If you want to see wild animals, head to a National Park. There is no better way to see, and experience, wildlife than in their natural surroundings, on their terms. When this is done with respect, and proper precautions, in the same way, that we behave when we were invited into a neighbor’s home, it can be a win for the animals, a win for us, and a win for our park systems.
Many of us have been introduced to wildlife via captive programs. Ever since the award-winning documentary Blackfish was released in 2013, the perspective of what it is like for animals living in captivity has been unveiled. An awakening that animals are sentient beings expanded. A wave of shame rolled over many of us as we examined our behavior and thoughts of visiting zoos, swimming with captive dolphins, and big parks like Seaworld, where orcas and other sea life entertain people for food. These animals are deprived of their natural environments where they are free to roam, many over immense miles of space, eat fresh food they catch, hunt or nibble on, breed with whom they want, and live in family systems that have been essential to their existence for centuries.
Barnum and Bailey Circus, known for generations as “The Greatest Show on Earth” sent their iconic elephant performers to a conservation farm in central Florida after years of legal pressure from animal rights organizations and changing sentiment on captivity from the public. The company released a statement in 2021 that they plan to make a comeback of their legendary traveling show, this time without animals.
The number of Animal Sanctuaries is growing, giving captive animals who cannot be returned to the wild a place to retire and live a peaceful existence for their remaining days. The sanctuaries provide the animals with as natural a home as possible. Even huge marine animals are now being offered sanctuaries. Beluga whales, “Little White” and “Little Grey” were flown from their tanks in Shanghai, China to a cold, outdoor water sanctuary cove in Iceland. A similar sanctuary is being prepared by the Whale Sanctuary Project in order to release dolphins, and whales, including orcas, into a natural environment.
Tigers who have been kept captive for various reasons, including pet ownership gone bad, have found a compassionate home in places like the Carolina Tiger Rescue. While their focus is on tigers, they house other animals including a pair of endangered red wolfs recently transferred to them as part of the Red Wolf Survival Species Program.
The rules for public viewing and visitation in these types of institutional animal organizations vary greatly. Some are very strict, not allowing the public access to these animals in order to let them live as natural life as possible or to help them survive as part of restorative species programming. Others have controlled visitation as part of an effort to educate and/or generate funds to maintain the organization. While the ideal situation would be that all animals live in their natural environments, sanctuaries, rescue centers, and select zoo programs are serving an in-between answer to captivity and extinction, as well as humane care to those who need it and cannot be returned to the wild.
Our National Parks are evolving into the perfect place for us humans to coexist with wildlife. With massive amounts of acreage being preserved, animal species are rebounding, with the opportunity to hunt, mate, and live the way nature intended. Take a look at the new Netflix series, Our Great National Parks, hosted by Barack Obama if you are interested in seeing for yourself just how delicate this balance is and the important strides being made globally.
Allowing wildlife to thrive in our National Parks, offers us, humans, an opportunity to see these wondrous creatures living their authentic life. This past winter, for example, I paid a visit to the Everglades National Park in Florida. This park is over one and a half million acres. It includes miles of paths weaving through the grass and reed-filled waters filled with all kinds of life, including alligators, manatees, and other beings that thrive in a subtropical wilderness.
Alligators can be seen lying along the pathways, lounging in the same way that the many tourists can be seen lying on the beach in nearby Miami beach. They can be seen floating in the waterways, the top of their head just bobbing on top of the water. Amazingly, at least to me, all types of birdlife fly and perch around them. Fish swim by. Tourists stroll along near them, but the alligators just hang out, being as still as manikins. Images of the Crocodile Hunter wrestling and fighting off aggressive crocs triggered the same fear that I experienced going into the ocean after watching Jaws as a kid did, and sometimes still does. Perplexed, I asked a park ranger who was meandering by, “Do the alligators ever attack anyone?”
“Not really, he said nonchalantly. I only know of one situation where that happened and it was provoked,” he answered.
Curious, I questioned further, “Was someone trying to wrestle it, or did they get too close trying to take a selfie?” We have all seen the stupidity that happens these days with wild animal encounters.
“No,” he continued walking slowly, “a bike rider fell off a bike and landed on top of one.”
I didn’t press him any further, hoping that the alligator, and the biker, made out okay.
This opportunity to dismiss the myth of the man-eating alligator and to have the opportunity to spend a moment just coexisting with these magnificent reptiles was well worth the price of admission by itself.
National Parks also offer us an opportunity to see and learn about the natural flora, experience the awe of being in the presence of something we humans did nothing to create, and learn new information in one of their many educational offerings.
In a time when climate anxiety is rampant, and the threats to our environment are direr, a visit to a National Park offers hope and an example of how if we do this right, we can coexist with and harmoniously enjoy wildlife.
Have you had seen wildlife in a National Park? Share your experience in the comments below.