Northern Ireland public goes wild for bears and wolves roaming free at sanctuary in Donegal
Bears, wolves and a majestic lynx - all species once native to Ireland but which were hunted to extinction - are once again roaming free in a border wildlife sanctuary.
Killian McLaughlin said his 23-acre Wild Ireland sanctuary in Burnfoot, Co Donegal, on the border with Londonderry, is the culmination of a lifelong dream he never thought possible.
The centre opened to the public yesterday but Mr McLaughlin said he has been amazed by the level of interest he has already received - not just in Donegal and Derry as he expected, but from right across Northern Ireland.
The sanctuary's main attractions are the three brown bears, rescued from horrible living conditions in Lithuania, who have joined three wolves, a lynx and five Barbary monkeys - the only non-native creatures that now reside at Wild Ireland.
These animals are now roaming free in the same natural habitat their ancestors enjoyed over 2,000 years ago, joined by a whole plethora of native species such as deer, wild boar and otters.
Mr McLaughlin said he hopes his sanctuary will not only provide a safe habitat to these animals but will educate the public about the importance of saving other native animals who are in danger of extinction.
"It is incredible to realise my lifelong dream of offering a sanctuary for these animals," he said.
"These brown bears and wolves were once native to Ireland and basically I wanted to bring them here to show people what we have lost and to show them that extinction is forever.
"Ireland's wild habitat is deteriorating at a rapid rate but hopefully by coming here people will see how much we have lost and that will inspire them to preserve the animals we still have but are in danger of losing, like the pine martens and red squirrels.
"We hunted our most beautiful animals - our bears, our wolves and our lynxes - to extinction."
The animals have gradually been settled into their new habitat and the bears in particular are still becoming acclimatised to a sense of freedom they have never known.
Mr McLaughlin added: "We built the bear habitat and worked with two international charities to confiscate the bears from the horrible conditions in which they were living in Lithuania. They were kept in a concrete cell with iron bars and their feet had never touched the earth, nor had they ever been able to enjoy a swim, which is something bears in their natural habitat love," he said.
"We brought these three bears, who are all from the one family, here and it was a sight to behold when we released them into the habitat we created for them here.
"They took tentative steps onto the earth two weeks ago and on Thursday the large male took a swim and went into the water for the first time ever.
"It was actually quite emotional because he went out of his depth and panicked, but his natural instincts soon kicked in."
Mr McLaughlin, whose day job is a solicitor, hopes to add to Wild Ireland's collection.
However, he still believes the sight of wild animals roaming the land, as happened in a bygone age, is unlikely to happen any time soon.
He said: "The animals we have are all rescued animals and we hope to bring other rescued animals here, but they would have to remain in this sanctuary because it just is not possible to reintroduce them to their natural habitat.
"If we want to reintroduce them we would have to link up all of our national parks with corridors of forest and wilderness - they would need that level of space to roam, but I think realistically we are hundreds of years away from that," Mr McLaughlin added
Wild Ireland is now open to the public with all entrance fees going to the running costs of the sanctuary.