A Bump in the Road

The Texas Hill Country is a gorgeous, endless expanse of desert oasis.  In its own quiet way, I think it's a little piece of paradise.
The Texas Hill Country is a gorgeous, endless expanse of desert oasis. In its own quiet way, I think it’s a little piece of paradise.

My Texas escapades were cut short when I was diagnosed, then undiagnosed, then re-diagnosed with Lyme disease. The end of my six-month internship was nearing, but I’d been hired on for an additional one-year commitment as an apprentice. That position would entail an increased load of medical work in the animal clinic coupled with an advanced leadership role. I’d still be living in a trailer with six other people, but The Apprentice Trailer instead of one of three intern trailers. I was excited in many ways but also beginning to doubt my abilities as I noticed my body slowly getting weaker. Soon, standing became an actual task. My arms ached when I reached for things above my head. The joints in my fingers screamed with fire when I pressed syringes to release gruel into the crying mouths of baby birds.

My roommate, Brandi, had recently gone to the urgent care after feeling tired and nauseous. These symptoms alone could have been linked to the common flu or simply heat exhaustion. However, a tell-tale bull’s-eye rash on her stomach suggested a tick might be to blame. Sure enough, a blood test revealed that she had Lyme disease. Once on antibiotics, she began to feel much better.

I made sure to say goodbye to all the animals, including this guinea pig in a cone recovering from surgery.
I made sure to say goodbye to all the animals, including this guinea pig in a cone recovering from surgery.

Initially overlooking my increasing fatigue and acute pain as the result of being over-worked, I started to become concerned after speaking with my supervisor and asking for a lightened work load. I spent a week manning the phone hotline, working the normal 9-5 desk job, but just taking down notes from callers with a pen or keyboard created a nauseating pain. At times my joints were so stiff, I had to try using my left hand, only to find those joints stiffened just as quickly. It was time to hit up the doctor.

Offering a brief overview of my day-to-day interactions with animals, the doctor asked if there was any possibility that I could have been exposed to Lyme disease.

“Funny that you should ask,” I commented. “My roommate was just treated for Lyme.” In fact, I could very easily have been exposed to a deer tick seeing as I spent days working in the deer yard nursing more than fifty orphaned fawns. I didn’t have that bulls-eye rash, though, like my roommate had. The rash occurs in 60-80% of infected cases, according to the CDC. I guess I’ve never really fit into the standard “norm.”

The doctors started me on pre-cautionary antibiotics and poked my arm for a blood test, assuring me that the antibiotics would do no harm to my body in the event that I did not test positive for Lyme. I took the twice-a-day Doxycicline for almost a week. The medicine was intended for a 21-day cycle, but when the test came back negative, the doctor said to stop popping the pills. He was a doctor, so I listened to him. He referred me to a rheumatologist and general practitioner suggesting I be tested for a whole panel of diseases and disorders ranging from arthritis to multiple sclerosis to lupus, even fibromyalgia, which I was sure, if it ever did hit me, wouldn’t ever happen until my elderly years. Being out-of-state, the health insurance was posing to be a very difficult issue. And, my symptoms persisted, in fact worsening to the point that I had trouble walking.

I struggled with leaving a place that cared so much about the environment it even cautioned guests to look out for lizards, caterpillars, snakes and spiders on the road.  Although I would have been fine with one less tarantula roaming the universe.
I struggled with leaving a place that cared so much about the environment it even cautioned guests to look out for lizards, caterpillars, snakes and spiders on the road. Although I would have been fine with one less tarantula roaming the universe.

When I commit to something, I follow it all the way through. Despite the discomfort, I managed to finish out my internship. But due to financial reasons, my overall poor health, and the fact that I desperately needed some coddling from Mom and Dad, I postponed the start of my apprenticeship. Immediately upon my arrival home, I was bombarded with doctor appointments, needle pricks, and the anxiety-inducing waiting game. They filled 12 vials with my blood. I only know because I saw them on the table beforehand. I would have collapsed in the chair if I dared peek during the process.

Luckily, my new general practitioner was determined to figure out what was causing my body to feel this way. When the Lyme test came back negative, he scrutinized it, noticing the range was border-line. Instead of writing off Lyme disease once again, he sent it out for a further test called the Western Blot. About a week later, the results came back indicating I was indeed positive for Lyme. It was back on the antibiotics. After one month, I felt better in some ways but worse in others, and so my cycle was extended for yet another month.

As the Lyme disease progressed, tasks as simple as feeding the song birds became a painful ordeal.  Trying to pinch tweezers or push syringes, my joints locked up and felt like they were on fire.
As the Lyme disease progressed, tasks as simple as feeding the song birds became a painful ordeal. Trying to pinch tweezers or push syringes, my joints locked up and felt like they were on fire.

I followed up with an infectious disease doctor who also treated an infection in my leg that resulted from a weakened immune system. I never knew infections could be so painful! It has been over two years now, and the scar on my leg remains. I was self-conscious about it for the first year, but now I think it tells my story quite well. Some people get dealt unlucky hands. The ill-fated must remember that no matter how far from reach the rainbow lies, it’s always there, always attainable.

As my body began recuperating, I decided it was best to remain active instead of vegetating on the sofa. Though I was exhausted, it still drove me nearly insane not being able to run for what was now six months time. Instead of running, I took up leisurely bike rides and swims. I began helping out my neighbors and friends of friends to both keep busy and bring in enough money to pay off my student loans. I cleaned houses and cooked family dinners, did other people’s grocery shopping, chauffeured kids and dogs, and slowly worked my way up to yard work. All the while searching for the next step, my bones gradually felt at ease and my energy level increased. My dad said he knew I was feeling better when I started talking in a British accent again.

After more than six months of a life that had to change, to mold, to readjust, a life I didn’t know if I would get back, I had a lot of painful firsts. They were followed by more jovial seconds. The first time I came back from a run, I wanted to cut my legs off from the cramping and strain. The next time I went out, I couldn’t stop running. The first time I strung my guitar, my fingers didn’t want to form the chord shapes. The next time they wanted to pluck away like a monkey with a hammer. The first time I was able to run my fingertips along the faux ivory of that wooden, upright piano I’d played since I was eight years old, I had to double-check that my joints weren’t actually on fire. The second time, I couldn’t stop composing. Finally, I could open jars again, I could write, I could put my hair in a ponytail without experiencing excruciating pain, burning, fatigue, and stiffness. Oh how I’d taken for granted these little things in life.

I was sure going to miss the opossums!  They are one of those animals that is so ugly it's cute.
I was sure going to miss the opossums! They are one of those animals that is so ugly it’s cute.

By the time three months in Perrysburg rolled around, I was ready to be on my own again. I didn’t quite feel 100%, but I had gone from needing to ask for help to being able to bite through the pain. And soon, I hoped, there would no longer be any physical distress, other than that spawned by physical labor in the animal world.

Time spent at home made me reflect and realize that I wasn’t quite done paving opportunities for myself. When I was in junior high, I wanted to be a marine biologist. A part of me still felt called to protect our oceans. I declined the apprenticeship in rural Texas and accepted yet another internship at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida working at the Dolphin & Whale and Sea Turtle Hospitals. I wouldn’t be earning even a stipend, and I’d have to find a place to rent, but I had money saved up and so much more to learn. I think nearly every day how very different my life could have been if I’d gone back to Texas. I would probably still be there now, three years later. But so much has happened since then, and I wouldn’t trade it for the world, a million dollars, or even a million guinea pigs.

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A Deer, a Bullet, and a Lesson on Symmetry

In baby season, there were close to 100 orphaned fawns in the deer yard.  Axis and white-tailed fawns liked to nibble on clothes when they finished sucking from their bottles.
In baby season, there were close to 100 orphaned fawns in the deer yard. Axis and white-tailed fawns liked to nibble on clothes when they finished sucking from their bottles.

At the start of a closing clinic shift, we received a call about an injured deer on the side of the road just a few miles away. Apprentice LeeAnn and I drove to check out the situation. The caller said he was traveling across the country and passed by this deer who was still breathing at the time of the call. When the odometer hit 1.9 miles, LeeAnn and I craned our necks out the window, searching the grass. Spotting the animal, we parked the CRV behind another car. A man stood by the vehicle’s trunk.

“Hello!” I greeted him. He nodded in response. “So, you’re traveling across the country?”

“No.” He looked at me confused. I was confused.

“Did you call us about this deer?”

“No,” he said.

No matter their age, deer are skittish creatures, so tasks like fixing a broken leg need to be done with extreme quiet and caution.
No matter their age, deer are skittish creatures, so tasks like fixing a broken leg need to be done with extreme quiet and caution.

“Okay, well… we’re going to go check on him.” I had no idea who this man was let alone why he was milling about in the area of a profusely bleeding animal.

Approaching the deer, we stopped short. This guy hadn’t been hit by a car. Two lead bullets had sliced through him, a through-and-through in the jugular and another lodged just above the eye. Not seeing any signs of life, we felt his nose. It was still warm, and the flies had not yet accumulated on the wet, crimson blood. We had probably arrived mere minutes after he died.

Texan law allows for public hunting on select private lands to help the state manage the surplus of white-tailed deer. Property owners can apply for a drawing in which the government leases land from individuals for a public hunt. However, the hunting is monitored during a set check-in and check-out time. This deer had been illegally shot.

While LeeAnn and I were processing the situation, a man with a rifle hopped over the fence across the street. Our eyes followed him and the man by the parked car as the two ambled toward us. I gritted my teeth, trying to contain my anger, logically thinking the man with the rifle was the shooter. I had a dictionary of choice words for him but was torn between morality and safety. All for speaking my mind, I wasn’t too sure how I would feel about a bullet in my foot. I don’t like guns and as such had not been around them. This was my first time seeing a rifle up close. But I did know one thing about weaponry; never test the patience of a man with a gun in his hand.

The rifle man squatted down and surveyed the deer.

“Yep, just what I thought. One through-and-through, one lodged.” That much I could have told him. He rested the butt of the rifle on the ground and whipped out a knife. Ohmigod, I thought. He’s going to saw this deer’s head off with a pocketknife. LeeAnn and I exchanged looks of concern.

Rounding up all the fawns in the yard for a head count was never an easy task--especially at night!
Rounding up all the fawns in the yard for a head count was never an easy task–especially at night!

“We’re with Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation,” LeeAnn stated. I wiped my brow, glad she took the reins.

“Ya’ll know Krystal?” he said.

“Yeah, she’s my boss,” I said.

“She’s my daughter.”

Great, I thought. My boss’s father is a hunter, a felon, and about to chop off the head of this deer. And never mind the unnamed mystery man in the background. The parked car man stood behind Rifle Man, silent as a mute.

“Gotta keep these bullets for evidence.”

“What? Evidence? Huh?”

“I heard the shot,” he continued. “You can’t shoot deer out here.” I relaxed slightly, realizing Rifle Man was not the deer shooter, but my relaxation was short-lived. He inserted the blade tip under the skin at the deer’s temple, carved a half circle, then stuck his thumb and two fingers into the bullet hole, extracting the bullet. He inspected it, rolling the silver bell between his fingers.

Ohmigod, that’s a bullet. That’s a bullet. And it’s really bloody. I surprised myself by remaining on both feet.

Orphaned fawns who are also ill first recover in the clinic.  White tail and axis fawns look almost identical, except axis fawns have a stripe of darker fur running along their spine.  Both have prominent white spots.
Orphaned fawns who are also ill first recover in the clinic. White tail and axis fawns look almost identical, except axis fawns have a stripe of darker fur running along their spine. Both have prominent white spots.

I cleared my throat. “So you, uh, you live right there?”

“Yep. Own that there land plus ‘bout twenty acres back.”

“Nice.” I gulped, still recovering from the hard core scenario that had just played out before my eyes.

LeeAnn and I loaded the deadweight deer onto a stretcher and into the back of the CRV, heave-ho-ing as we lifted. I couldn’t wait to share this story with my trailer-mates.

You might question why a Texan would bother calling in about a deer needing rescue when all natives appear to carry guns and hunt deer. I don’t have an answer for that. Maybe you’re asking why in tarnation we would go out to save a deer when some deer species, like the white-tailed, are overpopulated and hunting is allowed anyway. I have asked the same question, and I came to this conclusion. It is my job as an animal rehabber to ensure that no animal suffers. If a deer gets shot in the gut during a hunt, I should hope he doesn’t have to bleed out a slow and painful end. Similarly, if a deer is hit by a car, I feel obligated to step in to prevent a torturous death and to rehabilitate the animal if possible. My role as an animal rehabber is to care for an individual animal. Though I cannot undo the obliteration, destruction and domination by humans over other creatures on our earth, I can try to offset the consequences.

Bottlefeeding fawns became an art form.  When there were not enough bottle holders for the number of fawns, we held bottles between our legs, under our armpits and in both hands to maximize feeding time and efficiency.
Bottlefeeding fawns became an art form. When there were not enough bottle holders for the number of fawns, we held bottles between our legs, under our armpits and in both hands to maximize feeding time and efficiency.

I believe we should live in harmony with the environment. This is not a new age idea, but you can call me a tree hugger if you want. I simply feel interconnected with my surroundings. Never has this belief been stronger than the days since I lived in the Amazon rainforest. Living among the Quechua tribe, I witnessed the beauty and sustainability of a reciprocal relationship between man and earth. It is not only functional, but it is also renewable.

Both the Quechua people and my fellow Americans live in a dually symmetrical and asymmetrical world, but the details are reversed. In the USA, our land is mapped out on a measured, checkered grid of brownstones, blacktop and sidewalk, but these cityscapes and suburbs extinguish the natural terrain. In the Amazon, a walk to the river for water will take a Quechua tribesman around a tree instead of through it, winding an asymmetrical web much like the inconsistent pattern of my travels, yet a path that successfully nurtures and balances nature. The symmetry between man and the land in the jungle is based on the cycle of give and take, not take, take, take.

In Kendalia, Texas, I got a glimpse of my life in the Amazon, living simply and surrounded by nature. Yet, here I was caring for sick, injured and orphaned animals of which more than half were in my hands because of a man-made society encroaching on the natural world. This was my chance to bring the Amazon home, to reverse the curse, if I may; to right some wrongs.

The field of zoology offers many different career options but there is a reason I choose to work in wildlife rehabilitation. It is my sincere hope that I am making a difference.

Sheep Shearing 101

Sheep shearing is a team effort.  To minimize stress on the animal, it is important to shear quickly, but with thin skin, going too fast can draw blood from the smallest nick.
Sheep shearing is a team effort. To minimize stress on the animal, it is important to shear quickly, but with thin skin, going too fast can draw blood from the smallest nick.

What I most loved about WRR was the variety of animals. I don’t mean the diversity found in a zoo setting–African savannah or Arctic exhibits, for example–but rather the categories of animals. I grouped the critters under one of four labels: companion animals, native wildlife, exotics or livestock. Each type requires specific protocol for handling, rearing and maintenance. Livestock upkeep involves annual sheep shearing, and equine hoof trimming is being introduced at WRR as well. During the course of an internship, it is important to be assertive, especially in the zoological world. I’ve been performing manual labor for free (zero, zip, nada), so to make sure I learned the absolute most from my time at WRR, I weaseled my way into helping with the livestock.

Sheep shearing is as hard core as it gets. The process takes a great amount of focus, commitment, teamwork, communication and muscle. You might be thinking, Baaaah, they’re just grass-eating fluff balls on peg legs. How hard can it be to shear one? Allow me to paint the picture in more detail.

First, all the sheep must be corralled from one pasture into a smaller penned-in area called a lock out. That’s actually the easy part because the sheep tend to follow the food. If you shake a bucket of feed, they’ll more than likely go right where you want them. The hard part is the one-on-one. Minimally–excluding sheep shearing experts–the sheep wrangling takes two people. Sheep must never be looked at straight on because they view this as a challenge associated with predators. As animals of prey, they flee. Honing in on one sheep agreed on by the wranglers, no individual in particular, both people side waddle toward the animal, arms stretched wide. Essentially, this creates a wrestling arena that gets increasingly smaller in size.

We sheared llama, too!  They are perhaps even less cooperative than their sheep brothers.
We sheared llama, too! They are perhaps even less cooperative than their sheep brothers.

When one of the wranglers senses good timing, he or she initiates the contact. Basically, the wrangler dives right in and either grabs the horns or clenches a tuft of fleece. The sheep will buck and jump and thrash and kick, so it is important to be aligned out of harm’s way. Once the sheep has been grasped, he is pulled toward the shearing station. A strong grip must be maintained because the sheep will fight the entire time. If the wrangler loses hold, the sheep becomes so skittish that catching him again in the same day is unlikely.

At the shearing station, the wranglers flip the sheep onto his back by squeezing the legs together and turning him over. Someone comes in with the shears while the sheep is pinned to the ground. Getting the job done as fast as possible minimizes stress on the animal. However, sheep skin is thin and can be sliced almost effortlessly with the blade. While the shearer wants to move quickly, he or she has to keep in mind how much pressure is being put on the blade. If a sheep does get cut, spraying a liquid wound sealer helps minimize blood loss. The metallic silver shine of the spray gives the sheep a hip look, too.

Just like shaving a beard, the blade is a particular width relative to the thickness of the sheep’s coat. The amount of wool that falls off of one sheep would make enough toupees for ten bald men. At WRR, we used the wool as enrichment and bedding. Non-profits make a rule out of the triumvirate idiom “reduce, reuse, recycle.” (Innovation cuts down on finances.)

We discovered a colony of maggots inside the necrotic horn of a male sheep during his shearing. No matter how much we flushed out the area, the wrigglers continued to appear. The odor given off by this dying, infested tissue was even more unbearable than the trailer skunk smell. I think I reached a personal record for time to hold my breath. I didn’t think my job could get more intense than being dragged around on the dirt by an angry sheep, but when you add in the maggots, I think it does.

All the wool was kept as enrichment for the animals.  Some make beds with it while others simply throw it around their enclosure.
All the wool was kept as enrichment for the animals. Some make beds with it while others simply throw it around their enclosure.

Hoof trimming on horses, mules and donkeys can be particularly challenging the first time around. Equine hooves are really just giant toe nails. Eating a diet too rich in protein can cause the nails to grow exponentially fast. Hooves can also grow too fast if a horse is given too much water after overheating. Without a rough surface to naturally file the hooves down, caretakers have to manually trim them. All of our equines were rescued from neglectful circumstances in which their hooves foundered. This means they were overgrown to the point that they curled at the tips. The quick in a hoof, or the supply of blood vessels, lengthens during foundering thereby increasing blood flow. Consequently, the hoof becomes hot to the touch. Foundering, also called laminitis, is incredibly painful and, unfortunately, irreversible. But the damage can be lessened if caught in the beginning phases and by continued treatment. Otherwise, the hoof bone can rotate and puncture through the hoof, in which case, due to intense suffering, the animal is humanely euthanized.

In order to make the hoof trimming process run more smoothly, and in the interest of both the animals and caretakers, we implemented tactile training sessions to get the animals accustomed to our touch. Half of our equines feared humans, a result of their abusive past. We needed to earn their trust and gain their comfort in this medical situation. Some days, walking into the pasture with a bowl of carrots and apples, the equines still were not interested in me. To prevent them from regressing, back-pedaling from the progress we’d made up to that point, I would have to postpone the session to another day. Training takes a great deal of patience, which I sometimes don’t have but thankfully am learning to build.

Of Maggots and Scorpions

Most often, our opossum patients were babies found wiggling or scurrying along the road nearby where their mother had been hit by a car.  Sometimes, the babies were so young they were still latched onto the dead mother's nipples and had to be pried off.  This is how the mother transports the youngins in their first couple weeks of life.
Most often, our opossum patients were babies found wiggling or scurrying along the road nearby where their mother had been hit by a car. Sometimes, the babies were so young they were still latched onto the dead mother’s nipples and had to be pried off. This is how the mother transports the youngins in their first couple weeks of life.

Some of the required duties of an animal caretaker are absolutely revolting. I’m not talking about menial chores like scraping feces out of enclosures or pulling out fresh carcasses from crates. This is more along the lines of tasks as disgusting as the “Meat Run.”

An adult opossum came in one night, rescued off the side of the road. Having been struck by a car a day or two earlier, he was in fairly bad shape. Apprentice Emily had been upstairs cleaning his wounds when she resurfaced on the ground floor.

“Um,” she started, “does anyone feel particularly excited about helping me clean maggots out of an opossum’s rear end?” (She of course used a more scientific term for “rear end,” but I don’t find it appropriate to write here.)

Evidently the idea of wiggling white worms in mass numbers causes most people to cringe. I stomach this better than seeing the sawed off head of a horse staring at me from a bucket in the freezer, so I volunteered. We used fluid-filled syringes to force out the maggots. Boy, did those maggots keep on coming. They gushed out by tens then hundreds until a total of nearly three hundred had washed out of the crevices of this poor creature.

Tarantulas have the same effect on me that maggots have on most other people. At the sight of them, my skin turns in on itself, a hair-raising tickle creepy-crawling up the length of my body. I thought I would never see a tarantula again until my return to Ecuador. Then I ended up in Texas, one of only a few states in the U.S. that provides suitable territory for these hairy beasts. My primary goal while in Kendalia was to avoid tarantulas at all costs. I escaped with only photos and stories of sightings by others. As it turns out, I should have been more concerned about the scorpions.

Newborn opossums were kept in crates with sleeping sacks to mimic their marsupial mother's natural pouch.  Once weening from syringe feeding began, they were moved into wire cages.
Newborn opossums were kept in crates with sleeping sacks to mimic their marsupial mother’s natural pouch. Once weening from syringe feeding began, they were moved into wire cages.

One night around eleven, I answered the 24-hour hotline about a deer needing rescue. Groggy and donning my pajamas–and needing to be at work in just seven hours–I opened the door to my trailer. A staff member was driving by while doing the clinic closing rounds, so I put my hand over the mouth of the phone to call out to her. But as I leaned out the door, one of my bare feet stepped over the threshold and above the door step, landing directly on a baby scorpion. The pain from its sting was instant, hurting more than a bee sting. Especially with my luck, my foot happened to find one of the itty bitty scorpions who have more toxin than the adults. I screamed wildly, mixing the pain with anger, sleepiness and frustration. Evidently, I threw the phone down because when the staff member came running toward me, I noticed her peering through the open doorway. The phone lay on the floor inside, the battery rolling next to it.

Okay, okay, so I over-reacted to the scorpion sting, but can you blame me? It hurt, I’ll tell you that much. However, after three hours of constant ice in the form of frozen vegetables, the pain was gone. Unfortunately, I still had my disheveled appearance and beaten pride to remind me of the episode.

At the juvenile stage, the opossums are running about.  Once on a solid diet, they were ready for release upon reaching a certain size and weight, approximately the size of a human hand.  Many well-intended people brought us a juvenile they thought was orphaned due to its small size, when, in fact, it was perfectly equipped to be out on its own.
At the juvenile stage, opossums are running about. Once on a solid diet, they were ready for release upon reaching a certain size and weight, approximately the size of a human hand. Many well-intended people brought us a juvenile they thought was orphaned due to its small size, when, in fact, it was perfectly equipped to be out on its own.

Embarrassment, however, does not come easily for me. This is one reason why I take it upon myself to be publicly foolish, with or without a stage. The weekly karaoke nights at a local bar in Blanco, the next town over, provided me spotlight opportunities to do just this. Really, I’m all about having a (level-headed) good time. My karaoke escapades included covering for a co-worker who gave up mid-way trying to sing a Spanish song. I had never heard the song before but I understood the lyrics, so I made up my own tune while acting out the words I sang. I also surprised myself and many others by serenading my then-boyfriend with “Kiss the Girl” in the Jamaican accent of Sebastian the crab from Disney’s The Little Mermaid. I do not flaunt PDA so I really confused the boy on how to respond to the serenade. (Come on, people. You know me. It was all G-rated.) And perhaps my favorite, I performed my signature literal interpretation song and dance to a triage of hit karaoke tunes. On my birthday, I was so entranced by the music that I closed my eyes and bounced up and down while belting out the lines of “It’s Raining Men.” That’s when I bit the microphone. It was bound to happen. My mouth was open and I lost my balance, eyes closed, all that jumping, when my teeth came slamming down on the mike. The crowd of regulars hooted and howled. Me? Well, I kept on singing and dancing.

Majestic to the Very End

“Old Red,” the geriatric mountain lion, poses for the camera. Underweight with cataracts, Old Red had been retired from a zoo.

When I was in Ecuador, I fell asleep to the deafening sounds of insects buzzing about the rainforest canopy.  In Europe, my head hit the pillow amidst hushed whispers of fellow backpackers determining their morning plans.  At WRR in Texas, I closed my eyes to the sound of a rescued African lion roaring in the hills nearby.  I can’t think of many places around the globe where a lion lulls you into a reverie, but little Kendalia, Texas is certainly one of them.

As I worked my way up to “senior” status, more opportunities were extended to me, such as being able to assist with caretaking of the exotic animals.  Most of the primates found sanctuary here after years of laboratory research at various facilities throughout the U.S.  I guess I can’t blame the Rhesus macaques for being angry all the time.  They had had it pretty rough, and while we tried to offer them a glimpse of paradise, their bodies and brains were still slaves to the haunted aftermath of a poor living environment.

Many of the lemurs were ex-pets.  Someone, somehow, discovered at some time that lemurs and domestic felines–your average household Fluffy–can, in fact, co-exist.  And so, one of the enclosures housed two lemurs and a family of feral cats.  One of the ring-tailed lemurs taught himself to mimic the typical cat “meow” so that you only had to look at him and make the noise to receive a similar response.

One of Old Red's lady friends feasts on a piece of meat.  Most of the mountain lions at WRR are retired from zoos.
One of Old Red’s lady friends feasts on a piece of meat. Most of the mountain lions at WRR are retired from zoos.

Aside from ex-research and ex-pet animals, many of our sanctuary friends were retirees from zoological settings.  One of the black bears was the retired mascot of Baylor University.  Many of the moutain lions (also called cougars or pumas) were rescued from roadside zoos.  The oldest mountain lion in our care came from a zoo that had deemed him “too old for public viewing.”  It is not uncommon for zoos to follow the adage “out with the old, in with the new.”  We gave this geriatric feline as much of a grandiose lifestyle we could.  During my six month stay, his health began declining beyond more than just cataracts.  The mountain lion stopped eating, ceased mingling with his lady friends, and spent practically every hour of the day sleeping.

On one of my rounds with a staff member, Matt, we moved the other two cougars from the enclosure into the lock-out because the old guy was resting out of sight and needed to be checked on.  He was expected to pass on any day, and so it came as no surprise when we discovered that he was no longer breathing.  Matt and I lifted the heavy, limp body onto a tarp and dragged it to the front of the lock-out, where we gently laid it down so that the other mountain lions could investigate.

Different species of animals have unique mourning rituals, with elephants perhaps having the most notable.  As there had been three pumas living together in this enclosure, removing one without reason could disrupt the natural hierarchy and behavior of the others.  Lying the old man within reach of his buddies would allow for these creatures to understand that he had died.  Matt and I stepped out of the enclosure and observed their interactions.

WRR took in many retired animals--ex-zoo and ex-research like this decrepit capuchin pictured here.
WRR took in many retired animals–ex-zoo and ex-research like this decrepit capuchin pictured here.

The females paced back and forth along the fence that separated them from the geriatric mountain lion’s corpse.  They sniffed madly, taking deep inhalations of his scent.  A few moans and whines escaped them as well, differing from the intimidating, high-pitched roar I was accustomed to hearing.  About five minutes passed, and then both of the females backed away to resume more normal behavior.  Matt and I took this as our cue that the goodbyes had been said, and it was time to remove the body from the enclosure.  We radioed for the tractor and loaded this soft, majestic, lifeless animal into the backhoe.

I took a moment to press my bony hand to the massive paw, with tufts of fur protruding through the cracks in the foot pads, a moment to smooth down the fur just between his ears.  It was such a humbling few seconds, to be that close to an animal revered for its magnifcent stature and gait, cradling a head that housed the deadly fangs feared by regional night-hikers.  If this animal stayed like this, bending to my affection and casting aside all wild instincts, I could see why someone would want him as a pet.  “If only” is a clause that so many cling to, repeat, and eventually come to believe.  Thankfully, I know better.  Being reared by humans could never have extinguished that very basic, innate nature of the beast that lay within this body.  If his heart were beating, he could rip my face off.  And so I quietly regrouped from dreamland to join in the burial preparations.

The geriatric mountain lion's appetite decreased significantly during his last weeks, but we still made sure to entice him with food as long as possible.
The geriatric mountain lion’s appetite decreased significantly during his last weeks, but we still made sure to entice him with food as long as possible.

Animal Rescue Tales

Equally dreaded and exciting, the 24/7 rescue service run by WRR interns makes for a score of Emmy Award worthy stories.  The tales (pardon the homophone) could produce either roof-roaring, knee-slappin’ laughter or knotted stomachs and wrenched hearts.  Ninety-nine point seven percent of people would rather hear the funny material, so I’ll get right to it.

My first rescue was double-teamed with intern Laura.  I was bubbling with anticipation as we wound our way through the streets of San Antonio.  We were responding to a call about a goose in woman’s kitchen.

Yes, that’s right, a goose in someone’s kitchen.  Instinctively, I questioned the caller’s sanity but unlike the woman with the “bear,” two people got on the other end to corroborate this story.  On the drive over, Laura also mentioned a similar case she responded to the day prior.  The caller in that instance was a man, but a man with a goose in his kitchen nonetheless.  When asked how the goose got inside the house, the man said through the open back door.  Laura told the man to shoo the goose out but evidently the avian had taken up refuge in the house, napping in the corner of the man’s living room.  The animal was brought in for “rehabilitation” the next day.

Avians of all shapes, sizes and species could find a safe haven at WRR.  Many parts of the sanctuary, in fact, gave the feeling of being on a farm.  Those birds with injuries stayed in the clinic--with some lucky ones getting aquatic therapy like this duck pictured here.
Avians of all shapes, sizes and species could find a safe haven at WRR. Many parts of the sanctuary, in fact, gave the feeling of being on a farm. Those birds with injuries stayed in the clinic–with some lucky ones getting aquatic therapy like this duck pictured here.

Arriving at the goose house, we were greeted by three young children, excitedly asking questions: “What is that for?  Why are you wearing gloves?  Can we keep him?”  The capturing process entailed a bit of do-si-do between human and goose but nothing exaggerated like mud wrestling to the ground or falling into a pool.  At least not with this rescue.

Seeing as this was the second call about geese in kitchens, Laura and I toured the neighborhood, asking residents if they had noticed any out-of-place feathered friends or if anyone in the area had a domestic goose farm.  We received no helpful information.  Both geese were released onto WRR’s nearly two hundred acre property, instantly fitting in.

Unfortunately, an abundance of the rescue cases dealt with wild animal abuse.  I once cradled in my arms a Muscovy duck with a broken neck, the vertebrae damaged by a BB pellet.  There was a report of animals seen with darts by a nearby pond, including a big fat bullfrog and a red-eared slider turtle.  These scenarios point a finger at intentional abuse.  However, negligence played a pivotal role in our need to rescue as well.  Twenty-two Muscovy ducks were reported seizing on a neighborhood road after ingesting anti-freeze, probably mistaking a chemical spill for a puddle.  By the time the ducks were transported back to WRR, only nine were still alive.  I worked in the bird room that day, and all twelve hours were spent rushing seizing ducks to the vet room for a liquid charcoal remedy that worked to lessen the intensity of the seizures.  When dusk rolled around, all of the Muscovy ducks were dead.

An infrared heat lamp helped to keep these orphaned ducklings alive.  We often enriched their enclosure with leaves and dried grass from the outside.
An infrared heat lamp helped to keep these orphaned ducklings alive. We often enriched their enclosure with leaves and dried grass from the outside.

For my first skunk rescue, I donned protective goggles, a pair that looked exactly the same as those I wore during my days in the chemistry lab.  Because the animals we were dispatched to rescue were incapacitated in some way–either too young or in poor health–capturing a skunk was surprisingly simple.  That is, as long as the animal was roaming through an open area.

Fellow intern Trae and I had to remove a probable distempered skunk from under a shed.  His burrow was conveniently sized for only a six-inch shoulder width–not that I had any intentions of climbing in after the skunk anyway.  Certainly he was disoriented from distemper, but that only meant he wasn’t in the condition to flee from us.  His scent gland was still intact.

Trae and I arrive an hour before dusk.  We shined our flashlight in and tried to block the skunk from moving any deeper under the shed.  That was moderately successful, but we still needed the animal to exit the burrow.  Take home this random fact of the day: skunks go loony tunes for salmon.  Prepared, Trae and I had a bit of food that we placed just outside the entrance to the burrow.  It was dark outside by the time the skunk emerged.  I threw a sheet over top of the rascal, tucked his tail under as a preventative measure in case he sprayed and placed him in the crate.  We felt accomplished on the drive home, but feelings aside, we looked accomplished.  Nothing beats digging in the dirt for two hours trying to lure out an animal with a highly-developed scent gland.

Raccoons: Masked Bandits, Not Pets

A juvenile raccoon takes in his new surroundings upon release by a nearby lake.  As protocol, animals were always released close to a water source.
A juvenile raccoon takes in his new surroundings upon release by a nearby lake. As protocol, animals were always released close to a water source.

I’ve mentioned before how Good Samaritans can unintentionally be bad.  Sprinkled among these Good Samaritans is a smattering of people I would consider mentally unstable.  (Honestly, who would think a lion makes a good pet?  And why would someone ever continuously feed an animal Three Musketeers chocolate bars?)

Sometime in May, a woman brought in a pair of juvenile raccoons, two of six that survived since she “rescued” the litter at birth.  Perhaps not knowing it is illegal to rehabilitate animals without a license, this woman thought she’d help the cute, cuddly, furry critters.  Not only would her coddling ultimately deem them non-releasable, but the mixture of dog and cat milk she was feeding the babies caused their skin to turn white and their fur gray, to the point that they didn’t look like raccoons.  In an effort to save the last two, she dropped them off at WRR–hugging the rabies vector species to her chest–hoping we could keep the last of the litter alive.  It was too late; they died after a week due to heart failure from malnourishment.

It’s one thing to have the mindset that infant raccoons are harmless, but it’s another to think nothing wrong with keeping an adult raccoon as a pet.  Some of the animals brought to WRR were confiscated by Animal Control, while others were turned over to us as “ex-pets” from the “owners”.  Ex-pets are the most trivial cases for release because they are often so accustomed to human presence and so dependent on human care that there is little chance of survival in the wild.  Nevertheless, this does not stop us from attempting to distance their reliance on humans and work toward an eventual release.

People must have a soft spot for raccoons because we had a number of these ex-pet masked bandits.  A particular case with which I became quite familiar was an adult female who had been living off of dog food and Cheez-Its.  Cheez-Its?  Really?  The minute that coon came through our doors, she was on a weaning plan.  Normally, weaning plans are designed for mammals graduating from formula to solids.  In this instance, we had to wean a raccoon off of Cheez-Its, which meant someone from WRR went to the store to pick up bags of livestock feed, bird seed and monkey chow, and a box of Cheez-Its.  When I left Texas three months later, the raccoon was off the cheese crackers and had been upgraded to a large outdoor enclosure.

Since I seem to be engrossed in the topic of raccoons at the moment, it might be fitting to share my raccoon enrichment story now.  All animals need enrichment, whether wild, captive or pet.  Forms of enrichment differ greatly depending on the animal’s environment.  For example, a wild dolphin can enrich himself by creating and shaping his own bubbles in the open ocean or by using echolocation to hunt.  A captive primate, such as an ex-research Rhesus macaque in permanent residency at WRR, might have his dexterity and mind enriched by having to open up a box to get to his food, instead of receiving it on a silver platter.  And you can be assured that my guinea pig has ample enrichment in the form of human contact (snuggling), exercise (free roam of the bedroom) and hiding (an oatmeal container for every occasion).

At only 3 weeks old, this orphaned raccoon was still getting used to his arms and legs and was still being bottle fed.  It's easy to forget these animals don't make good pets when you see how cute they are, but important to remember they belong in the wild.
At only 3 weeks old, this orphaned raccoon was still getting used to his arms and legs and was still being bottle fed. It’s easy to forget these animals don’t make good pets when you see how cute they are, but important to remember they belong in the wild.

Any free time in the animal rehab world–a rarity–I put my creativity to work designing enrichment for animals.  One time I pieced together pennies and a broken mirror (seven years bad luck for me, oops) for the exotic birds, hanging it out of pecking reach, of course, so that no shiny objects would be ingested.  Another time I put mini fields of wheat grass in with the juvenile skunks and opossums, watching them stomp their feet on the soft blades instead of pillowcases and wire cages, the only surfaces to which they had heretofore been introduced.  For eleven ducklings, I brought the outside inside, spreading leaves and sticks around their net cage.

My favorite self-assigned enrichment creation was for an ever-curious group of juvenile sibling raccoons.  Rescued from their hit-by-car mother, the orphans already had grown from closed-eye newborns to wide-eyed fluff balls under our care.  In the laundry room storage, I discovered a series of wooden blocks hanging from a horizontal wooden rod.  The donated toy was constructed so that the blocks could rotate 360 degrees or just swing back and forth in the same manner as a pendulum.  Raccoons love peanut butter, so I slathered some creamy Jif on the front and back of all five blocks.  Then, to make the toy even more interesting, I dropped pieces of chicken, fruits, vegetables and dog food onto the peanut butter.

Similar to almost all animals, but especially true of raccoons, they are incredibly food motivated and have the attention span of a two-year-old.  Knowing this, I engineered a device that was nutrition-oriented but would take time to be defeated.  I watched enthusiastically as their paws repeatedly batted at the blocks, their brains working on problem solving how to get food off the block when it just kept spinning.  The reason I was so proud of this environmental enrichment device (EED) was the fact that I miraculously succeeded in holding the raccoons’ attention.  I could visualize their cognitive thought processes; I was witnessing an animal learning.

And to clarify, “EED” really is the zoological term for a peanut butter covered shoe or egg carton or ball of yarn presented to an animal, mainly because it sounds smarter than “toy.”

never stop dreaming. never stop doing.