McKinney native and nature lover Bessie Heard saw three parcels of land on the southeast part of the city as an opportunity to preserve nature for future generations. She was the driving force behind the Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary, which opened in 1967 when she was 80 years old.

Fifty-three years later, the independently operated museum hosts field trips for as many as 25,000 students a year, executive director Sy Shahid said.The Heard Natural Science Museum & Wildlife Sanctuary offers educational programming and indoor exhibits on animals, Paleo Society fossils and dinosaurs. It also features 289 acres of animal habitat and 6.5 miles of hiking trails.

While the land is a sanctuary for wildlife, Shahid said guests often call the museum a “people sanctuary.”

“Within a few hundred yards, you feel like you’re 50 miles from civilization,” he said. “It’s quiet. You hear the wind, the birds and animals. You don’t hear traffic or anything.”

Shahid said the sanctuary’s wetlands welcome 200-300 migratory birds per year. They travel from Central America to Canada in the spring and stop at the museum to rest and have babies, he said. The birds typically arrive between March 15 and June 1.

More animals have been forced into the sanctuary as home and business development continues to spread in McKinney, Shahid said. But the land will remain a wildlife sanctuary regardless of how much the city grows.

“It is written in the deed in such a way that it cannot be sold or turned into anything else,” he said.

As a private nonprofit, the museum receives no public funding from the city, state or county. Shahid said the museum relies on programming, admission and membership fees and special fundraising events for revenue. The museum went from earning nearly nothing in its beginning to bringing in $1.5 million in annual revenue with 35 employees, he said, and it still upholds what its namesake intended 53 years ago.

“Our mission is to bring nature and people together through education,” Shahid said.