See Exotic Animals in North Carolina

Photo courtesy of Dave Hattori

A rare white tiger sprawls out to soak in the sun's afternoon rays, a binturong briefly wakes to investigate rustling sounds, and two tigers playfully tussle on the ground, each baring savage teeth.

These exotic creatures are not found at any nearby zoo, but rather at The Conservators Center, a nonprofit wildlife sanctuary in Caswell County, north of Mebane, that rescues animals in need, preserves threatened species through responsible captive breeding, and provides educational programs and support worldwide.

My daughter Sarah and I recently visited The Conservators Center and were joined by other families for an engaging tour led by Julia Matson, the center's director of fundraising and outreach. Since 1999, the center has cared for approximately 90 animals, including African lions, wolves, servals, lemurs and others suffering from illness, physical disabilities and behavioral issues. Some are elderly or at immediate risk of death. Many have been rescued from hazardous conditions, confiscated by government authorities or donated by private owners who were unable to care for them. (North Carolina law states that a city or county can restrict or prohibit the possession of wild animals.)

The Conservators Center is licensed by the U. S. Department of Agriculture and is inspected yearly. "We provide food, shelter, medical and psychological attention," Matson says. "Our goal is to improve their quality of life in any way or shape we can."

As we walked along the compound's dirt and gravel path, Matson introduced us to fascinating animals, each one possessing a heartwarming tale of rescue, emotional stability or physical improvement as a result of the center's nurture. We met Taz, a Eurasian lynx who has spent his entire life in captivity, having been shuffled around by different owners; Yogi, a binturong, whose parents were illegally imported from Southeast Asia; and the bobcat Reno, who suffered serious injuries years ago after being struck by a car.

We also met wolves Hopa, Trekkie and Roland and learned from volunteers who interacted with them in their den that not only is their species indigenous to North Carolina, they naturally keep a 7-mile distance from humans, making it rare to spot them in the wild. The volunteers explained that socializing with the wolves reduces their stress when they see visitors and allows for appropriate medical care. Two friendly New Guinea singing dogs serve as the center's educational ambassadors at schools, Boy Scout presentations and street fairs.

Lounging in the sun inside their enormous steel cages were the big cats — lions and tigers — which enthralled our group with their magnificent size, beauty and "chuffle," the tigers' deep growl greeting to visitors. Matson explained that both species have suffered a severe population decline due to habitat loss, disease and poaching, and that the international black market trade for wildlife is a $10 to $20 billion a year business.

The center never sells or gives away animals, but does loan them for responsible breeding practices to maintain species whose survival is threatened by disease, loss of habitat and unrestricted breeding. The center also is known worldwide for its expertise in binturongs and maintains a studbook, or breed registry, of this rare species in captivity in hopes of repopulating them in their native Southeast Asia.

The Conservators Center offers a variety of guided tours, including 90-minute to two-hour educational tours for individuals, families and large groups; a photography tour; and a twilight tour that allows visitors ages 12 and up to witness the compound's nocturnal species. Private tours can be arranged. Tours are offered most Saturdays and Sundays; weekday opportunities are periodically available. All tours and visits must be scheduled in advance; no one is permitted on the premises without an appointment. The center also hosts birthday parties.

The facility is entirely outdoors, so dress appropriately for the weather, wear comfortable walking shoes and carry a bottle of water. Strollers are not permitted. Visitors are not allowed to touch or feed the animals, but are encouraged to photograph them, so take a camera.

Janice Lewine is the calendar and directory editor for Carolina Parent and the mother of three children.


If You Visit The Conservators Center:

Location: North of Mebane near the intersection of Huffines Road (SR 1763) and E. Hughes Mill Road (SR 1762). Check the website for directions.

Cost: Tours for an individual or family are $10 adults, $7 for ages 2-11; twilight tours for ages 12 and up are $25 each. Discounts for groups of 15 or more are available.

Reservations: All visitors must have an advance reservation for a tour. A 50 percent deposit is required when the reservation is made.

Information: Visit for information, reservations and directions. Call 336-421-0883 with additional questions. All visitors are required to sign a waiver.

Categories: Day Trips, Elementary Years, Family Fun, Family Life, Parties & Holidays, Things To Do, Tweens and Teens