eddy had no immodest urge to shine on that warm and windy Saturday in June. You know how those movie stars can be.
But for the most part, our walk along the 1.51 miles of elevated walkway along the Guinness World Records’ “World’s Longest Footbridge” toward the Tiger Roundhouse was a successful animal-spotting expedition. We scored at least 30 lions — one of whom roared constantly, to my delight. Then there were the pair of splashing grizzlies and a double handful each of black and brown bears. Wolves, fox, bobcats, lynx and mountain lions too numerous to count, and a hitherto unknown creature, the spotted African serval, made the trip worthwhile. We gazed down at several of the small, dainty servals prowling in lush grasses surrounding multilevel climbing towers. The towers are bordered by strong plexiglass to prevent these climbing animals from jumping onto the elevated bridge to explore further. Furry and cat-like, wild servals are often kept as “pets” until their owners discover the animals’ teeth and claws are meant for serious harm.
That’s the point of TWAS: the facility has a mission to rescue captive large exotic animals who have been abused, illegally kept or exploited for entertainment or other uses. The goal is to create a wonderful life for these victimized animals while educating the public about captive and often neglected wildlife, and the illicit animal trade.
The eastern portion of the walkway ends at the tiger roundhouse and their splash pool. Spend some time admiring the beautiful striped cats before hunger strikes. There is a snack bar at this segment of the Sanctuary but wind, walking and warm sun often call for something more substantial than ice cream.
That’s one reason TWAS opened its new Welcome Center earlier this year, adding to the sustainability of the non-profit organization by figuring out a way to enhance the visitor experience.
The Lion’s Den Cafe offers chef prepared counter service offerings of pasta, soup, pizza, grilled selections and an enormous salad bar. Meat, vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free choices are all available. Anyone is welcome, even if you aren’t there to visit the sanctuary or haven’t bought a wild life visit ticket. Keenesburg is out in the middle of the Colorado plains and there aren’t a lot of restaurant choices nearby.
But the Lion’s Den exceeds many culinary standards. Clean to the point of ship-shapeness and with impeccably presented plates, cafeteria employee Eric Bruner says, “People expect when they come here it’s going to be zoo food at zoo prices. We give our visitors high quality meals at reasonable prices.”
In addition to the gem quality of the sparkling clean salad bar, there’s much to choose from. If you can’t find what you’d like to eat you’re not looking hard enough. Grilled options are well prepared and hearty, and include burgers, a steak sandwich, grilled chicken, a Falafel burger, grilled Portobello mushroom burger and more. The pasta section offers everyone’s favorite, spaghetti and meatballs. I opted for the Chicken Parmesan to top my graze of the salad bar for a create-your-own meal. The chicken is lightly breaded and about a foot long. Tender and juicy, this isn’t greasy zoo food, nor was the marinara sauce I spooned over the top.
Pizza choices run the gamut of cheese to sausage to bratwurst to Grizzly Mauler — an all-inclusive opportunity to load up the Meat Lover’s ‘za and finish it off with Sauerkraut. There are 22 add-on toppings (I actually counted them, the list was so long) to make the Lion’s Den a true pizza lovers’ haven. The crust is chewy and crisped.
Part of an adventure is where you get to eat lunch or dinner and TWAS offers plenty of tables with a view. There are picnic tables surrounded by animal sculptures — and the ice cream shop is close at hand to finish off your meal — but you can also head upstairs to several comfortable seating areas under the domed tent-like canopy in the central common area. A favorite is the umbrella deck overlooking the sanctuary.
The Welcome Center complex has space to host business meetings, retreats, family reunions and weddings. The complex can accommodate events ranging from an intimate 20 people up to 1,000. Custom planning and pricing is available, from $500 to $5,000. Hire your own caterer or take advantage of the stellar on-site restaurant to feed your guests.
Come visit these free-roaming animals. Their natural beauty and the stories that brought them to the Sanctuary will take your breath away. It’s a special place under the welcoming Colorado skies.
And then head home, satisfied in many ways.
Award-winning author Emily Kemme writes about human nature, illuminating the everyday in a way that highlights its brilliance. Follow her on her blog, Feeding the Famished, https://www.facebook.com/EmilyKemme, or on Twitter @EmFeedsYou . Life inspired. Vodka tempered.