Where the Wild Things Are: St. Louis’ Animal Magnetism
The Gateway to the West boasts a long history of supporting bustling human populations. From 700 A.D., the most sophisticated prehistoric native civilization north of Mexico numbered as many as 10-20,000 at their peak, living in a six mile square settlement, now called Cahokia Mounds. Today, climbing the highest of their remaining earthen pyramids, visitors enjoy an unobstructed view of the St. Louis Gateway Arch, just minutes away.
The feet of that Arch sink into cobblestoned Laclede’s Landing, now a cafe and club filled evening hotspot, once the mid-1800’s Mississippi Riverfront landing site for as many as 150 steamboats at a time. By the time the famed 1904 World’s Fair and Olympics rolled around, that hefty boom town population tripled, as everyone seemed to want to meet in St. Louie, Louie.
Today, the greater Saint Louis area supports nearly three million people with enough arts, culinary treats, music, museums and shopping to satisfy their cosmopolitan needs. But for those seeking to step out of the urban groove and reconnect with their animal instincts, five amazing wildlife sites lie within 20 minutes' drive.
The Wild Canid Survival and Research Center
Founded in 1971 by Marlin Perkins (famed Missourian zoologist and host of Wild Kingdom), this private, nonprofit conservation organization earned commendation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as the "cornerstone" of its wolf reintroduction programs, operating the first captive breeding program in the country.
Visitors can opt for daytime treks, viewing South American maned wolves, African wild dogs, Mexican gray wolves, the once native Missourian endangered red wolves and the swift fox living on the 63 acre wooded preserve, or enjoy an evening campfire complete with cocoa and cookies or wine and cheese to refresh before hiking along the enclosure to encourage the creatures to howl, moon or no moon.
St. Louis Zoo
Named #1 zoo by Zagat Survey's U.S. Family Travel Guide, this 90-acre home to 18,000 exotic animals, many of them rare and endangered, sits amid the museums of Forest Park. Free admission makes the zoo’s quality animal habitats and numerous global conservation projects even more impressive. More than 1,000 volunteers help staff maintain highlights like River's Edge, home of two young elephant calves and a hippo pond with underwater viewing and the interactive “Stingrays at Caribbean Cove” exhibit.
Lone Elk Park
If a home where the bison, wild turkey, waterfowl, elk and deer roam is of interest, one would be hard pressed to find a more unusual experience than a drive through this park. Tucked away just minutes from the mall parking lot, it’s a bit surreal to enter a 546-acre reserve, where herds of bison and elk lounge and graze unfettered. Take one of several hiking trails or slowly drive the loop to get an intimate view of these large animals (*leave Fido at home).
World Bird Sanctuary
Adjacent rehab facility for birds of prey offers shelter to recovering creatures from condors to bald eagles. Captive breeding, field research and education are tools to help save the resident endangered species. Evening Campfires and Birds in Concert events mix live music and up close and personal photo opps with the taloned talent, while night hike Owl Prowls are a ... hoot.
Home to the best known St. Louis animal life, the famous Anheuser-Busch Clydesdale Horses (and a certain wannabe donkey), a tram ride sets the tone for the visit as it meanders past Ullyses S. Grant’s handhewn cabin into the 281 acre free-range home of 1,000 animals representing more than 100 different species from six continents. Zebras to Highland Cattle wander past endangered Asian deer, while elephant education shows (Bud and Micky -- short for Michelob) and macaws eager to show off their IQs await in the Tiergarten.
So hit O’Connell’s for a pint, Soulard’s jazz and blues clubs or a Webster Groves wine bar, or just tip back a few on Anheuser-Busch in the 1913 Bauernhof and contemplate what an unexpectedly wild place Saint Louis turned out to be.