Europe has an issue with contact zoos. Hardly regulated, these businesses purchase young lions, tigers, and other exotic creatures, advertising adorable cuddle sessions to their customers. This is quite lucrative for a few months, but these animals grow quickly. Soon, they are large and powerful beyond their careless caretakers abilities and must be discarded. After months of hands-on care, they are far too familiar with humans and not familiar enough with their natural habitat and lifestyle to return to the wild.

Most zoos gladly take animals in this situation, but they only have so much room. That is why Wild Park was created. Strangely situated in the middle of the suburban city of Veľká Lomnica, this sanctuary strives to educate people on the plight of big cats in Europe and across the world! Additionally, they display and teach programs on all sorts of reptiles, birds, mammals, arachnids and insects.

I visited with my friend Milan, a former volunteer at the park. He essentially gave me a private tour, telling each animal’s story and, along with the keeper in charge of the cats, taking me unbelievably close to the tigers. This was one of the single most amazing experiences of my exchange thus far. Sure, it doesn’t have much to do with Slovakia, but to have my hand nuzzled by a Siberian Tiger! How could it not be?

Unfortunately, I was so absorbed by the cats that I quite forgot I had set my camera to manual focus because of the bars and most of my outdoor shots suffered for it. Oh well, all the more reason to return again!