John David Wagner got his career start when he was a student at NC State and agreed to help a doctoral candidate gather samples of bobcat tracks. Today Wagner is the director of operations at the Conservators’ Center in rural Caswell County, N.C., a wildlife preserve dedicated to protecting threatened animal species through wildlife rescue, captive breeding and education.
The center provides habitats for a variety of exotic animals, including wolves, dingoes, tigers, ring-tailed lemurs and ocelots — some of whom were abused and rescued from irresponsible owners. A New Guinea singing dog named Melody came to the center from a breeding facility that had a surplus of the animals; a lynx named Diego was given up by an owner who had not realized it is illegal to own a lynx in California.
Wagner, who graduated from NC State in 2008 with a degree in fisheries and wildlife management, got involved with the Conservators’ Center as an undergrad while helping a researcher who needed a number of tracks from a single bobcat for a computer program under development. Now he oversees its overall operation, including animal care, construction and maintenance and visitors’ services. He also leads its emergency response team and assists with donor relations.
Included in his duties is figuring out how to get a full-grown lion to take a shot. A lion named Thomas — rescued from a breeding facility in Ohio that was being shut down due to Animal Welfare Act violations — had a nagging ear infection that oral antibiotics couldn’t seem to cure. Eventually, the staff had to call in an ear, nose and throat specialist to examine Thomas under anesthesia. He found bacteria that could only be treated with injectable antibiotics.
“The drug required a large volume to be administered — ten times over the course of 14 days,’’ Wagner says. The animal care staff trained Thomas to crawl his way into a specially designed tight space for his injections, and he recovered.
Looking forward, Wagner says the Conservators’ Center plans to expand its education and conservation breeding programs as well as help develop systems for tracking animals and their genetics information. One goal, he says, is “putting facilities in touch with one another to help diversify the gene pool for these obscure species.’’
Wagner says the center faces the same financial challenges that other nonprofits struggle with, but having a committed staff makes the venture successful, along with an ever-growing interest from visitor groups – by far the biggest source of income.
“Year after year, we see the same teachers bring their classrooms out, and as they have told other teachers at the same school, in the same school system, and even in neighboring school systems, we have seen a tremendous surge in the number of field trip requests,” says Wagner.
Families and individuals can also schedule a tour. Wolfpack fans note: You can even hear wolves howl during a special twilight tour for nocturnal species.