Observing a cougar or gray wolf at close quarters may not be the first thing one thinks of when mall shopping. However, Merle Hay Mall has found that housing a center that exhibits and teaches about wildlife is, well, a pretty wild experience. 

By October, Red Rock Wildlife Education Center will complete a move to a new, expanded space in the mall under a new name: the Academy of Wildlife Education. The small center has featured several wildlife “ambassadors,” among them three wolves, a couple of black bears, a lynx, a bobcat and a red fox for the past two years.

By featuring animals that are indigenous to Iowa and the Upper Midwest, the center’s founder hopes to create a better understanding of and appreciation for wildlife.

“There’s nothing like this in North America; we had to create it,” said Ron DeArmond, founder of Pella Wildlife Co., which also offers wildlife education programs to schools throughout Iowa, Illinois and Wisconsin. Providing hands-on accessibility to the animals is a vital aspect of the nonprofit organization’s mission. 

“We realize that if people don’t see it, hear it and sometimes touch it, they’re not going to care about it,” he said. “Once they see a wolf, once they hear a wolf, once they get a chance to touch a wolf, they’re going to be better stewards of wolf conservation.” 

Better exposure

The new center, which will be located in the mall’s Target Court near The Children’s Center, will feature spacious 8-foot-tall enclosures for the animals in an environment that will be kept at 72 degrees and illuminated by full-spectrum lighting to mimic sunlight. The center also will have an education room that can be rented by groups for meetings or events. 

Merle Hay Mall has contributed $10,000 toward the renovation costs for the expanded facility, which it anticipates will help increase mall traffic. 

“Malls have a lot in common, so you’re always looking for something unique,” said Tom Walsh, vice president and director of leasing for Abbell Associates, the family-owned company that manages and leases the mall. “This is absolutely unique; it does make it a fun destination.” 

Liability for having wild animals at the mall was actually not a significant concern for the mall owners, given the expertise of the handlers, Walsh said. 

“We think the new location will give it better exposure,” Walsh said. “So we think we’ll be giving them a better opportunity to be successful. We’re excited about the potential of what they can do with the square footage.” 

DeArmond, who lived in Pella when he and his wife first moved to the state, founded Pella Wildlife Co. in 2009. His professional background is in sales and marketing; he previously owned a sports marketing company that represented retired professional athletes. That business provided him with the startup funds to launch the nonprofit, he said.

“As far as the wildlife, my grandmother is the one I blame for that,” he said. “She had a passion for the wild and had a heck of a garden in her backyard.” He said he got his first U.S. Department of Agriculture license to work with wildlife species in the early 1980s, “and that’s the course I’ve been set on ever since.” 

The organization focuses on three areas – education, conservation and sustainability – although its primary focus is education. 

“People in Iowa aren’t too knowledgeable about the biodiversity in the state,” DeArmond said. “This state used to have a lot of biodiversity as far as wildlife species go; we used to have elk and bison, pronghorn antelope, the grouse species. Now they’re all gone because of the loss of habitat. Some of these species are trying to move back into the state; that’s where you get the controversy with the bears, wolves and cougars.” 

“It’s funny to see the hype about cougar sightings,” DeArmond said. “The last two shouldn’t have even been news stories; they were either foxes, bobcats or house cats. If you come to our facility, once you see a cougar, you’ll never mistake (another animal for) a cougar again.” 

Hands-on education

A significant part of Pella Wildlife’s educational efforts includes hands-on programs for students that feature the animals. The organization also conducts conservation fieldwork with wildlife agencies, such as working with the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources to monitor that state’s gray wolf population, along with 22 other species. 

The nonprofit organization, based in Des Moines, has a staff of about 50 people that includes specialists in wildlife ecology, environmental science and animal science. Each of the animals the wildlife organization exhibits was obtained through a genetic bank of endangered species maintained by the International Union of Conservation of Nature. Raised from birth by human handlers, the animals can be presented in a safe way to the public, much like how the livestock at the Iowa State Fair are handled, DeArmond said. 

Although it had been tucked away in an obscure part of the mall, the center has averaged about 10,000 visitors a month, who pay $1 each to see the animals, DeArmond said. Admission to the expanded space will be $5 for adults and $2 for children under 12. 

As with any nonprofit, Pella Wildlife’s biggest challenge is fundraising. 

“Our ultimate goal is to open up a wildlife rehabilitation facility that will meet the needs of all the wildlife species that are native to the state, whether it’s reptiles, birds of prey, mammals, whatever,” DeArmond said. “To support that, we want to open a drive-through wildlife park that would tell the history of Iowa wildlife when Iowa was wild that’s out there on display.” He estimates doing such a project would cost between $14 million and $18 million and require up to 250 acres of land, ideally situated on an interstate highway. 

The organization’s diversity should help it to remain successful, DeArmond said. 

“We do a lot of off-site stuff; I think that’s key,” he said. “I think it’s important that you embrace the general public, even in your scientific research.” 

As part of that effort, DeArmond hopes to establish a citizen-scientist group that would collect data in the field, doing work such as monitoring bald eagle nests in Polk County, or even counting frogs or bat populations. 

“Any efforts to educate the public on the value and importance of wildlife is worthwhile,” said Kevin Baskins, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Natural Resources. One example of Pella Wildlife’s influence is its work in educating Iowans about the value of bats in keeping mosquito populations in check, he said. “We appreciate the efforts that Pella Wildlife is making to extend the value of wildlife education programs in Iowa,” Baskins said.