Why animal lovers are flocking to Indiana

PAOLI, Ind. — It may surprise you to know that animal lovers are flocking to Indiana to see some of nature’s greatest wonders.

Just outside of French Lick and on the edge of the Hoosier National Forest, visitors can travel into a realm where African elephants rumble across green savannas.

At Wilstem Ranch, visitors happily bathe 11,000-pound elephants, getting up close and personal with the massive animals. But it’s the ranch's newest celebrities, a pair of charismatic giraffes named Burt and Jabari, that are dazzling animal lovers with their surprising magnetism.

“You go to a lot of places to see animals. We want you to come here to meet them,” Jerry Fuhs of Wilstem Ranch said.

With giraffe encounters beginning at $25 a person, visitors get to feed the graceful animals face-to-face inside one of the largest giraffe barns in the country. Groups of eight or less can sign up for a special private encounter as well.

“I’ve gotten close. But nothing like this. I would recommend it immensely," Jim Holyoke of Kentucky said.

The extraordinary connection between man and animal is an emotional experience for many, with ranch staff saying people have cried and even proposed during their encounters. Wilstem’s devoted handlers showcase other critters, including kangaroos, as part of the encounter as well.

A Wilstem adventure coming soon includes a one-of-a-kind encounter with a brown bear led by trainer and television personality Jeff Watson. The breathtaking experience gets visitors closer than ever thought possible.

“We have some innovative ideas to allow them to go inside the enclosure ... without risking their lives,” Watson said. "I’ll just leave it at that."

Northward at the Hoosier capital, animal lovers look to the sky to spot an aerial wonder: the largest flock of flying macaws anywhere in the Midwest, perhaps the entire U.S. The birds swoop in for a spectacular arrival at the renowned Indianapolis zoo.

Trainer Tim Van Loan says the half-mile journey began at the macaws all-season enclosure, where the amazingly intelligent birds learned to fly together.

“I’ve raised macaws and we’ve been working with them for over two years,” Van Loan said.

With positive reinforcement and the help of older birds that know the flight path, trainers teach the macaws to soar towards the Bicentennial Pavillion and back again. The training and powerful bond with the flock keep the brilliant macaws from leaving the confines of the zoo.

A short stroll away, visitors can see one of the most significant zoo exhibits on the planet, the state-of-the-art Simon Skjodt International Orangutan Center. It's much more than just a great place to observe apes. Researchers are measuring the cognitive capabilities of the animals and their astonishing ability to understand symbols.

The specially-designed center meets the apes' needs while also educating the public. Visitors get the chance to watch one of the world’s leading experts on primate behavior conducting the ground-breaking work as it happens.

“It’s absolutely certain that they understand the language that they hear. They can develop new vocalizations themselves and learn to control those very precisely,” Dr. Robert Shumaker said.

The Indianapolis Zoo also reaches across oceans to help the remaining orangutans, supporting research and conservation strategies in places like Borneo. Led by Dr. Anne Russon, a program of Indy’s zoo also works to help counteract the ravages of deforestation.

“All orangutan populations in the wilds on Borneo and Sumatra are critically endangered and that includes three different species,” Russon said.

The combined efforts, including close encounters back home and greater awareness of global issues, are critically important as Hoosiers across the state lead work to support wildlife across the world.