Nature sanctuary reopens after deadly fire

Two months ago, an accidental fire swept through Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary, one of Las Vegas’ best-kept secrets. The blaze killed more than 200 beautiful birds.

But 600 animals still live at Gilcrease, which reopened last week.

Let me take you on a tour of the pretty macaws, emus, goats, ducks, turtles, donkeys and ostriches. We’ll start with the first soul you meet when you walk in, a mule deer rescued last year.

"This is Bambi," says Gilcrease Executive Director Sandra Salinas.

"Somebody brought her to us — with the umbilical cord and the umbilical fluid still attached!"

What does that mean?

"Somebody took her away from her mother."

Why would somebody do that?

"Why does anyone do anything?" Salinas says.

Bambi, who turns 1 in June, is the only deer here, so she was baby-fed off a goat until she stabilized.

"Want an apple, Bambi?" Salinas asks, then fetches twigs from a nearby tree and hands them to the fawn.

"We don’t use pesticides. That way we can use plants to feed the animals," Salinas explains.

"You know in the story ‘Bambi,’ it survived the fire. And our Bambi survived the fire. Isn’t that amazing?" Salinas asks. "Oh, and now she’s trying to eat my hair!"

The fire started at the sanctuary (near North Durango Road and U.S. Highway 95) from two frayed wires that created a spark. Harsh winds blew the spark into a fire that spread to the roofs of the bird buildings.

The blaze also killed two of 11 turtles, plus the loveliest German shepherd, named Zapatos.

Many dozens of birds survived. But the glorious white peacocks are gone, except one. Cockatoos died. Macaws. Parrots. Cockatiels.

You must be wondering, why are these animals even here?

Well, people lose jobs and tearfully drop them off. Or, older pet owners die and bequest pets here along with a few hundred bucks. Or, Lied Animal Shelter brings them here after confiscating them from harmful owners, or after accepting them from people who tire of their squawking pets.

Salinas likes to say each bird has a story.

For instance, Cammy is a scarlet macaw who came here seven years ago with a broken wing that eventually had to be amputated. Her human mom, in the midst of a divorce, beat Cammy with a broom so bad it shattered a wing.

And now, Cammy has also survived the evil fire winds of March. She’s doing well.

"She has a boyfriend. His name is Rothko. They’re on the patio," Salinas says.

Some of the sanctuary’s most cherished birds perished.

"We lost Rio. We lost Amber. We lost Bo. Oh my God, he was amazing. We lost Abraham. We lost Chester. We lost Charlie.

"Charlie was a white pionus (parrot). I’ll cry," Salinas says and can’t stop the tears. "The owner went to Afghanistan. … The fire took his bird. … I hope he’s doing well over there. … I have no way of getting a hold of him."

Wait, now. These are sad stories. But Gilcrease is such a happy place, it’s hard to leave when you visit, even if it looks a bit harsher with concrete structures, after a loss of trees, sheds and natural habitat.

Salinas and I walk across a bridge over the man-made pond, and we smile at this contenting home of geese and swans, plus "the duck network" and other migratory flocks.

Then you see the other habitats for peacocks, pigs, roosters, ostriches, emus, goats, donkeys (including newborn Valentina), miniature horses, lamas and two buildings full of macaws, lovebirds and tucans.

I inform Salinas there’s much bird poop on the sidewalk.

"Welcome to my world," she says. "We use the word ‘poop’ with practically everything we do here.

"Everything poops."

If you’re lucky, you spot Patches, the first dog I’ve ever seen that can climb a tree and safely jump down.

A perimeter of fences and tall bamboo grass blocks viewings from outside predators. Who are they?

"My predators are 13-year-olds," Salinas says. "We’ve had a couple of run-ins with kids …"

After the fire, which made national news, many people donated blankets, money and other necessities. Gilcrease is still looking for donations via

Gilcrease, which costs a half-million a year to run, never gets a penny from federal, state or local governments. The property was bought in 1920 by the Gilcrease family of Reno, in efforts to start a winery and other endeavors.

The Gilcreases sold the property in the 1970s to a couple who turned it into a sanctuary. The couple went broke. The Gilcreases bought it back and, ever since, have used their own money to save animals here.

Recently, the sanctuary won a $500,000 restricted redevelopment grant that can be used only to erect capital improvements, such as new animal housing.

Whatever gets built by owner Oscar Gilcrease (he doesn’t do interviews) and the sanctuary’s board, their first order is to keep animals in food and shelter for decades.

"A lot of birds here are going to live 60 to 120 years," Salinas says.

Animal lovers rise to the occasion. Some families volunteer to come down and talk to, or sing to, birds for four hours at a stretch. Birds need interaction as children do.

"The cockatoos and the macaws and the Amazon parrots have mentalities of 4- to 6-year-olds," Salinas says. "They have cognitive thinking. The African Greys can have vocabularies up to 300 words."

But let’s be truthful. People who come here get as good as they give.

"People have come in with bad attitudes, and when they leave, they’re happier. Sometimes I wonder if the sanctuary heals people, not animals," Salinas says.

That’s how I think of ­Gilcrease sometimes — as a place that saves people through animals. Although as the existence of Bambi alone suggests, would these animals even be alive without Gilcrease?

Doug Elfman’s column appears on Mondays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 383-0391 or e-mail him at He also blogs at

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