Eurasian lynx cub a rare bright spot for struggling Wild Wonders
Bonsall wildlife research, conservation and education center has lost more than two-thirds of its income due to COVID-19
Two months ago, the Wild Wonders research center in Bonsall took in Tashi, an abandoned Eurasian lynx cub, with the hope of one day using the wild cat as an animal ambassador to teach the public about the species’ fight for survival.
Taking in the precocious male cub wasn’t an easy decision for Wild Wonders founder and executive director Jackie Navarro and managing director Kimberly Wright. Since the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in March, the 29-year-old research, education and conservation organization has been in its own battle against extinction.
“We’re not in a good place,” Navarro said Monday. “We went through rough times during the recession and we evacuated twice for wildfires, but those were nothing compared to the pandemic. It has been economically devastating. Zoos all over the country are closing. I hope we won’t be one of those casualties.”
Tashi was born three months ago at a zoological center in California, but his mother rejected him shortly after birth. Worried the cub wasn’t getting the nutrition and nurturing he needed, the zoo center rescued the cub and called Navarro to see if Wild Wonders could give Tashi a permanent home.
Navarro said she and Wright always discuss adding any new animals to the 100 or so they now care for at Wild Wonders, and taking in Tashi was a tough decision because of the center’s recent financial challenges. But they felt Tashi could become a companion to Tiani, their 11-year-old female Eurasian lynx who has been lonely since her companion, Valentino, died a couple years ago.
They also feel Tashi will be a good ambassador for the conservation efforts under way in Europe to reintroduce the Eurasian lynx to the wild. Thousands of years ago, the small wild cats were once one of the top predators in Europe and Asia, but they were hunted to extinction in many countries for their lush spotted coats, Navarro said.
Navarro said that without a predator to control their numbers and keep herds on the move, some deer species have overpopulated and overgrazed several European countries. To re-balance the ecosystem, Switzerland reintroduced the Eurasian lynx in the 1970s and Germany reintroduced them in the 1990s. Now there’s an effort under way to reintroduce them in Scotland, where the cats haven’t roamed for 1,300 years. The proposal has been opposed by Scottish sheep farmers.
Navarro describes Tashi as a “brave little soul” who is growing quickly and gets constant attention from her seven-member staff. “He’s very outgoing and is getting into that teenage phase where he’s still stumbling over his giant feet but has learned how to launch himself through the air,” she said, adding that Tashi is now being kept in an enclosure near, but separate from, Tiani, so they can get to know one another.
Tashi is also being trained to walk in a harness and leash to serve as an ambassador, though the pandemic has sharply reduced the number of encounters Wild Wonders’ animal ambassadors are having with the public.
Before the pandemic hit, about 70 percent of the center’s income came from educational programs, where staff members would take hand-raised animals to schools and private events for interactive programs. But in March, all of the center’s offsite bookings for the spring and summer were canceled. Navarro said the fall months look just as bleak. Many schools may not reopen, and those that do will likely be too financially strapped to afford enrichment programs.
It costs about $20,000 a month to feed and care for animals at Wild Wonders. These include cheetahs, binturongs, wallabies, tortoises, alligators, armadillos, monkeys and Arctic foxes. None of the center’s animals were captured in the wild. Most are either donated surplus animals from zoos, animals orphaned or abandoned in the wild or seized by wildlife officials.
To cover its monthly costs, Navarro said the company has converted its business model to present all of its programming onsite. Due to social distancing orders, the center’s interactive group tours are limited to single households and couples. Face coverings are required. Private tours start at $175 for four people. There are also socially distant picnics, birthday party and family zoo camp opportunities with animal interactions.
Because Wild Wonders is a for-profit organization, Navarro can’t legally solicit donations. But she hopes the public will visit the center’s website at wildwonders.org to learn its programs, buy gift cards for future visits and purchase themed merchandise. In the meantime, all employees are on partial furlough and operating hours have been reduced.
“I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights,” Navarro said. “If we can just get these tours up and going, we’ll be able to get the income to pay for the animals and the staff to take care of them.”
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