Lions and otters and bears, oh my!

My husband and I had a fun opportunity to take a behind-the-scenes tour at Grandfather Mountain in North Carolina recently. There’s an animal preserve on the mountain where animals who might otherwise die go to live out their lives.

I thought you might like to come along for a virtual journey through the preserve.

The weather was beautiful, and we were excited to start out with our guides. While the behind-the-scenes tour will take up to six guests, my husband and I were the only two for that day’s tour.

It was such a treat to escape the crowds and get to see the animals more up close than we would have otherwise. We had to promise to stay at least three feet from the fences, an easy thing to do when it came to the mountain lions and bears!

Our first stop was the new eagle enclosure:

Grandfathereagles2013

One of two bald eagles at Grandfather Mountain

This enclosure is home to two bald eagles, both blind in one eye. As a result of their blindness, they would starve to death in the wild. I’ve never seen an eagle so close, in the wild or in captivity. Down by the bear habitat areas later in our trip, one of our two guides found a tuft of eagle feathers. She told us they have a box where they keep the feathers, because it’s illegal for individuals to possess them.

Grandfatherottersplaying2013

Next up: otters at play

We went into the “otter house” where we got to see the two resident otters get their lunch (fish). While you might be under the impression that these are cute, cuddly critters, they actually have sharp teeth and claws that they’re not afraid to use.

They are especially playful after mealtime, and so after watching one completely submerge itself in their shared water dish, we went outside to watch them frolic in their outdoor pond. What a really cool thing to see!

The next stop was the deer enclosure, where we watched another employee feed the deer peanut butter treats (some of the deer were quicker than others to get up from their afternoon rest to look for the goodies). Three of them came to see us at the back of their enclosure, where our guides gave them more goodies through the fence. I had no idea that deer love jewelweed, a weed that covers the mountains in that area. I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised, though. Deer seem to eat almost anything.

Deer came near to enjoy a snack of jewelweed.

A deer comes near to enjoy a snack of jewelweed.

Our next stop was the mountain lion enclosure. I admit it: I was nervous to see these big cats up close. It was easy to stay the requisite three feet from the fence.

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A gorgeous Florida panther

They have two cats: an 85-pound female Florida panther that you see pictured above, and a 130-pound male mountain lion from Colorado that was more camera shy. I may have his weight wrong. Maybe it was 113. Either way, he was big. So was the female panther. Think Little Red Riding Hood: My, what big paws you have!

Perhaps the male wasn’t camera shy so much as he was hoping to stalk us instead of pose for us. The guides told us they’ll have fun running the fence line while these lions “chase ” them, and that the male in particular likes to stalk visitors and jump out toward the fence when they least expect it. I think it’s an entirely different sort of fun for him. I’m glad we spotted him before he did that to us.

One of my favorite parts of the visit happened when the Florida panther lay down by the fence and began purring. Purring! Lions and Tigers, the really big cats, don’t purr, but these slightly smaller cousins do. It was glorious!

Grandfatherpantherpurring2013

This girl has a deep purr, and she seemed happy for a little company from us.

I actually felt more comfortable at the bear habitat area. I’m not sure why. Maybe because like the deer, bears also enjoy a tasty jewelweed snack, and they didn’t show any interest in stalking us.

This bear is shedding its winter coat, and you can see a tuft of hair sticking up from its back. One of our guides told us bears have an extremely keen sense of smell — far better even than a bloodhound. After looking at this picture, I think the bear was looking directly at me because I was the one carrying a pack with snack food inside. Hmmm. A little unsettling.

Grandfatherbear2013

One of Grandfather’s bears

Our last stop was the strangest: a stop to visit the resident possum. She’s an orphan that came to the preserve after a motorist who had hit her mother and siblings found that she was the only baby left alive. I had to admit she was pretty cute … for a possum.

Grandfatherpossum2013

An orphaned possum with a new life ahead of her

After seeing more majestic animals, this last stop seemed such a strange way to end the tour. But I was reminded that God created even the small, strange animals and considered them to be good:

God made the beasts of the earth after their kind, and the cattle after their kind, and everything that creeps on the ground after its kind; and God saw that it was good.
— Genesis 1:25

Don’t you think God’s imagination is amazing? He came up with all these different weird, wonderful creatures.

During the tour, one of the guides caught us off guard with a question: “What’s your favorite animal?” Her favorite is the bear, and she hopes to study them extensively for her upcoming senior project in college. I struggled for a response beyond “Dog,” which seemed too boring an answer at the time but is probably true. (Though there is a certain little dog in my neighborhood that … well, that’s a story for another day.)

My husband came up with “Tiger,” and I eventually decided on “Seals.” But I’m not really sure I can pick a favorite, especially with so many wonderful choices. I’ll leave you today with the same question: What’s your favorite animal? And have you ever gotten to see it up close?

2 thoughts on “Lions and otters and bears, oh my!

  1. My favorite animal is the horse……..and I have only ridden one maybe 4 times, not counting ponies when I was a small child. But, what magnificent animals they are.

    • I have a cousin who shares your love of horses. They are so dignified and beautiful. I always dreamed of owning horses until one summer camp week of riding a very large, very bouncy ex-racehorse. I haven’t wanted to be on a horse since then. Maybe I should try again.

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