Saturday, August 1, 2015

Riding the Storm

The good thing about storms is that they don’t last. Eventually the sun comes out but sometimes there is damage left in its wake.  To give an update on the previous post, Vlad is doing very well and will get his sutures removed later this week.  Unfortunately, the news about the goose is not so good.  Gertie did not make it.  She was such a fighter but her injuries were too severe.  We kept her as comfortable as we possibly could in her last few days.      

I’ve had a roller coaster ride of emotions over all these “little storms” this summer.  The open house was fantastic. Not only was it our highest attended and grossing event ever but the whole day really just could not have gone any better.  That same weekend our beloved pitbull Rigley got sick. He was simply lethargic and wouldn’t eat. It came on all of a sudden. Not only had he been fine but I even had him in for his yearly exam less than a week before.  It wasn’t so simple.  Rigley was crashing and was given only a few days to live unless we took drastic life saving measures. Nigel’s and my philosophy with every animal here is quality over quantity. While we hated to lose him we did not want him to suffer at all. The beginning of his life had been hard enough for him. We wanted the end to be with dignity.  For some reason, that dog touched me more than I ever realized. His death has been harder on me than I expected and I’m even fighting back the tears just writing this. 

Cesar, baby Chinchilla
Isela, baby Chinchilla
But I said this summer was a roller coaster so on to the good news. Baby Chinchillas!  We had been donated several chinchillas over the winter but despite having 4 of them, none of them were able to be used for our programs. They were not used to being handled that much and that would not be safe for anyone. Chinchillas are one of my favorite education animals for our programs so we decided to breed them specifically so that the offspring can be trained to be used in classrooms.  We had 3 little baby chinchillas born to Coco this summer. Unfortunately, chinchillas are not able to nurse any more than 2 babies at a time. The smallest one didn’t make it. We did our best to step in but it just wasn’t enough.  Coco was proving to be a great mom, until day number 3.  By then she got sore enough to bite both babies on the head. They became afraid of her and didn’t want to nurse after that. We left them together but supplemented the feeding as needed. Here’s the crazy part. This all happened a few days before my mom and I had to go to Florida for a graduation. Let’s just say that my skills are a little better suited for the nurturing of small mammals than Nigel’s so off to Florida we all went. They travelled well and bonded again with their mother. It took a few more weeks for their wounds to heal but they are doing great. The little boy has been named Cesar and the little girl has been named Isela. Recently, we moved the both of them and their mom into their big high-rise, multi-level cage.  The babies are so much fun to watch bouncing around. 

Most anyone that has ever been here has met my cat Sahara. She has taken over our kitchen table. We don’t actually eat there. She spends 90% of her time on the table. She has learned that it’s the best place to get fed first and to get all the scratches from the volunteers that come.  This cat, along with her sister (and litter mate) who is half her size, are nearly 17 years old.  A couple weeks ago she got very sick with vomiting, diarrhea and extremely lethargic.  I brought her to work with me fully expecting to have to euthanize another pet in just a few short weeks.  All of her tests though were inconclusive. Her bloodwork showed no real change. Her x-rays showed a few issues that were consistent with being sick but no obvious mass or answers. We put her on all sorts of medication and she is now doing very well, in fact it’s hard to believe anything was wrong.  At her age, I’m sure there’s more going on that we couldn’t find but I’d rather keep her happy on her table than put her through all sorts of tests.

Rabbits, rabbits and more rabbits!  We were donated rabbits. To be perfectly honest, they were all to be snake food but we had a small collection of them that Nigel decided to keep around. I take no credit for anything to do with the rabbits (at that point) because I am highly allergic to them. I am most grateful for all the volunteers that can look after them for me.  One of them had a litter of babies but the momma died when they were about a week old. Two of the babies survived so I took on the task of hand raising them.  It definitely tested my allergies but I think my body is finally getting used to having them around because it’s not as bad as it used to be. These little guys went everywhere with me, especially to work every day so that they could get their feedings.  The girls at work just loved them and you can imagine all the fuss 2 baby rabbits would get an animal clinic.  Last week they moved into their adult cage.  Then the next morning the rollercoaster headed downward again.  One of the rabbits was not using her back legs.  It’s heart breaking to see her drag herself around. I’m not giving up on her though. We had been given a bird that had paralyzed legs several months ago and he’s now moving both of them.  That’s what I’m hoping for this rabbit. I’m hoping that with time the use of legs will come back.  These are my babies. I have been up late at night and again very early in the morning to feed them. I’ve even had to sneak them into the store in my purse when I ran in so they didn’t get left in the heat.  I have fallen in love with these two little bunnies.

Baby Bunny
Baby Bunny
Today was bitter sweet for me. I said good-bye to my little baby bunnies. They have moved on to their new home. The sweet part is that it will be a great home for them. Not only will they be spoiled but I know that everything possible will be done to continue the nursing care the white one needs.  The other good news is that they have gone to live with some of our volunteers so we will definitely get to continue to see them.  For now, I’m ready for calm but our life is full of adventures and good or bad, I would not have it any other way.  

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Gauze and the Goose

It’s been way too long since I’ve added to this blog. I was recently encouraged and inspired to start writing again. Please keep in mind this is a personal blog so what is written is coming straight from my heart and my own personal feelings.  Running an animal sanctuary has extreme highs and extreme lows and this is me, dealing with some of the lows. Tomorrow is another day.

I have to be honest, writing about my hand and then following it up with Rosie’s death took a lot out of me. It is not easy for me to get to the emotional side of things.  Right now though, the emotions are raging so I figured I would sit down and see what comes out.  I work hard at really looking at the positive and not focusing on the bad days, bad moments, or anything all that negative. It’s a survival thing when you work in the animal business.  But today, was NOT a good day.  Back at the end of February we got a dog. Actually, he was given to us and supposedly a hybrid wolf but there’s not much wolf in him. He’s really just a VERY large puppy.  He was recently neutered (at the time) and fully vetted.

Fast forward to last week; Nigel noticed that there was blood dripping from him.  When I took him to work his scrotal sac (where he had been neutered) was infected. We tried antibiotics for a week but nothing changed so we had to go to surgery.  I really don’t mind being in on the surgery for my own pets. I was anxious for this one though. I’m not sure why. I guess it’s because there was an unknown. We had no idea what was causing this or what we’d find. The poor doctor got tired of me asking…”What is it?” He took the sac off and after Vlad was sutured back up and stable he started taking the pieces apart.  A piece of gauze! Whoever did the surgery back in February left gauze inside the dog.  You hear of this sort of thing happening and I knew he would be fine but it still brings out a lot of emotions when it’s your own pet. Probably even more so when you’re in the business and know how things are supposed to go and what could have happened if we didn’t catch this so early.  Vlad is home tonight and although he’s NOT happy about looking like a satellite dish in the front yard with his collar, he’s doing well and will recover fine.  My nerves however are taking longer to heal than his.

There were other little things throughout the day that added to frustration but nothing earthshattering. That is until later tonight.  We recently rebuilt the farmyard building because a Great Horned Owl had killed and terrorized our animals last fall. We really thought this new build was working well.  That is until Nigel called for me urgently tonight after being out there. Poor Gertie Goose was badly injured. It was gruesome for those that don’t have a stomach for blood. We cleaned her up well and treated all the injuries. The nursing care has started and all we can do is hope for the best.  It has left me feeling rather defeated. We are supposed to be protecting these animals. The pigs, dogs or even guinea fowl never made any noise.

These are just 2 things that happened in one day. Doing this job requires one to have a strong stomach and the ability to think and act in tense situations. But it also has a very high emotional cost.  I was telling someone the other day that Nigel never asks me how my day went when I come home. They were shocked but quite honestly, I prefer it that way. He knows I will tell him the things that are important or that I want to share. For the most part though, I do not want to relive a lot of the things that go on.  I deal with those things at work then come home and turn it off.  It’s the only way I can handle the emotional stress of it all.  That’s all well and good though for the vet clinic. Here at the rescue, that’s my home.  That’s a lot harder to shake off.  Perhaps, that’s why tonight I have turned to writing.  

Sunday, January 11, 2015

THE Bite, The Final Chapter

It’s with great sadness that I start adding to the blog again. I was recently inspired to write and had a whole different story started. That will have to come later. 

It’s any zookeeper’s (or barn or stable hand’s) worst nightmare.  An electrical fire started in a light fixture and spread through the ceiling of the primate barn at a nearby zoo.  Twenty-eight animals died of smoke inhalation.  The whole thing strikes so many different nerves in me.  As a zookeeper I feel the pain, as someone that worked in that very barn with some of those same animals (even if it was 20+ years ago) I feel a lot of the pain and also as someone with an organization with a separate building full of animals I feel the pain.  But there is one particular animal that has caused the greatest upset for me.

I was at work when one of my coworkers asked if I heard about the fire. I immediately went to get my phone to find about 6 messages. I opened the article and somewhere in the very first paragraph it stated that among the animals deceased were the chimps. I cried out “Oh, god, Rosie!”  I started shaking and crying so badly that I couldn’t see the rest to read it.  Her name was not listed specifically but I knew instantly. I immediately felt like part of me had just died.  It’s a very weird feeling that I could not begin to explain to anyone. Perhaps it’s as basic as the fact that she really did have part of me in her, after all she did swallow the finger. 

There was also an unspoken bond between Rosie and me. Nothing like the flirting she did with the guys.  She would watch me. I often would wonder what she was thinking when she did.  Nigel and I were there to help a bird last year and walked around some.  Nigel pointed out that a chimp had been watching me very intently for some time. I turned and of course it was her with her eyes locked on my every move. It was a very cool and creepy experience at the same time but that’s how she was with me.  Not only would I never forget but apparently she hadn't either. 

I have had to force myself to stay off Facebook.  Many comments are so hateful and that adds to my emotional overload.  I know that this particular zoo is not perfect (but nothing is) and some decisions had been made in the past that I would not do, but one thing I can tell you is that there are a lot of good people there working hard and doing the best they can with the limited resources they have.  No one deserves something like this and I would gladly do anything I can to help.  What’s best for the animals is and has always been my motivation. Why sit behind your computers and complain? People should get off their arses and do something to make things better.

They had a memorial this afternoon.  The names of each of the animals were called out as flowers were placed along the grave.  I caught myself off guard; when Rosie’s name was called out I started crying all over again.  I loved to hate that girl and hated to love her.  RIP Rosie and all of your friends.  

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Brutally Honest

I often get comments like “I don’t know how you do it”.  The thing is, I don’t really know how either. From the very beginning failure was not an option so sometimes it’s just a matter of taking it all one day at a time.  The average person has life outside of their job doing things like cleaning up or maintaining the home, doing the grocery shopping, taking care of pets, taking care of children and spending time with their friends and family. For us we have to keep up all of those things too (well, except the kids part) but add on another 250 mouths to feed. Shopping is spent mostly getting food for the animals and getting a few things for us while we’re at it. Keeping it all going isn’t just the physical cleaning and feeding the animals, there is a business to run. We have tax documents, accounting, website maintenance, social media updates, event planning, newsletters and educational program to arrange. This all on top of my working weekdays (and a few weekends) while Nigel works every weekend with rugby, just to get by. We have to find the very difficult balance of working enough to scrape by financially yet have enough time here to keep everything going. Most every day I spend working about 12 hours in one way or another. So when someone asks “how do you do it?” I just don’t have a chance to stop and think about it.

One of the problems though is that I do have to be away from the animals a lot.  This crazy schedule is sometimes the hardest part to deal with. These animals are my passion, my love and the reason I do this. I constantly have new ideas for training or other things I would love to do with them but then resign to ‘if I only had time’.  I do get frustrated and spend a lot of time being completely exhausted. In fact, what prompted me to write this is that I had reached a point of burning out. But don’t worry, it happens every so often and I bounce back.  There are days where I just don’t feel like picking up another damn piece of poop or that I wish the monkeys could feed themselves. The thing is that none of that is optional. It doesn’t matter if one of us is away, if one of us is sick or if it’s a holiday. These animals depend on us for their care. For that, I keep going. I peel myself up and trudge out to take care of what needs to be done. Here’s the great part; every single time I am reminded at just how fortunate I am. I get out there and a monkey will eat out of my hand, a bird will say something funny or step up for me when I wasn’t expecting them too or Bardou or Ginger will get excited to see me. Once in a while I will just stop and look around. I will look at all the amazing reptiles we have, the enclosures that have been built for the cats and even the chickens happy in their yard. I immediately fill with pride, a sense of peace and a satisfaction knowing that these animals are healthy and happy because of what I do. 

So how do we really do it? It takes passion, dedication, a strong work ethic and (dare I say?) 2 stubborn people that won’t give up.  We worked the first several years non-stop and only last year took our first vacation together for the first time in 6 years. We decided that even if it’s only a few days we needed that time, so we were fortunate enough to get away again last week.  It took 2 full days to get the knots out of my shoulders. So what do 2 people do that are surrounded by animals every day do for vacation?  We go looking for more animals. This includes getting up before 6am to get the best viewing, driving down logging roads, walking through swampy areas and turning over more logs than I ever have in my life.  As much as I have always loved working at zoos and having our collection of exotics, nothing thrills me more than to see animals in their natural setting where they are free to live the life they were meant to live. 

One of the many beautiful views we got to enjoy in the Smoky Mountains.
White-tailed Deer in the morning mist at Cades Cove.
A very small section of the logging road we traveled for nearly 2 miles.

Nigel in his thinking pose.
He was impressed that I was doing such a good job finding the salamanders,
until I started finding them faster. LOL  

The very rare Jordan's Salamander; a very special find for Nigel. 

Monday, June 30, 2014

Raising Bardou

So it’s about time for another update on raising Bardou, the coyote pup.  He’s 13 weeks old now (time flies!) and quite the explorer.  There are no bottles or cute little pups curling up in your lap. He is full of energy with very sharp nails and even sharper teeth.  For the first few weeks he was so small he could stay in the bath tub and not climb over the side. Those days are long gone and he now stays outside.  He stays in a small enclosure close to the house. When he has grown he will be moved into a much larger space.  It’s at this age that hand-raising a wild animal is the most difficult. All he wants to do is play, which can be quite rough. This is how pups learn from one another.  It is up to us to fill this role of other coyotes and let him know what the rules are, yet still let him have his fun as a young canine.

The baby picture, 3 weeks old.
Twice a day Nigel and I take him out for “playtime”. He gets to run around the yard and interact with us. What we do with this time is very important to his growth.  I love just sitting and watching him and Nigel. He is so in tune with his “dad” and they run and run around chasing each other. Sometimes I can’t tell who’s supposed to be chasing who.  I always see the biggest smiles on Nigel when he’s interacting with our animals.  I love when Bardou finds a bug. He jumps up with all four legs and pounces on it. Then there are the moments where he finds a clump of grass.  He spends a great deal of time tossing it in the air chasing it and pouncing on it.  He knows exactly where it has landed and always seems to go back to it until it has completely broken apart.  The most amazing thing to me is that we have 4 other canines, domesticated canines at that, and none of them fetch.  Bardou, the coyote, will fetch. He loves his tennis ball and actually does bring it back. Lately he’s chased after it and then gotten very easily sidetracked on all that’s going on in the yard.

10 weeks old
The wild coyote does come out in him. He’s often passed some blackberries and stopped to eat them on his way by, or even a grub or two, even after having had his dinner.  He plays rough with a lot of jumping and he can be mouthy. Not that he’s trying to bite but it’s the way he would have played with other pups. His teeth are a bit too sharp for human skin that isn’t covered in fur.  He is very different when other people in the yard with us. He does not like strangers and any of the volunteers that want to work with him has to keep up contact with him and get him used to him and the right way to act around him.  New people freak him out all-together even though he’s been hand-raised.  Which is why there are so many coyotes in the wild yet very few are actually seen.  They do their very best to avoid people.  At work the doctor and I were told a story where a man was walking his 2 small dogs down the street and a coyote came up and snatched one of the dogs off the leash and killed it.  I can tell you that if that story is true it either was a dog of some type or a rabid coyote. I have learned that even a healthy, hand-raised coyote does NOT like confrontation and does not like to go near strange people.  It’s been amusing to watch people’s reactions to him that really want him to act like a dog or puppy that just always loves people.

Me and my boy, 13 weeks old.

My favorite part about raising Bardou isn’t just about working with a coyote. Nigel and very rarely work on projects together. We just get so very busy with so much to do around here.  Training Bardou every night is a project that Nigel and I are working on together.  More formal training will come later, but for now we are just learning our “manners”. 

Thursday, June 26, 2014

Opening the House part 2

Another open house is done and this one had a very weird outcome.  It truly reminded me that success is measured in so many different ways.  This was perhaps the most organized we've ever been and everything went very smoothly. Not that the others weren't organized, it was just better this time.  Financially, it didn't break records but still brought in more money than most of our others. The people that came stayed for longer periods of time and truly seemed to have a good time. Now here’s the weird part; for all that, we had record low number of people.  This tells me that we have found a great formula for how to run our event; we just need to figure out a better way to get people there.  Marketing is definitely not my forte, but I’m learning all the time and already have ideas for the next one.

The one thing that made the event such a success is the volunteers.  I am truly fortunate to have some wonderful, very hard working people by my side. Having such great people that I can trust and that have been here long enough to understand what is going on made such a huge difference on my stress level. A friend of mine even commented on a picture that I was actually smiling on open house day.  There were a couple points during the day where I started talking about the work everyone was doing and I felt myself getting choked up. The gratitude I have is overwhelming.

Some of my favorite moments this year were The Cold Water Challenge with Jennifer and Glenda. They each raised money to have ice cold water dumped on them.  It was fun, especially in the heat. One of my youngest volunteers stepped up to the plate and offered to take an important couple around on a tour. He did a great job and I was very proud of him.  We were also able to get Dakota, the bobcat, to do a few of his trained behaviors in front of guests. He was reluctant and nervous but the fact that he did them at all was a great moment for everyone that got to watch.  At one point I went in to check on Ginger, the Fennec Fox, I was sitting down inside her enclosure trying to get her to come out of her house to see me. She would look at me and roll over but never came out. That is until her favorite volunteer came around. She bolted out of that house and rushed towards her.  I knew exactly where I stood in her mind (haha).  It was a wonderful moment though.  My other favorite thing was having guest vendors, since our first years were just us. Scaly Adventures has now joined us a few times but this year we had a musician (SaxMan Entertainment) and Kona Ice. I love that we can now offer such diversity to our guests.  

As tired as I am after the event is over I really enjoy the days afterwards.  Everything is clean at once, the yard is cleaned up, the animals are resting and I get a sense of pride over what we have done.  I really wish that we had the facilities to offer something far more often than twice a year.  Perhaps someday we will. The reality of it though is that I barely get a day of rest and it’s time to start thinking about the next event or fundraiser. In this business it never ends.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Opening the house

It’s that time of year where I get easily distracted, stressed and anxious. It’s time for our open house. In just a few days we will have a few hundred people at our home. This isn't like some big party; most of these people are total strangers. It is not a normal concept to open one’s property to pretty much anyone. Our first Adventure Day was in 2009.  We had been an official organization for two years by then.  In some ways it seems like it was a natural progression to start letting people in and in other ways it was not an easy decision.  There have always been a large number of animals that we can’t take out to programs and of course people were always curious about those. More and more often people were asking to come out to see all the animals. Of course that wasn't a problem when it was friends and family but when you start to get complete strangers requesting to come it’s another issue.  We decided that something had to be done to let people come visit. Then the hard part began. How do we let people come to our home to see the animals yet still have retained our privacy?  We got together with our volunteers and friends and started planning and brainstorming.  Rule number 1, no one but volunteers are allowed into the house. Rule number 2 was that we never publish our exact address.  This may have limited us over the years for the numbers of people that have come out but it’s the risk I’m willing to take. 

I wouldn't say that the first one was a giant financial success but the people that came had a great time. To me, that was the best measure of success and it was enough to take what we had learned to do more. I remember the morning of the event. It felt like such chaos. No one had done this before and it seemed like everything was running behind schedule. We managed to get it together though and no one probably noticed the “imperfections”. As somewhat of a control freak I had to learn to let go of the little things.  I would walk around and think that a sign wasn't quite where I would put it, that something was laid out in a random order or that games were played completely differently from how I created them. It was actually a bit of struggle to get myself to the point of not worrying about these little things. 

We are now at 12 events later and I still feel like I’m learning better ways to do things. I think that’s a good thing; we always want to be improving it and giving people new reasons to come out.  I would say that the most important things to me to have a successful event and one that’s as little stress as possible is 1) to be very organized, 2) to have great people behind me that know exactly how these things go and 3) to trust the people that are working so hard to help. I've been fortunate to have so many people over the years that fit this picture.  There is no doubt that this day exhausts every volunteer we have.  I am always humbled by the number of people that are willing to come out and work so hard for us.

As much as I sit here and talk about the stress and the amount of work; I must admit, I actually enjoy doing these events. When I stop and take a moment to look around I see kids having fun with the games, a line of people at the food, the deck full of people anxiously trying to get to touch the animals and many others checking out the animals or just hanging out having a good time, I fill with pride. This is something that Nigel and I have worked so hard to create and so many people are here to support us and our animals.  Then I quickly snap back to reality because someone needs to know where something is or what to do about something else.