Stepping gingerly to avoid disturbing any signs of life, Debra Reich, Sally Johnson and Rosalie Ott drew circles around animal tracks and scat. They were looking for clues that could tell them which animals had recently visited a small clearing on Vincent Pinto’s property near Patagonia Lake State Park on a recent Wednesday morning.

Pinto, a wildlife biologist and naturalist, helped them piece together the tracks, describing not only how to determine the type of animal that had been there, but also how fast it was moving, how long ago it came through and what it might have been doing.

“Always get the track between you and the sun,” Pinto said, helping the women better see a row of deer tracks that led off into the brush. “Here’s the relationship I want to show you. The distance (between where the feet hit) is called the stride, which is an important measurement.”

The lesson was part of a wildlife tracking tour, one of many educational nature tours Pinto leads on the 42-acre property, which he and his wife Claudia Campos-Pinto have set up as a nature sanctuary called Raven’s Nest.

When the couple purchased the land in 2008, it was empty except for an old barn they have since converted into the Sky Island Discovery Center, which is filled with posters, maps, animal pelts and bones and other artifacts that they use to teach visitors about the local wildlife.

They have also used sustainable methods to build an eco-lodge with camping areas, small outdoor learning centers, and seating and eating areas where visitors can enjoy nature without having a negative impact on the wildlife, said Campos-Pinto, the sanctuary’s managing director.

“We’re all about protecting every square inch of land,” she said. “We want to serve as a template for sustainable living and a celebration of the biodiversity it’s a privilege to have, but that most people take for granted.”

Committed to using resources wisely, she said, they use water from their private well only for bathing and cooking. Their organic garden and orchard, small ponds and native plants are watered with gray water from sinks and showers, as well as rainwater harvested in two large tanks. They also use incinerator toilets that function without water and turn waste into fine ash that can be spread as fertilizer.

“We’ve also removed the non-native plants and restored the habitat by planting natives or allowing native plants to grow on their own,” Campos-Pinto said.

In addition to the wild landscape and eco-friendly features, the sanctuary also provides a comfortable experience for visitors, she added, calling the large, furnished tents in their Safari Camp a form of “glamping,” a term combining the words “glamour” and “camping.” She and Pinto came up with the idea for the permanent structures during a trip to a nature reserve in Botswana.

Happy chapter

The sanctuary is the second wildlife area Pinto has purchased in Arizona, with a more rugged 50-acre nature reserve in the Chiricahua Mountains, where he leads wilderness survival trainings. At both places, Pinto said, the goal is to educate and expose people to the beauty of nature and the possibilities for sustainable living and conservation.

While some people come to stay at the sanctuary for a weekend or a week, others, like Crested Butte, Colo. residents Ott, Johnson and Reich, stop in for day tours.

“We’re outside a lot, hiking and whatnot,” Johnson said, noting that it’s nice to learn about tracking animals from someone who has a lot of expertise.

“And we’re very curious,” added Reich, who said they also planned to take a birding tour on Thursday as part of their trip to the sanctuary, which they learned about after Ott met Pinto on a previous trip to Arizona. “And it’s been a lot of fun.”

That’s the whole idea, said Campos-Pinto, who coordinates all of the visits to give people a chance to engage with nature in the ways that best suit their interests and needs. That way, they’ll have an enjoyable time and take what they learn with them when they leave.

“This has been the happiest chapter of my life,” she said of the 10 years she and Pinto have been running the sanctuary, which they hope to donate to a conservation group that will carry on their work after they die. “It’s so rewarding because you see the transformation in people who come here.”

“We have the best job in the world,” Pinto added. “We’re very grateful to be able to do it.”