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A walk on the wild side

Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center holding holiday tours


Elizabeth Medora

SCOTTSDALE – Did you know mountain lions purr? Get up close and personal –safely! – with mountain lions and many other wild animals at the Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center.

The conservation center is home to bears, coyotes, javelinas, mountain lions, bobcats, wolves, raccoons, and other wildlife. Some of these animals are being cared for until they can be released back into the wild. Others are sanctuary animals that will never be able to live in the wild and will remain at Southwest Wildlife for the rest of their lives. SWCC also provides emergency services for injured wildlife, caring for injured animals with the aim of returning them to their natural environment.

Southwest Wildlife offers tours periodically, by appointment only. This month, they’ll hold special tour dates, including ‘A Beary Merry Christmas’ tours on Dec. 11 and 12. Conservation center tours offer a chance to get close to animals most visitors would never otherwise see.

Many of the permanent residents of Southwest Wildlife are there because they were kept as pets and therefore will never be suited to living in the wild. Some of the animals were found as babies and were imprinted on by humans, meaning the animals failed to adapt and develop normally as a member of their species. To lessen the number of animals unable to be returned to the wild, the center asks anyone who thinks they’ve found an orphaned animal to call the SWCC emergency hotline at (480) 433-5656 and not to touch the animal to avoid imprinting, hopefully keeping the animal fit for life in the wild.

The conservation center is home to several bears, including black bear Heavenly. Heavenly was brought to the conservation center after he became too comfortable with humans at the ski resort near where he was born. He had become acclimated to looking to people to supply food. At just 1½ years old, Heavenly has a long life ahead of him, and fortunately, this sociable bear is in a safe environment now. 

SWCC Education Coordinator Kelly Marcum explained that people feeding bears majorly contributes to the bears becoming acclimated to people and becoming “nuisance bears.”

“Bears can be hard to care for,” Marcum said, noting that black bears live over 20 years and need extensive space and food.

Marcum noted that bears may be seen in the North Valley, although it’s not common.

“They can be seen about 10 miles from here,” Marcum said, referring to SWCC’s location in northeast Scottsdale.

Southwest Wildlife houses multiple Mexican gray wolves. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service calls these wolves “the rarest subspecies of gray wolf in North America.” SWCC is helping preserve the populations of these wolves by caring for some of the captive population. SWCC resident Mexican gray wolf F522 Manilita is 18 years old, making her the oldest known Mexican gray wolf still living.

One of Southwest Wildlife’s most majestic residents is a big cat that has suffered through difficult times and is now enjoying the care he receives at SWCC. Leonardo is a jaguar/African leopard hybrid that was bred for the entertainment industry and was declawed and defanged to make him easier to handle. Now, Leonardo has left his unhappy beginnings behind and is living out his life with room to roam, special food since he can’t chew properly, and plenty of toys and fun. Southwest Wildlife is trying to get Leonardo soft grass for his enclosure, due to his sensitive feet. Leonardo’s “Christmas wish” is a donation of winter rye sod.

Another big cat SWCC resident is 10-year-old mountain lion Tocho. Tocho was born in the wild. His mother was shot when he was just a kitten, and the poacher who shot his mother sold Tocho as a pet. Tocho was improperly fed by the people who bought him; he developed metabolic bone disease, making his bones fragile. By the time he was brought to Southwest Wildlife, Tocho had three broken legs and a crushed pelvis and could not walk. Thanks to the medical attention and TLC he’s received at SWCC, Tocho is now a happy, healthy mountain lion that enjoys roaming his enclosure and purrs at visitors.

Big cats are adorable kittens, and the idea of a giant housecat could be tempting. But these big cats are still wild and need to be able to live that way. The same goes for coyotes, javelinas, and other wild animals. Marcum explained that wild animals that have been kept as pets are unpredictable. Animals like big cats are hunters by nature, and they just aren’t suited for life as a housecat. Baby javelinas look cute, but Marcum noted that they are some of the feistiest babies that SWCC cares for. They may look a little like pigs, but they aren’t, and their sharp teeth make them highly unsuitable for pets.

“There are so many domestic animals that need homes,” Marcum emphasized. “Why pull these guys out of the wild?”

As a non-profit organization, Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center relies heavily on donations and volunteers to keep the center running. Volunteers assist with cleaning and feeding, as well as educational tours.

SWCC volunteer Penny noted the importance of the conservation center’s goals, calling it “such good work.” She described the SWCC staff as “steeped in what we do here.”

Volunteers like Penny help do the day-to-day work that keeps the center thriving. Volunteers must be 18 or over. If you’re interested in volunteering, call (480) 471-9109.

Tours provide needed funds for the center and support SWCC’s mission of education on living with wildlife and the importance of native wildlife. The holiday tours this month promise a unique, family-friendly outing with lots to learn along the tour.

If you’ve never had the chance to watch a bear snuggle in for a nap, see bobcats play like kittens, or listen to a mountain lion purr, take a walk on the wild side and visit Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center.

To schedule a tour of Southwest Wildlife Conservation Center, call (480) 471-9109 or visit