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April 24, 2014

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Two years after fire, nature sanctuary humming along, hosting festival

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Leila Navidi

A Macaw spreads his wings at the Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary in Las Vegas on Wednesday, April 25, 2012.

Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary

An emu from Australia at the Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary in Las Vegas on Wednesday, April 25, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary

Three emus taking a mud bath are accustomed to seeing a speeding motorized scooter charioting William Gilcrease, a 93-year-old dressed in blue-jean overalls and a safari hat who is fluent in bird calls.

Gilcrease lives in the northwest Las Vegas Valley on part of eight acres known as the Gilcrease Nature Sanctuary — a home he shares with hundreds of animals, many of them exotic birds like squawky white cockatoos and bright, multicolored macaws with which Gilcrease has conversations.

“They love to talk, too,” Gilcrease said.

The property at 8103 Racel St. is open to the public, and on Saturday and Sunday, the sanctuary will host a spring fling arts and crafts festival from 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Each day, food vendors and face-painting booths will be set up. Visitors can also watch traditional Aztec dance performances after they’re done gawking at vibrant birds inside the five aviaries.

“We’re sure glad to see anyone who’s interested in wildlife,” Gilcrease said. “We do need any support.”

The nonprofit sanctuary — which cares for abandoned and injured animals — takes about half a million dollars to run annually and relies on an endowment and donations to stay afloat.

But caring for about 600 animals — including llamas, goats, pigs, peacocks and a deer named Bambi — has been a struggle, said Jessica Pigula, president of the sanctuary’s board of directors.

“We need funding to help us build more natural, free-flying aviaries,” Pigula said, describing a green house-like structure made of metal where birds are given enough space to fly.

When social birds like macaws are in cages, they are unable to interact with one another, Pigula said. The aviaries allow the birds to groom one another and socialize as they would in the wild.

“We don’t breed animals, but they are social animals,” she said.

The property has five free-flying aviaries and plans to build more.

“It gives them a natural place to live,” Gilcrease said. “Yeah, I’m going to get them out of jail.”

However, getting birds into free-flight habitats has been pushed back due to a March 2010 fire that killed about 200 birds and a teddy bear of a guard dog, who barked, alerting his owners to the danger.

“That was devastating; that was a really hard time for me,” said Pigula, who said the fire was started on a windy night when an electrical wire snapped, causing a blaze that destroyed a peacock habitat and bird housing.

After the fire, many injured or abandoned animals brought to the sanctuary were turned away.

“We weren’t insured,” Pigula said.

About two months later, the sanctuary reopened with the surviving animals, including one rare white peacock.

“We used to have like 20 of those before the fire,” Pigula said.

Construction costs have slowed the growth of the property, but Gilcrease plans to keep his sanctuary running.

His family once had thousands of acres of land in the Las Vegas Valley and had attempted to start a winery in the 1920s but was unable to do so during the prohibition. Then, the Great Depression hit and the family sold chicken eggs to make ends meet. The Gilcreases supplied half of the valley at that time with millions of eggs.

“My father was quite a dreamer to start a ranch out in the desert,” Gilcrease said.

Over the years, the property was sold off, and in the 1970s, a zoo was established and later turned into the sanctuary that exists today.

“The Gilcrease family has been very generous to the Las Vegas community,” Pigula said.

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