Decided to go off base for a little while. Our liaison here at the resort does bend over quite far in the backward direction for us in numerous ways. This day he arranged for Erik and I a taxi driver, Israel, for the afternoon. He spoke fluent English (he had even driven his car from Ixtapa to Colorado Springs a few years ago), and was a friendly and knowledgeable guy whose family had been in the region for years. So he also walked around Petatlan with us and took us to lunch at one of his personal favorites where he goes with his family.
Petatlan is famous for this church which, despite its modern architectural lines, was built in the 1800s. It’s a popular pilgrimage site for Mexicans in the region. The town is also known for its gold and silver vendors, but being peso-less, we glanced only very quickly at these stalls. We met a notorious town beggar, limping with her walker and demanding a hand out from us gringos. Israel says she is in fact quite wealthy and operates as a loan shark to locals.
While we were walking through the local food vendor market, I pointed out a produce I’d never seen before. Israel bought it and said we’d have the restaurant cut it wherever we ate. We also bought a bunch of teeny tiny bananas … a particular favorite of Erik’s. We didn’t have tons of time to explore, but it was a quaint downtown area, and nice to see a slice of the more “real” Mexico.
This van was driving down the street blasting something through speakers mounted on the roof of the van. The tone of voice made it obvious it was advertising something, but we didn’t know what until it turned the corner and we could see the side of the van advertising that the circus was coming to town that weekend.
Typically Erik is the one of whom I take photos trying some local delicacy unfamiliar to us … many times resulting in rather hilarious photos when it’s not as yummy as he imagined. This time I played guinea pig to try the fruit we had bought in the market. After the waiter sliced it for us, I recognized it as a star fruit, but I still had never tasted one. So … in fact, the flavor was nothing horrendous nor fantastic either way, and was palatable enough in texture. But it was so tart it made my jaw cramp up. In this award-winning photojournalistic piece, Erik chronicles my introduction to the star fruit.
Today I strolled over to the reserve in the afternoon by myself. I don’t even have to put shoes on to check it out. I walk down the sand beach, and I can walk along the reserve fence in my bare feet. There’s a strange satisfaction in having such a good time in bare feet … it doesn’t happen all that often, you know, except at family barbecues and days at the beach, but there I was watching crocodiles and spoonbill birds with my camera glued to my eyeball in bare feet. I don’t know how to explain why this makes me feel so content.
There were several interesting events today. When I arrived at the reserve, I counted 27 crocodiles jammed against the perimeter fence, together in one big pack. Made me wonder what’s the most that have been crammed into one spot like that.
I witnessed an iguana chase through the tree tops. An adult orange one chasing a young green one … up one tree trunk to the highest branches, down the branches, jump across to another tree, dislodge a rainshower of leaves onto the ground and human observers, run through the leaves on the uppermost branches and jump to the next tree … eventually the large iguana fell off a tree limb and made a terrific kerplunk in the water, from which he immediately high-tailed it out of there. A local standing nearby answered a questioning tourist, “Yes, the crocodiles will eat iguanas. They eat anything except the turtles.”
The reserve is a very small stretch of viewing area, yet I managed to let over 2 hours fly by while I watched the daily drama of this primeval lagoon. I was impressed by this last year, the Jurassic feel of the place, void of mammals, only reptiles and birds.
Well, except for a couple of kitty cats. This little black kitty cat was carelessly investigating the weeds where the crocodiles lay. And this is true: he was limping on 3 legs as one them was missing a foot … it had obviously gotten munched off, and yet there he was still meandering among the murderers.
Not more than 10 minutes later, I heard a great splash and kerfuffle; I swiveled my head around to see one of the large white egrets inside a croc’s mouth, its white feathers streaked with blood, being tossed up in the air over and over as the croc crunched it up a little more with each landing. He hadn’t even finished with the bird before another croc surfaced in the middle of the lagoon tossing a positively giant, flopping fish around in its mouth. And there that silly little kitty came into view again just behind the crocs who were obviously starting to feel a bit peckish.
I had been standing at the perimeter fence where I’d counted the 27 crocodiles to watch the bird and the fish get eaten, and when I saw the kitty coming through the jungle again, I decided to go back around the corner to where I could get a shot of her through the chain link fence. After putsing around back there for a little while and meeting another, more sensible kitty, I came back around to the beach-side perimeter and saw a police car pull up.
Two officers got out, AK-47s slung over their shoulders. I wondered what dramatic situation had popped up during the few minutes of my absence. But they didn’t confront any people, they seemed to be just standing around. OK, maybe they were on break, I thought. Then I saw it. A crocodile had just escaped and was walking down the beach toward the ocean.
We had heard they sometimes escape and swim out in the water freaking the living daylights out of swimmers and kayakers. Sure enough, they’re not making it up. There was one right there. Nobody seemed the least bit concerned. One of the policemen even motioned me to come closer to the croc to get a photo. The locals seemed unconcerned as well. So he walked down aways and then just laid down on his tummy and chilled. I have no idea how they get the escapees back inside the fence.
Took a little kayak trip out to an island across the bay and did some snorkeling. Some lovely fish and small stretches of decent coral. A school of small, narrow, brightly-colored magenta and yellow fish started swarming around me about an inch away from my mask and my body. I though it was pretty neat and suddenly I started feeling little nips on my arms and legs. They were biting me! Well, tomorrow I'm taking a little day trip to a nearby town, to get off base for a little while. Meanwhile the daiquiris and negra modelos are going down smoothly by the quart. ha ha (staying at an all-inclusive).
2013's trip to Ixtapa, Mexico, begins with collecting sea shells and discarded lobster shells. When I found this shell, the ligament things were still soft, and the antennae still moved in their joints, flopping up and down. I walked around regaling the kids with the life-like movement, and strangers were stopping to watch the curiosity, wondering whether or not I was holding a live critter.
I had to decide what position to dry them in … I chose to dry them in the middle between extended fully up and flopped fully down.
Went to the wildlife sanctuary, Popoyote Lagoon, in the morning and then remembered that the iguanas don’t wake up until afternoon. Will try again for them, but meanwhile the egrets were out in full force.
If you look at last year’s photos, you’ll see a number of sizable crocodiles. This year a new member of our party inadvertently found himself inside the fence with the crocs! This is what I invariably love about not-America … the awesome lack of safety precautions. No, I’m not being facetious. I really do like that you are responsible for your own self and aren’t sequestered behind a 20-foot high chain link razor wire laser-patrolled hoopla fence and 80-foot-wide moat, required to wear full-body armor and titanium helmet, and asked to sign a 30-page waiver. You just walk up, and if there’s a human-sized break in the fence, you can walk through. Likewise, for the crocs inside, if you come to the end of the river and you can manage to squeeze yourself underneath the flimsy fence, then go ahead and swim on out to the ocean to scare the bajeezus out of tourists frolicking innocently in the typically-non-croc-infested sea water. I love it. I kind of wish it had been me inside the fence, and now that I know how to get in there I’m tempted to “stumble” in, but of all the things I’ve thought about being carved into my tombstone, “eaten by a croc while on vacation” isn’t one I’m super keen on.
The highlight of the day in terms of sightseeing was watching the pelicans dive-bomb the water for their lunch. Swarms of pelicans came into this one spot … soaring majestically high above the water, circling, circling, then suddenly tilting to a 45-degree angle toward the ground, folding in their wings and increasing the angle to near-vertical to pierce the water’s surface with their beak, submerging their entire head for a moment, to pop up after a couple seconds as calm as if they were merely dipping chips in salsa for lunch. Ho hum.
I’m a little bummed it’s not colder back at home … the days preceding my departure for Mexico were largely marked by highs in the single digits. My house-sitter reports today it was in the 50s. What the? I’m one of those mean people who wishes to leave the worst weather behind, nuts to my friends and family who have to suffer it while I’m basking in the warmish-hot 80+-degree Mexican sunshine. ha ha ha. Suckers! The revenge for such a selfish attitude is that no one ever actually suffers … the surest way to bring beautiful weather to my home town is to go on vacation where the weather is perfect.
So this is a wrap-up for me from my time at Keepers of the Wild animal rescue sanctuary. It’s the usual last post from home of favorite and overlooked photos … it’s hard to see on my small, scratched-up “notebook” laptop while traveling. An exciting note: the unlikely friendship of Anthony the Lion and Riley the Coyote, which I mentioned in my post, "Big Cats in the Desert," was featured on the television series, Nature, on PBS on November 7! This episode covers inter-species bonds in the animal kingdom. Anthony and Riley are a perfect illustration. You can watch the full episode online.
But back to me ... Flying between Denver and Las Vegas, the closest airport to the sanctuary in Valentine, is one of the prettiest flights. The aerial views of the Rocky Mountains and the dramatic desert and canyon country of Arizona are spectacular. I usually zone out on airplane rides, but on this trip I was perched at my window, sunglasses on, camera in hand, until clouds eventually obscured the views. Meanwhile, they guy next to me huffed and puffed in exasperation trying to get the TV on the seat-back to accept his credit card. For like 20 of the 80 minutes of the flight, he worked on this. Finally success! Satisfied, he sat back and crossed his arms, a football game now filling his screen … and promptly fell asleep. For the rest of the flight. A $6 nap. Here are some aerial views:
In other transportation news, I spent more time in a golf cart than I have in the previous … umm… 28 years? … of my life. Yes, there have been only 28 of them. Anyway, it’s how we got quickly around the sanctuary -- in silent, electric golf carts. Doreen was my chauffeur, otherwise I walked. Here she is deftly pulling a 5-point turn around. Though he typically works as an African safari guide, Mat Dry can also double as a golf cart motor when the electricity runs dry … I wish I’d acquired a photo of him pushing two ladies in a golf cart uphill past a row of foaming-mouthed tigers growling for their dinner. Good caption fodder.
So you’ve met a lot of the animals … who are the people who have dedicated their lives to rescuing them from desperate and undignified situations to give them fresh air in their lungs and real earth beneath their feet? Tina and Jonathan, on either side of me below, are the founders and the life force behind the sanctuary; they live on the grounds and graciously opened their home to me – a perfect stranger upon arrival – and Doreen.
Their home is filled with the continual romping and ruckus of little Boris, a recently rescued kitten, as he terrorizes the other six kitties and the dog who live there. Few things are more terrifying than a manic kitten. It was pleasant beyond all reason to sit out on their porch with a nice cold beer in hand listening to the lions and tigers not far away, and the enclosure for two leopards came right up to the back porch, where a black and a spotted leopard would come to the fence to see what was going on. Leopards in front, lions behind, a cold beer in hand ... and the lonesome train whistle. Yeah, that's the weird part ... (singing the tune: "one of these things is not like the other ones") ... beautiful rugged quiet landscape to fill the eyeballs; sounds of the wild, of beasts and predators to fill the ears; it all seems so earthy. Then "WHOOOOT!" Here comes the train through the valley, the tracks just across the road, rumble rumble rumble. Just like the set of an old Western movie. I like trains. Quite a lot, actually. But that whistle scared the behooha out of me on several occasions.
What a lovely-looking bunch of ladies, eh?! From left to right: me, Doreen, Dawnie one of the awesome caretakers, Nichole the awesome all-purpose administrator, and Tina.
Though tigers are the primary beneficiary of the sanctuary, there are, as you’ve seen, lots of other critters -- "exotic" creatures such as many monkey species being sheltered here (looking innocent and saying, "who me?"); shall we say “semi-exotic” creatures, like the pair of iguanas; and “plain” creatures including even a pig and ducks and pygmy goats have found asylum here. At night, the iguanas were so cute -- a caretaker would pick them both up and hold them tummy-to-tummy until they latched onto each other like magnets, then bring them inside to the heated reptile room to spend the night. You may remember that I fell in love with iguanas earlier this year in Mexico. Was pleased to spy them here in an out-of-the-way cage not far from my nemesis and mortal enemy, Billy the Baboon.
It was a short trip, and I’m down to my parting shots. Since Keepers is primarily a rescue sanctuary for show tigers in the entertainment industry, let’s look at a few more tigers, afterall. This silly tiger always eats her dinner inside the water tank. She catches her chunk of meat thrown over the fence and immediately trots down to the tank, climbs in, and begins the feast.
More tigers at feeding time. I just don’t get tired of capturing the intense gaze that radiates from those large eyes. Tigers, I believe, in every way are the most beautiful cats. 'Tis my humble opinion. Fun caretaker fact: when working around the tigers, cleaning their habitats, retrieving feeding trays, etc., it's not uncommon to get a courtesy tiger-pee shower. "Oh yeah, it's great," one of the girls told me. "You're all hot and sweaty from working hard all day, and then top it off with some tiger pee."
Not that lions aren’t impressive … Sultan’s really looking forward to dinner here, all foaming at the mouth.
Though so much smaller than African lions and tigers, I greatly enjoyed the opportunity to watch the mountain lions, Bambam (below), Baby and Bandit. Although mountain lions actually live around my very own home in the Colorado mountains, I have never seen one. Evidence of them is everywhere, but they are like ghosts. Look at how well this cougar’s coat blends into the rocks … no wonder I never see them. My high school mascot was “cougar.” I guess they’re just a little special to me. And as for bobcats, well, they’re so dang adorable.
And who would have guessed, but actually my favorite photo from this expedition (besides me with Sampson) is not of any of the loveable mammals … the gorgeous cats or the personality-driven monkeys … it has turned out to be a portrait of one of the most feared and loathed creatures to inhabit my psyche … a snake. But check out the amazing color patterns on the scales, and what I think is most cool of all, is the reflection of the background behind me in the eye … blue sky with clouds and pine forest with rocks. Also notice the freaky spittle on the chin. I took this with my G9 on the macro setting … which means no zooming in, but having to physically hold the camera literally a few inches from the subject. This is a big step for me!
And last but not least, I end my post with an exciting update … for it is a never-ending mission at Keepers of the Wild ... as of today there are three new rescued tigers at the sanctuary; they are Sampson’s former show mates. If you're on Facebook, check out the Keepers page to see photos of how the sanctuary busted ass to prepare for them on short notice, and to keep apprised of the tiger’s adjustment to their new-found relative freedom and the fresh air of the beautiful Arizona desert country. Reports are that Sampson greeted his former show mates with obvious recognition. Licking his nose here, just swabbed with healing ointment, is Sampson, freed from cage and shackle, joined now by those with whom he has spent his life and feline affection. :-) I love a happy ending.
Valentine, Arizona, USA
Feeding time at the Keepers of the Wild rescue sanctuary is definitely something to experience. I got a taste of this experience at the UWEC, giving Biza an appetizer, but it was very intense watching the tigers and lions and leopards at Keepers anxiously await their meat and then tear into it with deafening snarls and roars. It was intimidating being so close to them during this time, particularly when I was given permission to approach the caging closer than the tourists are allowed to, for photo opps for my website. The safety protocols at the sanctuary are very reassuring. Those folks have everything under control and then some. Even when I was allowed to come closer, they defined very specific lines in the sand which I mustn’t cross, not just in terms of how close to the fence, but how far along it in any direction. Their system of locking and checking locks is impeccable. As intimidated as I was by the tigers in their most primal and vicious state – eating – I had full confidence in my safety. Though the tigers were once handled by humans, here at the sanctuary, they have a policy of hands-off except in health necessities (such as doctoring Sampson’s nose). Hence, many of the animals regain somewhat of a wilder side.
About 300 pounds of meat per day is consumed at the sanctuary. A rather astounding figure. The tigers get 10 pounds per day. Then you have leopards, lynx, bobcat, et al. It costs the sanctuary about $60,000 a month just to feed the animals. The carnivores get grade-A top-of-the-line beef, the others get fresh produce and sometimes baby food.
Here the meat trailer is just about to head out for feeding time. Below that, lining up bowls for the monkeys and other omnivores to fill with fruits and veges, plus a plate of grade-A rat for the reptiles. The omnivore diet consists of fruits, vegetables, protein, and a starch. One day I made a concoction of diced hot dog, cream of rice and baby food. Mmmmm.
I loved getting to the enclosures just ahead of the meat trailer to watch the tigers in their anticipation, walking around impatiently braying and barking. I don’t know exactly how to transcribe their sounds, but it’s not at all like a lion’s roar. For some of the animals, the meat is thrown over the fence (good skill required from the caretakers). Click HERE for a short video of a tiger jumping up to catch his dinner thrown over the fence. Tried to capture jumping in a still photo, but was difficult.
For others, the meat is put in a metal tray and slid quickly through a slot then chained to the fence so the tray can be retrieved. Click HERE for a video in which I was trying to capture the sound of being near the tigers at meal time. I think it doesn’t do it justice, but it’ll give you a taste. Click HERE for video footage of the jaguar getting very possessive of her meal. As soon as I got some video, I backed off to let her feel more at ease.
Here’s Sultan the lion trotting along the fence, waiting for dinner, hoping I was the bearer, but I was only the photographer, preceding the meat trailer. Once a week the large carnivores get a whole turkey or chicken to mix up their diet a bit. You can get a sense of scale of a lion’s mouth when you see he has an entire Thanksgiving-sized turkey in his mouth.
My favorite to watch was Sebastian. A tiger’s tongue is so barbed, if he started licking you, after about three licks, your skin would start to come off. You can actually hear the abrasion of the tongue on the meat. The keepers say that their tongues are meant to peel skin off “like rolling down a pair of pantyhose.” Click HERE for video of Sebastian munching dinner; you can admire his canines and listen to the sound of him crunching the bones. Imagine if they were yours! Intimidating as it is to witness, I honestly think it's beautiful watching these large cats tear into their meat and snarl and growl and scare the hell out of anyone near by. Just to witness such raw animal power.
Even Bob the 70-pound tortoise goes looking for food, trying to bore his way into the refrigerator. Ha. Believe it or not I had trouble getting a focused shot of Bob because he moved too quickly! He was currently stationed inside the office building and had free range of the kitchen/utility area. I found it kind of hilarious to walk in and see the tortoise motoring around, trying to get into the refrigerator and cupboards, bumping his head into them. Every time I knelt down in front of his trajectory to try to focus on him coming toward me, he raced toward me and I couldn’t focus. I was fascinated by such a prehistoric-looking face.
Here’s Carlos sucking on a peanut. On this morning, he didn’t want to give up his cozy nighttime monkey blanket (these are washed and redistributed each day). He wore it over his head all morning. Recall he is the poor soul whose previous owners had all his teeth pulled so he couldn’t bite them.
On this day, Buster spent a good 30 minutes picking through the gravel in his enclosure. This really cracked me up. He was so cute, but I have no idea what he was looking for. Bugs, presumably. Or pretty rocks, perhaps. Maybe he has a secret collection. Ha.
And what about Shara's feeding time at the sanctuary? This time encompassed the lunch hour. She ate a variety of foods, ranging from snacks Doreen and I snagged from hotel breakfasts and her parents' care packages (they live nearby); to lunches graciously provided to us by Jonathon and Tina, founders of the sanctuary, in their home; to pizza and beer one day down the road (which is Route 66), at a timeless bar ... we walked in and the first thing a guy stationed at the door says to me is, "Do you play pool?" I didn't understand at first, it was such a random question, until I noticed the pool stick he was holding. We were served by a bartender with 4 sparkling gold teeth, which appeared to be his only teeth. Doreen and I were accompanied on this outing by Mat Dry, who drove up from Phoenix to meet us. If you'll be driving Route 66 in your travels, you can combine pool, pizza and 300 pounds of big cat meat all in one afternoon. :)