Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary
At the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary (500 N. Tinton Rd., 605/642-2907 or 877/761-7754, www.spiritofthehillssanctuary.org, tours May–Sept. Tues.–Sat. 8:30 and 10 a.m., adult $12, child $7), unwanted, abused, and unadoptable animals are given lifetime sanctuary. The refuge specializes in wild animal care but also assists local shelters with ranch and domestic animals. As long as there is room and resources, any animal in need is provided shelter.
Located on 200 acres of rocky hillside terrain, the grounds are a mix of open meadow and forest. In the cleared areas, there are wonderful views of the Spearfish river valley to the north and the high plains to the west.
The Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary is a labor of love for founder Michael Welchnyski, who opened the facility in 1999. The first impression of the sanctuary is a little unsettling. There are all kinds of birds, cats, and dogs freely roaming the grounds in apparent peaceful coexistence. The corrals and fenced areas seem cobbled together with whatever sturdy materials are at hand. It has a homemade feel that makes the place seem a little impoverished.
But a second look takes in the important elements of the facility. This is not a sanctuary designed for visitors. It is designed for the animals. With glossy coats, clear eyes, and relaxed demeanors, the animals look extraordinarily healthy. Their cages are spacious and clean. The animals have far more room to roam than those in the average zoo.
Every animal at the sanctuary has a story and the volunteers know them all. On the tour, the stories are revealed. There are many tigers, leopards, and lions here. Most were originally purchased to serve as exotic pets and then surrendered when their owners couldn’t control them.
There are colorful, noisy parrots. There is a camel at the sanctuary, one of the retired cast members of the Passion Play, a long-running theatrical performance in Spearfish that closed in August 2008.
The animals at the Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary were all born in captivity and abandoned, or rescued by state agencies and transferred here. Any young at the facility are the result of pregnant animals transferred in, as the sanctuary neuters most all of the animals on-site. It is not a place to breed animals, it is a place created to allow unadoptable animals the opportunity to live out the remainder of their lives in relative peace.
The Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary is a clear demonstration of why it is not right to try and raise wild animals as pets. It doesn’t work. The sanctuary survives on volunteer labor, tour fees, and donations, and the voluntary veterinarian care of Dr. David Elsom. While public tours are offered only in the summertime, people interested in contributing to the organization are invited to call and make an appointment to visit at any time.
To get to the sanctuary, from I-90 take Spearfish exit 8 and head south to Tinton Road. Bear right on Tinto Road. The entrance to the sanctuary is on the left.
© Laural A. Bidwell from Moon Mount Rushmore & the Black Hills, 1st Edition