Conservators Center Director Mindy Stinner has seen all kinds of emotions from visitors to the Conservators Center in Burlington.
She’s seen people laugh as a bobcat walks up and shakes her tail at them and she’s seen people stand in reverence when seeing a family of wolves. Stinner has also seen people tear up as lions sing their navigating chorus.
It’s all part of a normal day for Stinner, and the rest of the Conservators Center staff.
“When you walk into the park, there’s a real sense of hushed respect for the animals and wildlife that are here because these are animals that we don’t see much in nature because they tend to hide from us,” Stinner said.
Once inside the park, visitors are treated to up close views of fennec foxes, serval’s, arctic foxes, lynx’s, bobcat’s, gray and black wolves, leopards, New Guinea singing dogs and lions and tigers.
Stinner co-founded the Conservators Center with Douglas Evans in 1999. The center started as a small operation dedicated to providing a specialized home for select carnivore species. At first, the pair cared for three tigers and about 25 small wild cats and other small carnivores.
Five years later, everything flipped.
The center took in a group of lions who had been confiscated in a USDA-assisted raid. Four of the 14 large cats were pregnant.
Not long after, the park’s lions population exploded from three to 30. Facing the roaring cost of caring for the animals, Stinner and Evans decided to open the park to the public for guided walking tours in 2007, stressing education through interactions with the animals.
Interactions tour-goers get.
At one point during a recent tour, General Manager Joy Courson stopped in front of the big cats and New Guinea dog enclosures, tilted her head back and offered the animals what the center’s staff calls an oof — a sort of navigational beacon for the animals. They responded, offering Courson their own version of the call.
“I’ve watched people burst into tears when they do that for us, and we call it the ‘Conservators Chours,’” Stinner said, laughing.
At other points on the tour, two of the park’s lions — Ra and Kiara — put on a demonstration of their own. Each of them walking up to Stinner and Courson and rubbing their heads against the fence, wanting a pet on the head. At another point, Ra went over and tried laying down next to Kiara, who wasn’t having it and got up and walked away.
Even more amazing, many of the animals put on their own poses when they know their pictures are being taken.
“They have enormous personalities,” Stinner said. “We raise most of them so we take a lot of pictures, especially with the young ones because that’s what we do, we take pictures,” Stinner said.
“Our cameras make clicking noises and usually when we take their picture, we are telling them ‘they’re such pretty babies’ and making a big deal over them so they know somebody taking a picture is our way of admiring them.”
Of course, just like their human counterparts snapping selfies, there is a little bit of harmless vanity involved as well.
“Oh, they know they look good,” Stinner said, chuckling. “The brightest of our animals really seem to thrive on the idea of admiration and when we ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ over them, they preen and they pose and they know they look good.”
Of course, as is the case with most species, the animals personalities have to be developed and encouraged and it’s something Stinner and her staff work on and take pride in.
“It’s incredibly important that they get the interaction that they need because it’s important for them emotionally and intellectually,” Stinner said. “We need to keep their brains stimulated.”
“In the wild, they would roam larger spaces than we can provide for them here and so here, we need to bring the world to them so we can bring them the same experience. The more the animals trust us, the better we can do by them.”
For those a little apprehensive about getting face-to-face with a large carnivore, be it a bobcat, lion or tiger, Stinner has a simple message.
“One of the things I love about our big cats is that they love to interact with other people,” Stinner said. “First of all, humans take care of them every day. Bring them their food. Give them good smells. Bring them toys and clean them and take care of them so they’re all good when it comes to people.”
“They want to engage and see what’s going on around them. They want to play. They want to smell. They want to be involved with humans.”