More than 100 animals of 50 different species can be found at the Navajo Nation Zoo and Botanical Park in Window Rock, Arizona—the only Native American–owned and –operated zoo in the country.
“This is a multi-taxa [many different species] facility, a sanctuary for nature and the spirit,” says manager-zoologist David Mikesic. “We’re a facility that focuses on injured or orphaned animals who can no longer live life in the wild. That’s the nature part. Plus we’re in Window Rock, Arizona, a quiet place where you can renew your spirit by spending time watching animals in quiet relaxation.
“We’re basically an animal triage area. We serve the Navajo Nation as the first place that an injured or sick animal is delivered to, but we don’t have the time, money or expertise to act as a rehabilitation center. When a new arrival shows up, we do an assessment, with a focus on animals with limited chances of successfully returning to the outdoors and caring for themselves. Those animals are then housed here and provided professional care,” Mikesic says.
“Whether they have fur, feathers, scales or even hard exoskeletons, we maintain them all with the best care possible. And we work with several wildlife rehabilitation facilities in the Southwest to help injured animals that may be released back into the wild.”
Set among natural sandstone terrain, the zoo, operated by the Navajo Nation’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, occupies nine acres of the 36-acre Tse Bonito Tribal Park. “The zoo got its start in the late 1970s with an orphaned bear that nobody knew what to do with,” says Mikesic. “It was put on exhibit at the Navajo Nation Fair and when the fair ended, the zoo began and quickly grew with an additional animal and then another.
“The Navajo Nation is huge—some 27,000 square miles, much of it remotely populated—and there are lots of residents encountering sick or injured wildlife, so 98 percent of our animal population consists of animals that people have found in their backyard.
“We have some interesting ones,” he adds. “We have a red-tailed hawk who came to us pretty beat-up, only one wing and one eye, that is kind of a challenge because he doesn’t like to be handled. We have a fully grown albino raccoon—and not too many albino animals survive in the wild. One of our four golden eagles is turning 20, and a mountain lion—we have three—that was brought here 15 years ago is getting up there in years.”
The zoo has done an excellent job amassing a collection of larger native species such as mountain lion, black bear, elk, mule deer and bighorn sheep as well as some aging non-native, but culturally important animals, like sandhill cranes and Gila monsters. “The exotic species are not native in terms of reservation breeding, but historically, they have been culturally important,” Mikesic explains.
“While most of our collection is large mammals, we also try to serve that population of the public that likes to see invertebrates, such as spiders and scorpions.”
The zoo is also a holding area for the reintroduced Mexican gray wolves, and there are one or two on hand at any given time, animals retired from the current breeding program. “The interesting thing about us is our collection is not necessarily one we plan on, like most zoos that do trading or breeding in captivity. Here, our animals come to us and we make room for them.
“Anything can come through our front door at any time, especially injured birds because we’re the first stop to evaluate them. Sometimes you get a bird from out of the field so weakened by its injuries that doesn’t fight too much, but [we recently got an eagle that] had never been handled before and had a lot of life left in it. It’s a two-handed job to cradle an eagle, controlling the talons with one hand and the body and wings with the other. It’s not the time to be taking telephone calls.
“This year was the first time we were federally permitted to release eagle feathers to tribal members and that’s a big deal,” Mikesic says. “We only have four eagles here, but every day they shed feathers that we collect and categorize before releasing them to Navajo people.”
As the number of animals in the zoo grew, so, too, did the number of visitors—first in the dozens, then in the hundreds, then the thousands.
With an ever-growing animal population, an increasing number of visitors, and an annual budget of a half-million dollars, the subject of expansion arises. “One thing that’s really cool is we’re always trying to improve. Some of our enclosures were built in the late 1970s, so zoo improvements are a part of our daily life. In the foreseeable future, say within five years, we hope to add a few more acres.
We’re hoping to add more space for some of our larger, great-range animals like elk and bighorn sheep, and it would be great if we ended up with more mule deer and a pronghorn or two. Ideally we’d like to put those four different species in a large enclosure so everybody has ample space.”
Shaking his head in active, affirmative agreement, Mikesic acknowledges there is no such thing as an ‘average’ day at his zoo, which is run by just six hardworking employees. (Mikesic is the only one who isn’t a tribal member.) “Feeding and cleaning enclosures normally takes most of the morning, then it’s time for afternoon meals,” he says. “It’s a huge responsibility, because when you have animals in captivity, they rely totally on you and we take that responsibility very seriously.
“There’s an old adage that it’s not really work if you enjoy what you do, but when I go home, I’m exhausted because I put everything I’ve got into this job. At the end of the day, there’s a feeling of accomplishment that we’ve left the zoo in a better state than when we got there in the morning.”
For further information on the Navajo Nation Zoo and Botanical Park, phone 928-871-6573 or visit NavajoZoo.org.