Northwest Trek Wildlife Park – A Review
On February 4, 2017, I had my very first visit to the AZA accredited Northwest Trek Wildlife Park in Eatonville, Washington. I have visited many zoos, aquariums, and sanctuaries across the U.S. and in various parts of the world. The following is a review of my visit and my professional opinions on this establishment.
Background and History:
Dr. David “Doc” and Connie Hellyer first bought a large area of land after a fire had destructed many acres of beautiful forest. Knowing the natural cycle of forest habitat and ecology, Dr. David and Connie Hellyer knew that the vegetation would regrow into luscious forests1. In 1973, the Hellyers donated this land to Metro Parks Tacoma to provide the basis for what is now Northwest Trek Wildlife Park. On July 17, 1975, Northwest Trek was able to open its doors for the very first time2.
Northwest Trek cares for and features many North American species, including bison, wolves, bobcats, deer, elk, and owls. The park offers many activities for children, families, and those seeking to learn about our continent’s wonderful creatures. With a major focus on conservation, Northwest Trek educates the community about endangered species, practices in conservation, and the restoration of natural habitat.
Upon entering the parking lot, much of the park appears to be hidden by a line of trees surrounding the entrance building. My friend, her daughter (who is under the age of 2), and I approached the ticket line. We were pleasantly surprised to receive a discount for being a member of Pierce County’s library system. Upon entering the park, I noticed the modern and appropriate log cabin theme to the buildings and decorative designs. At this point, I was easily impressed with the aesthetics of the shops since most sanctuaries and wildlife parks cannot afford such appearances.
Past the entrance is the gift shop, restrooms, and a café that borders the outskirts of the entrance. Just beyond that lies a children’s play area called the “Kids’ Trek”, bird exhibits, and some pathways beyond. We made our way to the tram tour station for our first activity. This tram tour allows visitors to ride as many times as they wish. However, extra tickets must be organized by the front office.
Not knowing that the park offered a tram experience, I became very excited and looked forward to getting some great shots with my camera. The driver notified us that we could open the windows, and for me, this was great news for my photography. Unfortunately, I sat in the only spot where the window did not open. Also, sitting on the right side of the tram seemed to be my first mistake because most of the scenery and animals were visible on the left. The tram was extremely comfortable because of its seats, heating, and spaciousness. The driver was very informative and easy to understand. During our tour, she spoke about the history of the park and the biology of the animals.
Many times, I have seen articles and pictures on the internet where the visitors of the park are also visitors within the animals’ exhibits. I deeply appreciated this aspect of Northwest Trek not only because of the ingenuity, but also because of the ethics behind it. Often, animals in captivity are not given such freedom or respect. Most wildlife parks prioritize the visitor’s experience over the animals’. Furthermore, it teaches the public that we must be conscientious when keeping animals in captive environments and when we see animals in the wild. Sometimes, this message doesn’t entirely get across. One person remarked to me that the tram tour was “so silly”. Shocked by this comment, I wondered if most people viewed Northwest Trek in this way. Part of this thinking may stem from Hollywood plotlines like Jurassic Park.
The scenery beyond the tram was outstanding. The natural beauty of the land was astounding, and became enhanced by the outline of bison in the open meadows. We drew very close to many of the animals, of which none appeared to be stressed. I am sure after so many tours a day, the animals became easily habituated to the noise and presence of the vehicle. Being so close, yet safe inside the tram, all visitors were able to appreciate the size and magnificence of the great American bison. Further into the tour, we could see the impressive antlers on the elk, bright coats of white mountain goats, and the numerous deer munching on vegetation. After 50 minutes on this tour, the driver brought us back to the station where employees watched the gates to ensure no animals could escape.
Walking about the pathways, we looked into exhibits to catch a glimpse of the bears. The weather and season did not help us – the bears were not active and if they were, they would likely take shelter from the rain. From a visitor’s perspective, the bear enclosure appeared very large and nicely designed. The natural terrain provided hiding spots, variety in the landscape, and a rich habitat.
When we reached the wolf exhibit, I was glad to see the playfulness of the wolves there. They ran around the enclosure, chasing each other. Unlike the bear exhibit though, the enclosure did not impress me from a photographer’s perspective. As a wildlife photographer, I aim to capture shots of captive animals to give the appearance that the animals are in the wild. In the wolf exhibit, chain link fences, electric wires, and metal posts were in nearly every shot. The best photography with minimal editing would entail close-up shots of the wolves, which requires a very large zoom on an expensive camera lens. My longest lens is currently a 55-210 mm. The few shots I was somewhat satisfied with required some Photoshop skills to remove the presence of human touch.
Other enclosures for the wild cats and birds were not as impressive. In general, the design still met the standards for ethical captive conditions. I have seen far worse exhibits in zoos in the U.S. and in Japan. But in comparison to the Zoological Society of London and Disney’s Animal Kingdom, these enclosures still need work. If there was the money, I would suggest to increase the space of the enclosures, and to provide a more interactive design for the animals and visitors. For example, the bobcat, cougar, and lynx enclosures all had the visitor looking across the exhibit from a raised balcony. An improvement would be to create some areas with greater privacy and allow visitors to peak through windows in cave-like structures, and through integrated viewing platforms. In this way, visitors would feel the adventure in finding the animal by seeking out the best view. From a photographer’s perspective, the cat exhibits were not ideal for wildlife photography because of the very open design. Again, chain link fences and metal posts were in full view, and the best photographs would need a lens with a greater range than my own.
In the forest animal area, we were greeted by some very interactive river otters and beavers. River otters always capture my heart because they are so playful and energetic. My friend and I were extremely pleased to see how engaged her daughter became with these creatures’ underwater acrobatics. More children came along and giggled with enthusiasm as the otters and beavers did flips, turns, and dives in the water behind the glass. As a visitor, this building was nicely designed so that we could peak into the sleeping quarters of various critters and witness the underwater stage of the beavers and otters.
Later, we entered a research cabin that was built to educate and occupy children in interactive activities. The man who first greeted us, a naturalist named Steve, was tremendously kind and welcoming! He asked me about my photography and spoke with our group about wildlife at the park. There were featured activities where my friend’s daughter could learn from tactile playsets. On the other side of the cabin, a second employee was hunched over the desk not wanting to catch eye contact with anyone. This particular person did not appear to belong in this job, and even his attitude dissuaded my friend from letting her daughter play more in the children’s area. With that being said, this was the one employee in the park that was unfriendly during my visit.
In the mid-afternoon, we visited the park’s café. The café overreached my expectations! The seating area had a large, open fireplace and various booths made from logs. The inside maintained the cabin-like feel by having antlers and pieces of art on the walls. Wildlife sanctuaries and zoos are often notorious for having awful “zoo food”. However, Northwest Trek’s café items looked quite appetizing. Although the food looked above satisfactory, I did not purchase anything to eat or drink. But, I remained impressed with the variety of food and drinks on the menu.
To close the day, I took a quick look at the gift shop. The place seemed to be humming with quite a few customers for the cold season. The store offered many items that clearly had “Northwest Trek” on them so you could show your support. Additionally, there were lots of educative books you could buy and many toys that kids would love. As a tradition for any zoo or sanctuary that I approve of, I purchased a patch to go on my backpack.
In closing, Northwest Trek exceeded my expectations for a public wildlife sanctuary in the U.S. The best feature to this park is the tram tour. All of the animals appear to be in great health and are well taken care of. Many areas are designated for children to engage them in activities. As an adult, I valued the layout of the entire park because of its various pathways and landscape. The efforts that the park takes to educate the community about wildlife and conservation are extremely noble and dedicated. As a wildlife photographer, some enclosures would need substantial improvements if they wish to give photographers, like me, an easier and better experience. In conclusion, Northwest Trek is a very good sanctuary in Washington and serves as an admirable model for other wildlife sanctuaries.
For photos from this trip, visit the Northwest Trek Gallery.
1: Information provided by tour guide on tram tour.
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