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. :)
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.