Valentine, Arizona, USA
Probably the worst hardship of running a rescue sanctuary for entertainment animals and exotic pets is that so many of them have spent their lives being mistreated, malnourished and/or abused. Many of the entertainment animals are surrendered only near the end of their lives when their “usefulness” has run out for their owner. They are lucky to live out the rest of their lives in the fresh air and space and care of the Keepers of the Wild sanctuary, but the caretakers endure a perpetual heartbreak as the elderly and ailing animals take their earthly leave to happier hunting grounds.
A pack of 5 wolves arrived at the sanctuary several years ago, all the same age, which means all 5 wolves will pass away at about the same time. Three died in the last year, and the remaining two are not projected to hang on much longer. Their habitat is interesting because they have dug extensive dens beneath the surface. The keepers say they can stand up inside the dens. If you think wolves aren’t ingenious creatures, consider that after a particularly heavy rainfall, the keepers were concerned the dens might flood. They went in there to see what they could do, and found the wolves had dug a small side channel in their den network to carry away excess water. Here is Tewa, one of the two wolves remaining.
Akila is a wolf hybrid. She and another sweet creature, Moondance, with eyes like marbles, are former pet hybrids. As the keepers here say, the wolf will always come out in a hybrid. Hence, many of them end up in sanctuaries after their owners can’t handle them anymore. Akila had also suffered tumors inside her mouth. I saw pictures of her poor little tongue. Savor this photo in particular, because the quality of her elderly life has now deteriorated and she will be put down next week if she doesn’t pass on her own accord.
During the middle of my stay, an older leopard who had suffered abuse much her life was so malnourished she had osteoporosis, and in the course of her regular daily activities she broke both of her legs … the bones just snapped. The keepers hoped, actually, to save her if possible with surgery, but in the end, it would have caused too much suffering for her and she would only break another bone any day. They feel the loss of each and every animal so keenly, but like all of us, must learn to let go.
Smelvin is a champagne skunk. You may be making an exclamation right now at his girth. He’ll be tested for a thyroid problem soon. Poor guy has expanded so much the middle of his back can’t support fur and he’s bald down the middle. Baldness aside, his fur is very beautiful.
Speaking of weight gain, when this monkey (I have a very hard time remembering all the names ...) arrived at the Keepers, it was thought she was pregnant because she also began expanding in girth. They fed her more, thinking she needed to support her pregnancy. But the time during which she should have given birth came and passed. Turns out, she’d just been porking out and gaining weight. So they’ve had to put her on a diet. Here she's meticulously grooming her tail.
Precious is a lemur and she ended up at Keepers because she couldn’t get along with any other lemurs at the zoo that was her former home. She’s one of the few animals who lives as a solitary animal in her cage. Another one is Billy the baboon, a member of my nemesis species. Precious looks just like her name. Looks completely sweet and well-behaved, like a princess with her beautiful tail she seems to show off with pride. She will let humans touch her, but is a grade A trouble-maker with other lemurs. I would wait until she was at the far end of the cage before approaching to put my camera lens through the bars (another privilege I had with backstage access to the animals by my association with Doreen). This gave me time to step back when she leaped from her perch with impressive speed and landed with silent grace vertical on the bars, her hands and feet gripping them.
Valentine, Arizona, USA
The irony is a little ridiculous … if you only knew how the clean laundry never gets put away at my house … I just pluck it, all nice and wrinkled, out of the clothes basket half the time, and how the dirty dishes pile up on the counter above the dishwasher, not quite able to make it all the way inside the dishwasher. Yet here I am at the animal sanctuary willingly folding rags and monkey blankets out of the dryer, washing by hand large heavy metal trays that the tigers and lions eat out of, happy as a clam. One day, random activities included moving ladders and fiberglass insulation around. And once again cutting up fruit and vegetables. But here I get the privilege of spending time in close proximity to beautiful animals not usually so accessible … I guess it’s a form of wage. Plus, come on, how cute is it to be folding monkey blankets and coatimundi blankets?
Yes, coatimundis. Critters I met in Guatemala and just love. A relative of raccoon, which some of you will know, are near and dear to my heart, as I used to rehab orphaned raccoons. I was delighted to get to feed a bunch of raccoons here one day; there are 10 who all live together. Here are coatimundis, Rocky and Cody:
So you know how some people seem to draw the love of cats, or some are magnets for dogs, and other people seem to repel certain pets … kitty cats, for example, typically like me. Well, I have found my nemesis species: the baboon. In Uganda I chalked up Ngugi’s aggressive and frightening behavior to the fact that he’s pretty psychotic to begin with. However, Billy the baboon here at Keepers of the Wild has just as malevolent a streak for me. Doreen was talking him up as her favorite critter here, and she always brings him special treats. I was expecting a sweet thing … but if I come anywhere near him, he immediately takes on a menacing demeanor. Doreen asked me to take a photo of her next to Billy in his cage. Well, Billy was nice enough to her, letting her touch his hand extended through the cage. But he picked up handfuls of gravel and threw it at me! So there I am trying to take a picture through a hailstorm of gravel. Finally I had to leave his presence, he got so irritated. So for whatever reason, baboons and I are mortal enemies. Do you have a nemesis species?
There is a wide variety of monkeys … most were confiscated by the local sheriff from an exotic pet trader. Their accommodations currently are not ideal. Since they arrived so suddenly as a flood of animals, Keepers had to scramble to house them. But plans are in place to imminently expand and improve their habitats. Here is an interesting couple I’d never seen the likes of before: Squeak and Buster. They're sitting in the walkway between their outdoor and indoor enclosure.
The thing about working at a rescue sanctuary is always having to learn the sad stories. For example, Carlos, who was bought as a pet and the owners had his teeth pulled so he wouldn’t bite them. Can you imagine? His tongue perpetually lolls outside his mouth now because he has no teeth.
Several species of smaller cats have found refuge at this sanctuary also, including lynx, serval and a fair number of bobcats – this group of four bobcats are usually found snuggling together. So fluffy and cute, you just wanna hug ‘em and nestle in with them.
A small collection of reptiles includes a couple snakes, several tortoises including 70-pound Bob, and two iguanas. Had I not had the close contact I had with the monster pythons at the UWEC in Uganda, I’m quite sure I would never have had the nerve to take such a close-up shot of these snakes, being held here by one of the regular volunteers. Snakes still give me the heebie jeebies, but now I can at least function around them.
I don’t have a photo of him, but so far the most dangerous animal at the sanctuary has proved to be the alpaca! Reared up on his hind legs and knocked a keeper to the ground with his front legs.
And of all things to find in Arizona, emus! Beautiful birds. I never really noticed the striking blue necks before until seeing them this close up.
Valentine, Arizona, USA
I’ve arrived at Keepers of the Wild animal sanctuary, where I’ll be stationed for the next few days to observe the animals, help with a few chores, and tell you fine folks about the critters who have been rescued here. As I mentioned earlier, the majority of these animals have made their way here from human environments, having been in the entertainment industry – show animals, roadside zoos, circuses, etc. – or private exotic pets. Many spent their lives in heartbreaking conditions, and have no hope of ever living (that is to say, surviving) in the wild. Now they have space to roam inside large enclosures here in the beautiful Arizona desert country. With rocks and trees, shade and water tubs, night boxes, and real earth beneath their paws. Some of these big cats have lived their entire lives on a cement floor in spaces barely larger than their bodies. Just about makes you cry to envision these magnificent animals spending their lives in such a cell.
Meet Sampson. His home was just as described above. When he arrived at Keepers, he had no muscle tone from being locked in such a small cage; he could barely manage to walk the length of his enclosure here. I was shown the size of his former home, and was appalled. Because he was an entertainment cat, he is habituated to and in fact appreciative of human attention. I was allowed the incredibly special privilege of entering the enclosure with him while Jonathon (the sanctuary founder along with his wife, Tina) treated his nose which was cracked and bleeding.
I could see sores on his white and black-striped body, and learned that’s the condition called “cage rub,” acquired from a life spent sandwiched between metal and cement. After three months at the sanctuary now, his muscle tone has improved, his sores are healing, though he still needs treatment. And three of his former entertainment tiger mates will soon be joining him in new enclosures.
So what is it like to be in the presence of a white tiger? It’s one of those things, kind of like the gorillas I was with at Bwindi, that at the time I was only admiring the animal, the size of his paws and canines, the color of his eyes, the pattern of his markings. He yawned and rolled on his back, letting the sunlight warm his belly. His back leg pedaled at the air as if scratching an imaginary part of his body. He scrunched his eyes shut, accentuating the patterns on his face. Then finally, I thought, "Wow, this is an enormous animal." So huge, and I’m so small. Small and vulnerable, and that’s the way it should be. As with the gorillas in Bwindi, I wasn’t frightened, but I was awed. I started petting him lightly, mostly just from timidity. But then I was told, "Make sure you rub hard, otherwise he'll think you're a fly and swat at you with his paw!"
Bambam is an elderly mountain lion who spent his life with humans. This was the other special privilege I was allowed (because Doreen and I are writing about the sanctuary), to pet Bambam. He was gentle as a housecat because of a lifetime with human contact. It’s a conundrum … he shouldn’t be so tame, but the fact is, he is and now is very old and appreciates the human contact he grew up with. In his new enclosure full of rocks where he can hide out in the shade and perch on top of for good views, he welcomes Jonathon, and on this particular day me and Doreen, into his new home. We petted him, and he purred and purred. Mountain lions are the only big cats who purr. It was a very special experience.
Baby, on the other hand, retains her beautiful wild nature. She is a 3-legged mountain lion. Her front leg had to be amputated. If you look, notice her left leg (on the right as you view the photo) is missing. At first it seems she has a leg tucked beneath her, but it’s only the fur of her chest. Mountain lions have the most piercing eyes. Here's a perfect example in Baby.
Perhaps the most endearing couple are Anthony and Riley. Anthony the lion and Riley the coyote, who are best pals. They each arrived at the sanctuary as cubs, and were put in the same enclosure for company. And now they are such pals, that they won’t eat without each other, and when Anthony has to be taken away for a series of necessary surgeries, Keepers must also put Riley in a transport crate to accompany Anthony on the journey, or they experience intense separation anxiety. They play together, sleep together, and Riley sometimes even takes food right out of Anthony’s mouth.
Anthony arrived as a cub. He would not have survived either in the wild or with his former owner who wasn’t willing to pay for the series of surgeries. Anthony had a birth defect where the insides of his back end were fused together, so that he peed and pooped from the same place, which causes constant infection. He has now been sorted out and is growing up, just beginning to grow his mane. He spends a lot of time in stalking mode, very slowly and intently moving toward his selected prey, in this instance the ball. Riley, meanwhile, prances around light on her feet, investigating whatever Anthony has focused on. These two pals were featured in a segment on the PBS Nature show, "Animal Odd Couple." You can watch the full episode online on Nature's website.
Though the primary focus of this sanctuary is providing homes for big cats rescued from the entertainment industry and irresponsible private owners, there are many other animals here as well who have been rescued from various human induced situations. I’ll introduce some of them to you another day, and to some more of the tigers.
Sadly, I need to add a postscript here. By the spring of 2013 both Sampson the white tiger and Anthony the lion passed away. Sampson developed an aggressive cancer and in light of his advanced age, Keepers decided not to put him through the discomfort and rigors of treatment, and put him down to rest. Anthony passed away in an almost freak incident. He developed an infection in the area where he had surgery as a young cub to fix his internal misconfiguration. He was rushed to the vet and surgery was immediately begun, however his system had gone septic and he passed away right there on the operating table. Each loss of an animal who passes is felt, but the unexpected and sudden loss of Anthony was a particular blow to everyone.
Uganda Wildlife Education Center, Entebbe, Uganda
Having spent 4 weeks with the chimps of the UWEC, they've really become near and dear to my heart. I miss them every day. I've created some profiles of some of the more charismatic chimps and those who are my favorites. Click on a link to see photos and read about that chimp and some of his/her idiosyncratic behaviors.
SARAH AND PEARL
How I miss my chimps! Have been back home for a few months now, but think of them every single day. I force my friends at the UWEC to send me stories about what the chimps have been up to. There is never a dull moment. I saw the "Chimpanzee" movie after I returned home, and of all the odd things to put a zinger in my heart from that adorable movie, it was when the chimps would get worked up and all start yelling and screaming and barking through the forest. It's the kind of sound, when you hear it in person, you don't forget it. As I heard it every day, several times a day, at the UWEC, it's one of those things that is now sweet and nostalgic to me ... the sound of a group of chimps going "ape shit," to use the charming slang. At times it could be nearly deafening if the whole group was riled up screaming, particularly if they were inside the night enclosure. In the chimp house they would also be rattling the caging to add emphasis. If Helen or Robert were around, they would typically go in and try to get the chimps to calm down. Robert would yell, "Hey guys! What is going on in here? Come on, guys!" But I actually got a kick out of going in there and just listening to the riot. I would have to stick my fingers in my ears to curb the pain, it could be so intense sometimes. Occasionally if it went on and on while I was alone in the chimp house I would finally emulate Robert, yelling at the top of my lungs to hear my own voice and clapping my hands, "Hey guys! What is going on in here?"
While a still chimp makes for the best, or at least the easiest, photo ... I adore so many of the portraits I captured of them ... the active chimp is certainly the most fun to watch, especially when they are interacting with one another. It's really fascinating to watch them socialize and figure out the various alliances and what motivates each chimp. Here are some shots of the active chimps on their island.
Probably the two most active chimps are the two youngest, Onapa and Nepa. They have become known as "my duo." Onapa has the most personality of any of the chimps and is brimming with curiosity and mischief. Nepa adores him even though he often picks on her. She is his little side kick. I love this photo ... you can just see how Nepa (right) is admiring Onapa and wants to be his buddy ... and maybe he'll share his snack with her, too.
The fire hose strung between two trees like a tightrope was a focal point of activity, and I loved watching the chimps play here. Nepa was particularly adept at running across it in full bipedal form. I tried over and over to get a picture of her doing this, but she was always too quick; I never got anything but a blur. This is the best one I managed to capture. Look how she places her feet, with the hose between her big toe and the other toes. I was constantly amazed at how dexterous and useful the chimps' feet are!
Sometimes chimps would sit amiably together on the fire hose, or at least with indifference to one another.
But more often than not, the chimps were playing and picking on one another here. This first photo, I think it looks like the one chimp is tickling the other one, though probably that isn't actually the case. The second photo is classic scenery around the fire hose. Either somebody is sitting peacefully on the tightrope and a trouble maker such as Onapa comes along and stirs up mischief, pulling them off their perch; or occasionally it's the other way around, and somebody is walking innocently by the tightrope when a chimp suddenly swings down and knocks him/her over.
Chimps have an amazing ability to design a plan and carry it out. Motivated largely by the desire to possess things, such as food and toys, they can be splendidly devious little creatures when it comes to figuring out how to get what they want. They can also accomplish their goals in the most entertainingly simple ways, like sneaking up on another chimp and stealing what they want. I didn't even notice at first in this photo of Onapa blissfully playing with his beloved skirt, that there is another chimp springing out from behind the tree trunk to grab it.
You saw a lot of photos in the Shirts and Skirts post of Onapa and Nepa playing with the clothing Steph and I bought for them. This photo below I love somehow for the sense of foreshadowing it seems to give. Maybe just because I know the silly adventures that happen next (see for example, Onapa climbing down a tree with this shirt completely over his head in Shirts and Skirts). Also, though, the photo seems as if a movie begins here with this strange item being hauled ashore from the moat, this is like the trailer poster ... "The Shirt." or "Dawn of the T-Shirt." or "Shirt on Chimp Island." One of the zookeepers told me he overheard some visitors exclaim to each other as they were watching the chimps playing with some of the clothing and also the shoes I bought for them, "They're teaching the chimpanzees to wear clothes!"
I was always entertained watching them fish things out of the moat with their branches. I've posted photos of this activity before, but it's one of the more entertaining solo acts the chimps perform. Sometimes they start with a small stick that turns out to be inadequate and it's interesting to watch them work their way up, scavenging the island for larger and larger branches until they achieve success reaching the floating item.
One day near the end of my stay, Helen told me to search through the trash cans at the zoo for discarded water bottles with lids. Fortunately, Steph and I had both been accumulating them in our rooms for recycle. So I didn’t have to search the trash. When I showed up with 13 pristine bottles a few hours later, Helen was singularly impressed. We filled them with cooled porridge and then put them in the freezer … essentially make porridge popsicles. The challenge for the chimps was to get the treat out of the plastic. Basically this involved simply tearing the plastic apart and demolishing the bottles. Perhaps not very challenging, but added some variety to their days. As usual with treats, the zookeepers spend a lot of effort making sure each chimp gets one, throwing them across the moat with precision aiming and waiting until the dominant chimps have moved off with their treats (as they inevitably grabbed the first ones) to throw to the others. We made 13 bottles for 11 chimps. Who ended up with both of the extras? Matoke, the alpha male, in the first photo. Second photo, Nepa finally gets her bottle and immediately scampers up a tree, using the fire hose with her feet to help her climb. She knows she can only retain her treat if she is hard to reach up in the tree branches.
The most entertaining times, though, were usually when the chimps were in all out chaos with a whole bunch of them involved in chasing and scolding one another ... chimps everywhere running around the island screeching and chasing, climbing up and down trees, jumping across branches, usually at high speed. That wonderful deafening sound of everyone being riled up. First photo below, looks to me that Aluma, standing on the rope, is schooling another chimp and saying, "And another thing ...!" before continuing his scolding. The second photo I like for portraying a fairly good sense of general mayhem. And the third cracks me up, Matoke chasing another chimp around and around the tree while little Nepa takes refuge part way up the trunk, you can just see her foot and her head peering down on the action.