When Death Comes Knocking, Don’t Answer the Door

An orphaned skunk explores its new digs.  Before their scent gland develops, they stomp angrily at predators. It's incredibly adorable.
An orphaned skunk explores its new digs. Before their scent gland develops, they stomp angrily at predators. It’s incredibly adorable.

In a fast-paced workplace filled with high amounts of stress and the occasionally somber atmosphere, it is imperative to fit in a smile or a laugh whenever possible to lighten the daily load.  Naturally, with every job, I do my best to make sure that this task is fulfilled, within professional reason.  It’s always a welcome surprise when the plan somehow backfires.

A head-on collision with a particularly fruitful baby season left staff and interns frazzled beyond capacity.  One great aspect of this field of work is the exceptional teamwork, outfitted with any wildlife rescue organization.  Picking up where others left off is a recurring theme in the animal care world, and my intern friend Amanda and I were asked to do just that.  A staff member requested that we clean out one of the pre-release enclosures outside, so we frolicked to the cage door to survey the scene.  Most recently, Amanda and I had watched the wrangling of a bobcat for transport out of this bivouac.  The feline looked cute and cuddly until the wrestling match, during which I could visibly see droplets of saliva spraying out of her open, sharp-fanged, hissing mouth.  Mature bobcats might only grow to the size of a medium house dog, but they are equally as ferocious as a starved adult male lion presented with the opportunity to dig into a five-course meal.  And to think someone had kept this cat as a pet.  No wonder she had been handed over to us.

Thinking the enclosure lay completely empty after the removal of the bobcat, Amanda and I stepped inside.  As I leaned down to pick up the crate from the floor, Amanda asked me if there was something inside.  Seizing the opportunity to pull a practical joke, I replied with a “no” but immediately followed that up with a class act of hissing noises and thrashing of the crate.

“No, really, I think there’s something in there,” she said.

Realizing my impersonation of a bobcat had not been convincing, I started to reply.  “No, there’s nothing–” I cut myself off.  Seeing a tuft of hair, I immediately thought it was the bobcat, somehow still in the crate inside this cage that we were told was no longer inhabited.  However, a double-take revealed the distinctive white stripe of a skunk, now dangling from my extended arm in a crate not more than a foot from the rest of my body.  A quick recap of what I had just done–the hissing and the crate rattling–and a run-down of potential consequences of said actions–a spray to the face landing at number one on the list–resulted in immediate action on my part.  I set the crate on the ground and booked it out of there, abandoning a gaping Amanda.

While collecting my pride, Amanda started to laugh.

“He’s not alive, you know.”

“Wha?” I breathed.

Slowly, I approached the enclosure, and Amanda turned the crate to me so that I could see the skunk was indeed no longer with us.  Eventually, it came to light that someone forgot to remove the skunk after he was euthanized.  The staff member instructing us to clean out the cage also did not anticipate that we would encounter a deceased animal.  All said and done, it was definitely not how I would have reacted to removing a carcass if I had been forewarned, but it certainly makes for an entertaining story.  And from there on out, I made sure to quadruple check all future enclosures I was asked to clean, for animals both alive and dead.

One of the saddest parts of this job is when an animal dies in your hands.  It happens to every rehabber, but I learned not to sit back and let death run its course when it seems all hope is lost.

A litter of orphaned skunks already weaned off the bottle will playfully fight for food.  Their meal, at this stage, consists of fruits & veggies, dog chow & cooked meat.
A litter of orphaned skunks already weaned off the bottle will playfully fight for food. Their meal, at this stage, consists of fruits & veggies, dog chow & cooked meat.

Barricaded in the skunk room, I busied myself filling syringes with warm formula for the newborns.  Mammalian formula is specialized for each species with a carefully calculated ratio of fat to protein, mimicking the female’s milk as close as possible.  Oftentimes, Good Samaritans will try to nurse a baby animal on his or her own, using cat or dog or powdered or whole milk, not realizing the repercussions of their actions.  Even if the infant survives through juvenile or adulthood, residual issues almost always remain.

I removed a baby skunk from an incubator, so young that his eyes were still closed.  His breathing was shallow, and I gave him the injections and oral medications he was receiving.   As I was situating him to begin the syringe feed, my heart caught in my throat.  I could no longer see a rise and fall of his back.  Putting my hand near his nose, I didn’t feel any air escaping either.  Maybe it was all the black and white in the room but in the middle of an exasperated sigh, I started thinking of the Disney classic 101 Dalmatians.  I envisioned the somber scene in which Roger, the owner of Pongo, the pups’ father, sits in a chair holding what appears to be a stillborn puppy.  Instead of accepting death, Roger begins intensely rubbing the puppy’s back to the point of revival.  The scene reminded me of the act of mammalian stimulation, rubbing the nether regions of newborns during feeding time to get them to defecate.  Rehabbers mimic this motherly, instinctual act with cotton balls.  Combining these two thoughts, I instantly set to stimulating the baby skunk and rubbing his back.  I cannot be sure how much time passed, as we all know moments of distress disobey the laws of time, but I likely continued rubbing for nearly a minute.  And all at once, without forewarning, the skunk gasped, an incredibly loud noise for such a small creature.  His breathing evened out and I squeezed my hands in a comforting, restraining gesture of joy and relief.  He was alive!

After all was said and done, I learned a valuable lesson that day; when death comes knocking, don’t answer the door.  Instead, yell at him to go away, for life has only just begun.

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Ah, the General Public

Another aspect of this internship, dreaded almost as much as the “meat run,” entailed answering the wildlife rescue hotline.  One of the few positives of this shift was the fact that it lasted exactly ten hours.  No other shift offered a ten-hour guarantee.  Occasionally, people on the other end of the phone were pleasant, welcoming the information we gave them.

“Ma’am, the bird has not been orphaned.  He simply fell out of his nest.”

“Oh really? Really?  Okay, good.  So what do I have to do?”

“If you know where the nest is located and can reach it, put the bird back into the nest.”

“Do I have to wear gloves or anything?  Because the mom won’t come back to her babies if she smells humans, right?”

“Actually, that’s a common myth.”

“Well, I’ll be…”

Or something like that.

Oftentimes, a Good Samaritan mistakes a fledgling found on the ground for an orphaned bird.  If the bird has some feather plumage, it is likely learning to fly and you can place it back in the nest.  It is a myth that mother's will abandon the nest if their is a human's scent.  Some birds, like this yellow crowned night heron, are actually orphaned and need to be cared for at a licensed rehabilitation center.
Oftentimes, a Good Samaritan mistakes a fledgling found on the ground for an orphaned bird. If the bird has some feather plumage, it is likely learning to fly and you can place it back in the nest. It is a myth that mother’s will abandon the nest if their is a human’s scent. Some birds, like this yellow crowned night heron, are actually orphaned and need to be cared for at a licensed rehabilitation center.

But more likely than not, a frantic, ungrateful and impatient, or, my personal favorite, crazy person, called the hotline.  On one of my hotline shifts, I received a call from the Texas Wildlife Commission (TWC) with whom WRR worked closely.  I was given a number to call regarding a woman needing placement for a bear, a cub that she had been feeding bananas and Three Musketeers.  The following is a real conversation from my hotline shift.

Night hawks were a species of bird I had never seen up close.  They soon became my favorite with their large mouths and eyes.  Remember to monitor a nest once you put a potential fledgling back to make sure the mother comes back.  If she is alive, she will!
Night hawks were a species of bird I had never seen up close. They soon became my favorite with their large mouths and eyes. Remember to monitor a nest once you put a potential fledgling back to make sure the mother comes back. If she is alive, she will!

“Hi, my name is Stacey and I’m calling from Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation.  I was given your number by TWC regarding a bear?”

“Oh yes, I need help.  You can help me?  No one else will help me.  I have a bear in my house.”

“How long have you had the bear?” I said, ready with a pen to fill out the form requesting permanent residency for an ex-pet.

“Three weeks.”

“And you would like us to take the bear?”

“Yes!”

“Okay, I have to get some information first.  How did you come across this bear?”

“I didn’t come across him.  He came into my house!”

“Oh… and you decided to keep him?”

“No, he won’t leave!  I need someone to take this bear!”

Now, with reason, WRR has a policy that before going out to handle a wildlife crisis, we need to be well-informed.  In this instance, I was taken completely off-guard, having thought the woman no longer wanted this bear as a pet (which P.S. no one should ever have a bear or any other wild animal as a pet–more on that later).  New information was brought to the table suggesting a bear had entered this woman’s house and taken up residency for the past three weeks.

“Ma’am, how did the bear get into your house in the first place?”

“He came in through the back door, I think.”

“What have you done to try to get the bear out?”

“He won’t leave!”

“I understand.  But how have you attempted to remove him up to now?”

“I can’t get rid of him!”

Inhaling deeply and as quietly as possible, I rephrased the question.  “Do you have an exit way for the bear?”

“What?”

“Well in order for him to leave, you need to open up your doors and windows to give him an exit.  Then you can shoo him out.”

“No, I need someone to come remove this bear.”

With the conversation going in circles, I started asking different questions, subsequently creating an entirely new understanding of the situation.

WRR is home to a handful of ex-pet, ex-show and ex-zoo bears.  Baylor University's bear "retired" to the facility to live out the rest of his life.
WRR is home to a handful of ex-pet, ex-show and ex-zoo bears. Baylor University’s bear “retired” to the facility to live out the rest of his life.

“How big is the bear?” I said.

“I don’t know, three or four inches.”

I started to write that down but then stopped, puzzled.  No bear cub is three to four inches even at birth.

“Do you mean feet?”

“What?  Feet?  Yes, it has feet.”

“No, how big did you say the animal is?”

“I already told you, about four inches.  Are you sending someone out to pick up Baby?” Enter jaw-dropping moment of realization… this lady is crazy.

“I’m sorry, to pick up who?”

“Baby.  That’s what I named him.  But I don’t want Baby in my house anymore.”  At this exact moment, I distinctly remember placing my hand over my mouth to stifle a laugh.

“And how did you come to the conclusion that the animal is a bear?”

“Well, it looks like a bear with those little ears.  They’re like a Teddy bear’s.”

“Ma’am, are you feeding this animal?”

“Well he only eats bananas and Three Musketeers.”

“Okay, Ma’am, please stop feeding the animal.  Take away the food–”

“But he needs to eat.”

“Yes, but if you take away the food and open up a door, he will have to move around to look for food.  Eventually, the animal will leave.”

“But–”

“Ma’am, please do not under any circumstances continue to feed this animal unless it is to lure him outside.  Is it possible for you to take a photo of this animal and send it to us?”  Let’s face it folks, I had no idea what we were dealing with.

“No, I cannot do that.  You need to come get Baby right now.”

“Is the reason that you cannot send us a photo because you don’t have access to a camera?”

“I don’t have one, no.”

“Could you possibly borrow one from a neighbor or a friend, and ask them to e-mail us the photo?”

“No, I don’t like my neighbors.”

The situation was clearly frustrating, but I was also getting a kick out of it all.  “I understand that you want the animal removed,” I said, “but we do not remove healthy animals as we are a non-profit organization advocating coexistence with the natural world.  I can give you the number for Critter Control.”

Black bears and brown bears got along well in the same enclosure at WRR.
Black bears and brown bears got along well in the same enclosure at WRR.

“They won’t help me.  I am not paying them.”

“Is there anyone else who has seen this animal, who can maybe identify him?”

“Well, the police man was here but he tried to get it out with a broom and scared it into a corner.  I told him not to, but he didn’t listen.  He didn’t listen!  I’m going to call them and file a complaint!”

I found that starting my questions with “Ma’am” helped make my delivery calmer.

“Ma’am, has anyone besides the police officer seen this animal?”

“Yes, my Meals on Wheels lady and homecare lady.”  And that was the kicker.  But there was more.

“And get this,” she continued.  “He’s racist.”

“I’m sorry, he’s racist?”  My forehead was now pounding on the desk.

“He ran away from the homecare lady, and she’s white, just like the police man.  But he didn’t run from the Meals on Wheels lady, and she’s black.”

“Interesting.  Ma’am, can I call–”

“So what I’m gonna do is, I’m gonna call up the police station and tell them to send over a black police man with a net so he can trap the bear and get him out.”

“Ma’am, we are receiving a high volume of calls now, so I need to attend to some other calls but I will get back to you shortly while I discuss this situation with my supervisor.”

It’s true; we were receiving a high volume of calls as baby season had exploded upon us.  But I really needed to talk this over with someone who had a little more sanity.  At the end of the day, I told the woman we would look into the situation, and it stayed an on-going case.  Three days later, it came to light that the “bear” had babies, resulting in four animals being fed bananas and Three Musketeers.  We surmised that the animals were a family of raccoons.  Eventually, we stopped hearing from the woman, and, after I had a conversation with her about ghosts, labeled this an illegitimate case.  But still, I turned in the form, putting on my most serious face, roaring with laughter as my supervisor’s look turned to complete bafflement the further she read.

The “Special” Pasture

Emus, rheas and ostriches are from the same avian family but are found in different regions of the world.  A family of emus and one rhea found refuge at WRR.
Emus, rheas and ostriches are from the same avian family but are found in different regions of the world. A family of emus and one rhea found refuge at WRR.

Of the exotic animals I worked with in Texas, the mischievous, annoying emus were a definite favorite.   Emus and rheas are similar to ostriches, all large flightless birds with long necks.  Their coloring differs as does their place of origin, emus hailing from Australia and New Zealand, rheas from South America and ostriches from Africa.  Though I found the one rhea on property more beautifully plumaged than the emus, the bird’s elusive nature kept me from having any close encounters.  But in an avian beauty pageant, emus would come in a close second.  As they mature, the iridescent black along their necks pewters out to just their heads, leaving their soft, finely-bristled body feathers a light speckled brown.

Six emus roamed inside one of the pastures, the enclosure dually dubbed the “Special Pasture” and the “Land of Misfits.”  Co-habitants of this field included my three amigos, Rocky the sheep with paralyzed rear legs, and the kid goats Zeus and Dash, both a little off their rockers in goat standards.  Long Horn, the extremely skinny yet surprisingly well-nourished Texas Longhorn with a non-descript name, roamed among the goats, pigs, sheep and emus.  Mr. Tumnus the goat could easily be mistaken for a sheep or a sheep dog, his eyes often undetectable under a layer of woven hair.

Though not as plentiful as sheep, a handful of cows called WRR their home, including a Texas longhorn.
Though not as plentiful as sheep, a handful of cows called WRR their home, including a friendly Texas longhorn.

Also inside the gate were two pigs with uncontrollable metabolisms, leaving their chins sagging so low I feared the day they tripped over their chin fat.  Like Rocky, Puddin’ the goat was amazing to watch as she moved around.  She was from a litter of triplets.  Sometimes, triplet births are difficult for goats.  The babies can be stillborn or handicapped, exemplified by Puddin’ who was born with inversed knees on the front legs.  It would be like a human walking around on all fours using elbows in the front but feet in the back.  Puddin’ got along just fine, developing calluses over the years to protect her knees from daily wear and tear.

Every morning that I opened the gate to feed the Land of Misfits, an emu ambush was inevitable.  They attacked the buckets of feed, nudging the low-riding livestock to the wayside.  In addition to stealing the food not intended for them, the emus had a fetish with my hair.  Something about my long ponytail, light-colored enough that it looked shiny (or maybe Herbal Essence does give it that extra silky shine) made them fixated on my scalp.  Instead of galloping away to steer clear of bird thieves, I ran to protect my head from incessant pecking.

Rocky the sheep was my favorite animal at WRR.  Paralyzed in his back legs and with an overbite so severe we had to feed him a special soft food diet, Rocky amazed with his perseverance.
Rocky the sheep was my favorite animal at WRR. Paralyzed in his back legs and with an overbite so severe we had to feed him a special soft food diet, Rocky amazed with his perseverance.

On a blustery night while working the clinic closing shift, we received word that a storm was raging, honing in on little rural Kendalia.  Texas is not prepared for rain, or for any weather other than blistering heat.  When it rains in Texas, it pours.  Flooding is imminent, and therefore animals in enclosures need to have access to higher ground.  The night of this storm was the first night Zeus and Dash were out in the pasture, having graduated from the clinic to the big open yard.

Myself and two other co-workers drove the cart to the fence line, stirring up puddles of mud like we were on a paintball shooting range.  Earlier, I traded in my contacts for my glasses, a mistake when attempting to forage through a lightning, wind and rain storm.  Our only light came from my head lamp, but the beam did not penetrate far through the thick sheet of water that splattered our vision and drenched our clothes.

Dash was brought to WRR as an orphan soon after Zeus.  Though they are not brothers, they had fun head butting each other (and their human caretakers) when their horns began growing in.  I owe my newfound love of goats to them.
Dash was brought to WRR as an orphan soon after Zeus. Though they are not brothers, they had fun head butting each other (and their human caretakers) when their horns began growing in. I owe my newfound love of goats to them.

Expecting the goats to be under the lean-to, we were disappointed when the whites of their eyes were not staring back at us among those of the other livestock.  Calling for them, we heard their baying just before a flash of lightning lit up the pasture, revealing a lengthy, sharp, pointed horn not more than six inches from our faces.  Long Horn was standing right next to us, and while he’s not a mean fellow, he doesn’t realize his goring potential.  And in a loud storm, he could easily be startled.  Taking deep breaths, we retreated a couple steps and wound our way through the dark toward the baying goats.  They did not resist handling as I scooped up Zeus and someone else picked up Dash, the third co-worker guiding us blindly back toward the cart.

After retrieving a few other animals from outdoor enclosures with the help of some off-duty workers, the clinic floor was left with a stagnant river of muddy footprints and hay.  Changing into some dry clothes and finishing up the remaining feeds, we only had to clean the clinic before we could call it a night.  In the end, we got out of work at three a.m., only three hours before the morning shift arrived to dirty up our freshly mopped floors all over again.

The Meat Run

“I’m more than just a pretty mountain lioness. I eat vegetarians.” Watch your fingers.

One morning, I rolled over in bed and looked at the clock.  It was three a.m. in Kendalia, Texas, and I had insomnia on account of the windstorm ravaging the tin foundation of the trailer I lived in.  I had to be up before the sun rose to start work feeding the animals, but let it be known that I was not complaining.  I found it strangely comforting having only a thin wall separating me from the wind and rain.

Assigned to do the dreaded “Meat Run” for the day, I loaded up the truck bed with eight large empty garbage cans, stacked four and four lying on their sides.  Praying my GPS skills were up to par, I plugged in Wal-Mart, my first meat pick-up destination, and set off with an ETA forty-eight minutes from departure.  Merging onto the highway, I increased the speed to sixty.

Had I been singing a decibel louder, I might have missed the bouncing and bumping and smacking noises behind me.  A look into the rearview mirror showed two trash cans hurtling through the air, two others poised for take-off.  I rolled my eyes, a mix of frustration and amusement, U-turned once, twice, and pulled into the grass next to the rolling bins.  Of course, such a rare and fantastical event couldn’t go unnoticed.  I was joined by a heavy-set man from inside the store near to where my lost goods stalled.  He came barreling toward me, shouting excitedly, “I saw it!  I saw it!” as if the garbage bins had just descended from a UFO.  Remembering my Safety Town lecture “Don’t talk to strangers,” I waved him off.

“Yeah, that was me.  Oops.  Have a nice day.”  My attempt at a subtle dismissal was overlooked.

“Where, uh, where do you work?” he said, plainly and non-coquettishly.

“At the wildlife center next town over.”  Dishonesty would have been futile; a magnet with WRR’s logo stuck to the side of the truck.

“Oh yeah, yeah, I’ve heard of you guys.  I called you once about a deer.”

“Mmm hmm, we have a lot of deer these days.”  Headed toward the truck bed, I hollered back another pleasant dismissal, smiled and climbed into the driver’s side.  The rest of the drive to store number one would be a slow one.

A non-releasable adult bobcat enjoys a piece of meat I hacked up for him. Never expect a thank-you from the carnivorous cats for all the sweaty, smelly labor put into preparing their meals.

As cautioned, I was sure to rope the meat-filled bins together on my return route.  I looped the rope over the lids and through the handles, criss-crossing here and there, creating an indistinguishable, irregular grid.  I stepped back to look at my work and dare I say, was pleased as pie.

Even so, smooth running was not in the cards for me that day.

Another highway and all chaos broke loose.  Focused on the merge, I put a cap on my aria solo which provided me the unique opportunity to watch one trash can lid fly off onto the busy road behind me, followed immediately by another.  I cringed, peering into the rearview mirror as a trail of cars headed straight for them.  Knowing there could be no saving those lids from utter destruction, my hands gripped the wheel and my gaze focused forward, daring not to make eye contact with any drivers passing me by.  Instead, I opted to pretend I had no idea such an event had unfolded on I-281.

The “Meat Run” would not have been such an undesirable task if it ended there.  But in addition to the three-hour drive and hauling of raw meat onto the truck, I had to unload… and then sort through each piece of dead animal.  And dead animal with a hint of sourness was exactly the odor of eight bins of meat in a poorly ventilated, humid, eighty degree garage.  Add the flies and the constant fending off of vultures that snuck their way in to steal a treat, and the “Meat Run” is the most revolting thing I’ve ever done.

Ten hours, five gallons of sweat, one hundred twenty-eight songs on my I-pod and eight hundred pounds of meat later, I fled to the shower.  The smell of raw meat stung my nostrils for the next week.  But this is what you have to do if you want to work with lions and tigers and the occasional bear, oh my.  A job that’s much more glamorous on the outside than it is on the inside.  Well, we have our moments of glamour.

The first time I used a machete to slice through a horse thigh (hair and all), I awarded myself the red badge of courage.  (Literally.  Give me a knife and I’m bound to slip up, cutting myself within five minutes.)  I couldn’t bring myself to mince up the head, so I gave the whole piece to the lions, figuring the two of them would appreciate it much more than the permanent resident bobcats.  The same way that some animals, having died naturally in the clinic, are fed out to permanent residents, WRR also feeds out horses or deer that were put out of their misery by way of a shotgun.  It sounds horrible and it is horrible but I never watched the initial slaying, nor did I listen.  Ranchers brought us their horses to complete the sometimes repulsive but always necessary cycle of life.

A Taste of Skunk

Even though his back legs are paralyzed, Rocky the sheep still manages to move around the pasture.

I took the internship for a number of reasons, perhaps first and foremost because I believed it to be ideal for my career aspirations.  I like doing the dirty work.  It’s unnerving to have so many fragile lives in my hands and unsettling to be surrounded by so much death.  The sad truth is that many of the animals we received did not survive.  This is not a job for those seeking instant gratification.
However, in my first two weeks, I witnessed the rewards of the work rehabbers do: releasing a sharp-shinned hawk and watching him fly away into the treetops; opening the cage door for a road runner as he took tentative steps back into the wilderness after weeks of force feeding; admiring the determination of Rocky the sheep, a permanent resident, who managed to walk though he could not use his two back legs.  Inspiration from livestock–who would have known?

I thought I’d pass out the first time I had to give an animal a shot, especially when the amount of fluid being injected was enough to fill a child’s Sippy cup.  I’ve always been queasy around needles and the “B” word–blood.  But I managed to remain standing on both feet after tucking the first fifteen injections under my belt.  I did get a little nauseous when I had to empty the body freezer, a frosty storage of deceased patients.  It was part of the job, but that didn’t mean I had to like it.

Remembering how far I was from the hustle and bustle of city life, I often stared up at the starlit sky, no light pollution blotting out the dark and fiery expanse overhead.  One night, a group of us interns climbed onto the roof of one of the trailers and watched the sun set between the rolling landscapes.  We were joined by an ornery vulture that made a game out of pecking at our feet.  The black vulture was nicknamed “Mort” by many interns.  He imprinted on humans and, consequently, thought we were his flock.  His days were spent skipping behind the feet of workers as flight was, sadly, more of a second nature to him.

A group of co-workers standing at the top of Enchanted Rock in Fredericksburg, Texas.

The hill country offers fantastic opportunities for outdoor excursions, and I’m glad so many interns took advantage of them.  A group of us spent a day hiking at Enchanted Rock, climbing up the steep face of a mammoth rock, a terrain change from the plains after flat, flat plains to which Ohio made me accustomed.  Near the end of the hike, we ventured into a cave and came out nearly unscathed.  I knew Enchanted Rock would be a place to take the parents if Mom and Dad visited.

All WRR interns, of which there can be up to twenty-one, live on property in one of three trailers.  The trailers are clustered together on 187 acres of Texas hill country.  My first week at WRR, my trailer started to reek of skunk, faintly at first and then becoming so nauseating I had to sleep in another trailer the following night.  (They welcomed me with open arms but did not fail to mention that I carried with me a most unappealing odor.)

Once, when I had two days off in a row, I spent one of the days with other interns going back and forth between boonie-ville and civilization.  We went to church, ran the typical grown-up errands and saw a movie in the evening.  On the way to the movie, I handed out some yogurt-covered raisins I had stored in a sealed plastic bag inside the cupboard.  Chewing on them, we noted a unique taste.  It didn’t become entirely dissatisfying until someone pinned down the source of the flavor–the skunk smell.  Needless to say it took a while before me and my belongings were one hundred percent aired out of polecat.

A baby skunk with the black and white color sequence reversed. This little guy was orphaned with his brothers and sisters when Mama skunk became road kill.

One night, the skunk sprayed continuously.  Even interns who had become desensitized to the odor could not stand it.  Based on the smell–it had a hint of onion to it–and the frequency of his sprays, we theorized that he was likely seizing from distemper.  On day three of continuous spraying, an intern from another trailer sported a head lamp and crawled into the bowels of our abode, belly crawling across the dirt.  He resurfaced empty-handed, leaving me a bit skeptical (“Are you sure you covered every inch in there?”) and all of us worried that we’d die of intoxicating asphyxiation at some point in the night.  But just after sunset, the same intern spotted the culprit’s nose sticking out of one of the two holes under the trailer.  He and two other workers were quick to react, and after crawling back into the dark foreboding depths–an act soon to be dubbed the second leap for mankind–the skunk was removed.  We guessed correctly that the skunk had distemper, a disease with symptoms similar to and often confused with rabies.

Skunks are a rabies vector species, a category that also includes foxes, bats, dogs, cats, coyotes and raccoons. Distemper can be contracted by any of these vectors, but unlike rabies, it cannot be transmitted to humans.  Unfortunately, the period between acquisition, symptoms and death is rapid, days at the least and weeks at the most.  It’s a nasty disease marked by lethargy, loss of appetite, seizing and discharge from the eyes.  In only a short span of time, the bodies of afflicted animals become a mess of lost hope.  At least wildlife caretakers can give the animal a comfortable, more dignified end.  At the very least, that is what we wish for them.

Going Rural–Really, Really Rural

Connecting the dots of where I’ve traveled, it looks like a maniacal spider spun a web over a map.  Rhyme and reason don’t have much of a say in my endeavors.  I find a comfort in living on the edge, as backward as that sounds.  With each new move, I develop a deeper understanding of who I am and a greater philosophy of what it means to live.  Included in these renaissance ideas is a definition of the word “home.”

For the past five years, I have dipped into my savings to fund my life of adventure, culture and animals, working to live instead of living to work.  From traveling with my freshman college roommate in her homeland of the Dominican Republic, to building a school in the Brazilian Amazon, to saving monkeys and fearing tarantulas in Ecuador, to a solo backpacking trip through Europe, my hard-earned savings have been well spent.  I was lucky enough to have Mom and Dad offering their parental support and independent enough to financially support my undertakings on my own.  By living each day simply, I have been able to work toward my dream of rescuing wildlife.  The path to animal rehabilitation is long and arduous, with years of unpaid internships and networking to get a foot in the door.  I’m on my way to fulfilling my dream.

Baby season at WRR meant highrises of wire cages and mountains of plastic crates.  Orphaned opossums, skunks, squirrels, birds, raccoons and fawns made their way to the clinic for nursing and eventual release.  Sadly, many of their mothers had been hit by cars or killed by locals who viewed them as pests.
Baby season at WRR meant highrises of wire cages and mountains of plastic crates. Orphaned opossums, skunks, squirrels, birds, raccoons and fawns made their way to the clinic for nursing and eventual release. Sadly, many of their mothers had been hit by cars or killed by locals who viewed them as pests.

During the summer of 2009 in Ecuador, the jungle became my temporary home.  In the summer of 2010, home traveled with me as I hopped from hostel to hostel throughout Europe.  I embodied comfort and relaxation, adventure and happiness.  I don’t need knick-knacks and picture frames, a closet of clothes and shoes, or even a pillow under my head.  Everything I need to survive physically fits inside a fifteen gallon backpack.  Anything else—memories, experiences—I carry inside me.  My body, my mind and my heart are my home.

At the conclusion of my six month internship in Kendalia, Texas from January to July 2010, the trailer I shared with a group of co-workers was no longer my home.  For six months, the rusty, boarded up shack on wheels was my solace, but in the end, exhaustion and frustration from the workplace became too much of a daily occurrence.  It was time for a new home.  But I needed to recuperate first.  After about three months in Perrysburg, I headed south again.  This time, instead of cowboy boots and desert, there is an invasion of palm trees and oranges.

Texas was an entirely new chapter in a life that continues to be fueled by animals and travel.  There were ups and downs, moments of hilarity and heartache.  Overall, everything I learned in the desert was invaluable.  Like any book, each chapter is an integral part of the story. So, even though my days of wildlife rehabilitation in Texas are over with for now, I think it is best we start with that adventure, in the middle of nowhere.

Kendalia, Texas won’t show up on a lot of satellite maps. (See old school map below for verification of the town’s existence.)  There is no grocery store.  Cell phone reception is limited to non-existent.  Lucky enough to have a post office for sending only letters, the mail room is inside a shack the size of a walk-in closet.  And yet this town is still in America.  A convenient store is the only other public service building, connected to the post office.  The one truck fire station doesn’t have enough volunteers to stay running.  Seventy-five people reside in rural Kendalia.  I guess I made it seventy-six.

Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation is off one of two main roads going through the town.   The facility takes in mainly native animals, those who are ill, injured or orphaned, but also fosters companion animals and provides a permanent sanctuary for rescued exotics.  On average, six thousand animals are admitted annually to WRR.  Initially, I was drawn to the center’s mission that encompasses providing “individualized care” and “a voice for animals in need.”  We did not discriminate against the mean, the ugly or the smelly.

At the beginning, I was only trained to open the clinic.  My daily schedule began to vary once I advanced to the closing shift, intern on call for rescues 24/7, and animal care for the permanent residents of WRR.  The hours were bearable for the first couple of weeks, then increasingly less bearable as baby season exploded.  During this season, the clinic is bursting at the seams with orphaned songbirds, squirrels, skunks, opossums and other Texas native wildlife.  It was just around the corner when I arrived.

EuroTrip2010: The Ups and Downs, Ins and Outs of Going Solo

The Ups and Downs, Ins and Outs of Going Solo

From 19 August 2010

Who knows when I’ll see my older sister next.  So, when she and her boyfriend said they would be in Germany for two weeks, overlapping with the end of my European expedition, we made plans to reunite in Cologne, most known for its giant cathedral housing the bones of the Three Kings. 

Bonn, Germany is the birthplace of famed pianist and composer Beethoven. Other than that, Bonn isn’t known for much; it’s just a quaint, quiet town offering a taste of German culture.

There are some other things it should be known for, like the Michael Jackson memorial/shrine hidden under a bridge on a wall with candles, photos, flowers, teddy bears and eloquent love poems for the deceased singer.  The same bridge that stretches at least one hundred meters across the Rhine River has a walkway for lovers.  Couples write their names on a padlock, lock it on the fence and throw the key into the river.  I’d be curious to know the success rate of the lovers’ promise on the couples bridge.

The cathedral shown in the background is a location included in many religious pilgrimages. Spanning the Rhine River, the walkway of this nearby bridge is covered with padlocks, symbolic of thousands of lovers’ promises.

I met two of Ashley’s German friends, and one of them showed us around Bonn, a quaint city that used to be Germany’s capital.  The composer Beethoven was born in Bonn.  One day, Miguel and I got separated from Ashley and her friend, and (due to difficulties of which I will not go into detail that might have something to do with Miguel not correctly dialing the cell phone numbers into the payphone) it took half a day to reconnect with them.  For an hour, Miguel and I stayed in the same place we saw the two last: in the plaza in front of Cologne’s landmark cathedral.  We sat down in the middle of passersby and played poker with every item in my purse.

This shrine to Michael Jackson appeared out of nowhere. Located under the Cologne bridge, MJ worshipers paid tribute to the late singer in their own special way.

I must admit, the sister reunion wasn’t full of as many rainbows and butterflies as I hoped.  However, my sisters are my best friends.  We work through our disagreements.  My last night in Germany went out with a bang.  The five of us ate crepes the size of dinner plates, and then had a dessert crepe to satisfy our already-full stomachs.

My last week was spent in Madrid celebrating the feast days of various saints.  Food stands, concerts, dancing and parades–you name it, the fiestas had it.  In Spain, it seems like there’s a holiday every day.  I swear it’s the abundance of fiestas that keep the Spaniards healthy well into old age.

 

A local Spaniard sells keys on the streets of Madrid during El Rastro, the city’s weekly flea market.  Every Sunday, locals line every nook for a mile long selling anything they can.

Ending in Madrid, I let myself wind down a bit, preparing for the transition back to this place called America.  I soaked up every minute of solo time left.  This all led to me philosophizing and doing more thinking than my brain can handle.  I thought about the best and worst parts of my trip and pulled those together to come up with what I learned.  Here it is:

Like silence, solitude can be unbearable.  Like silence, solitude also can be sacred.  It’s something wonderful when you find solitude to be the latter.  I find it strange how sometimes, you can be in a crowded room and feel all alone.  Other times you can be alone but have all the company in the world.

 

This celebration of a saint’s feast day took place on the street behind my sister’s apartment.  As you can see, the decorations are not modest.

Reflecting on my summer abroad, I keep replaying the moment when I really set the solo trip in motion.  Ashley and Miguel dropped me off at the train station in San Sebastian, Spain.  Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to hold back the few tears trying to push their way through, tears caused by anxiety, fear, a worry of the possibility of feeling alone.  I turned to my sister and said, “Why did I do this?  It would have been so much easier to stay in Ohio.”  I was right; it would have been easier.

During feast days of saints, banners and flowers decorate the street after which the honored saint was named. Wearing the typical dress for these occasions, the neighborhood parades down nearby streets, singing and hoisting a heavy statue of the saint.

It’s funny now, looking back on what I was scared of most.  Friends, family and strangers worried I might get mugged or kidnapped.  They didn’t worry about me feeling lonely traveling by myself.  But groups of backpackers, the only encounters I had at the first hostel I stayed at, they knew.  I remember trying to overcome that fear of loneliness in Porto, Portugal, when my bunkmate, one of four German girls traveling together, said to me, “You’re going alone?  Don’t you get lonely?”  Having spent the previous three days attempting to convince myself backpacking solo wasn’t that bad, it was exceptionally hard to smile and say, “You learn to love it.”  And learn to love it I did.  I made my own plans and met many more people than I would traveling with someone else.  I went off the backpacker trail, further making myself vulnerable to capital L Loneliness.  Through all of it, I uncovered a patience with myself I had not known before.

In writing this reflection, I want people to know that I wasn’t fearless.  In the months and weeks leading up to the trip, I couldn’t wait to get started, but when the day finally came, I wanted to pack up and haul out.  It took a good week for me to get hooked.  I admit to you that I was scared because I don’t want anyone to read this and pull the “Ohhh, I could never do that” card.  One of the mottos I live by is, “If you want something to happen, you make it happen.”  I wanted a challenge, so I pushed myself to continue and to embrace the sacred nature of solitude.

Perhaps you read these trip updates because you want to be entertained.  And while I do my best to entertain, there’s a dual purpose to my writing. I also write to inspire.  I think these articles are much less inspiring if 1) I don’t tell the whole truth and 2) I make it seem easy.

Knowledge does not come from accomplishing easy tasks.  (Hopefully I’m not recycling a Confucius quote there.)  The first step toward wisdom is knowing one’s self (Confucius?), and as I’ve hopefully relayed to you, that’s not a smooth road.  Solo time is difficult, but it’s good.  In my opinion, it’s necessary.

I’ve finished this journey taking with me an appreciation of others, a stronger patience with people and myself, and a reconfirmation of my belief that, first and foremost, we must be citizens of the world.  There’s so much out there of which I’ve only had a glimpse, but I hope my glimpse was enough to encourage you to go outside of your comfort zone.

never stop dreaming. never stop doing.