“By ethical conduct toward all creatures, we enter into a spiritual relationship with the universe.” Albert Schweitzer, The Teaching of Reverence for Life
The animal rescue organizations in my city work miracles. Teams of people dedicate themselves to taking care of homeless and neglected animals while others donate money or adopt the animals if they can. But what about the animals that are not domesticated? What about the wild and exotic animals, kidnapped from their homes, sold on the black market, used for profit and then tossed aside when no longer valuable? Who helps them, takes them in, gives them forever homes?
The nonprofit exotic animal sanctuary I visited last weekend is a quick turnoff from the rural highway. The rust colored iron gates blend with the muted landscape remaining unnoticed by thousands of daily travelers. We pull into the small, gravel parking lot and check in at the equally unassuming office building for the tour, which costs only the amount you are willing to give, though they recommend $20 per person.
I am not sure what to expect. Perhaps it is like any other zoo in which the intentions behind its existence are good but the disconnection between human and animal is evident. I am relieved to be wrong. It is unlike any other animal place I have visited.
There are bars around the fenced enclosures to keep us from getting too close to the inhabitants. Our guide requests that we silence our phones and not crouch down when taking photos. The predator instincts of these animals are alive and well, and it is ill-advised to trigger them. This is not a zoo. This is not a place where you can shout at the animals or tap on the glass to get their attention. The caretakers do not allow any activities that upset the animals that live here. It is a safe place for them to live out their days in peace and comfort. This is their home, and we are guests.
A wide-eyed lemur greets us from his enclosure as we enter the sanctuary. He is happy to see us and shows us his long, fluffy tail. He likes visitors and the extra attention. The bears mostly ignore us. Their enclosures lead to a large plot of fenced acreage where they roam freely. The ones we see through the fence snooze lazily in the shade or snack on fruit. Nine of these bears were rescued after a PETA sting operation and needed be moved to a new home as soon as possible. With the funding of game show host and animal rights activist Bob Barker, the sanctuary completed the construction of the new bear habitat in less than 90 days.
Some of the animals are uncomfortable in the presence of people. One tiger becomes tense when people stand along one side of his enclosure, so we do not linger. We walk to the other side as he follows us, and when we reach it, he begins nudging his giant red ball around and then lies down to gnaw on a huge stick. He is a beautiful creature with thick white fur, brown stripes, and paws the size of my head. Some enclosures we are not allowed to visit at all in an effort to avoid subjecting the animals to discomfort or unease.
The animals here come from all over the U.S. Some were pets. Most were used for profit and kept around only as long as they were submissive and valuable or until they were confiscated. Sadly there are still people in the world who lack respect and compassion for other creatures. So often it is about money and usefulness. It is rarely about a mutual relationship or love.
A traveling roadside circus headed out of town one day stopped by the sanctuary. Their tiger had stopped performing, and they were going to dispose of him if the sanctuary could not take him. It is for this type of scenario that the sanctuary is never at capacity. The caretakers make sure they always have room for emergency rescues. They welcomed the circus tiger with open arms. He lives in the sanctuary safe and sound, never again having to endure the abuse imposed on him by the heartless.
The care provided by the sanctuary includes nutritional plans comprised of whole foods and the occasional treat such as snow cones for the cats and birthday cake for the bears. The animals have toys and pools for play and relaxation. The best part though is the emotional enrichment. The caretakers, including a renowned animal behaviorist, simply spend positive quality time with the animals. It minimizes the animals’ stress and anxiety. The behaviorist spends time inside the enclosures and even takes naps with a trio of tigers he has worked with since they were cubs. For other caretakers though, benches set up outside the enclosures allow people to sit in safe proximity to the animals in an effort to help them grow more comfortable with their surroundings and with human interaction. People who donate monthly to the sanctuary can participate as well. Some people read to them. Some even sing to them. It is a rare opportunity to experience a connection with these beautiful and wild animals and improve their quality of life in captivity.
Last year the sanctuary became home to two gray wolves. When they first arrived, they were fearful and skittish, but every passing day they feel more at ease. As I stand nearby, one of them walks through his pool to get a closer look while the other wolf paces back and forth, still a little anxious and unsure. It is through emotional enrichment that they are making progress. They are going to live the rest of their lives here. It should not be a life lived in fear.
It is a relief to know there are people to pick up the pieces of these animals’ lives; to nurture and care for those that have been abused, mistreated, cast aside; to provide a home for those who can never return to their homelands. We must have respect and show compassion for life and nature. The ability to do so is one of the great things about being human.
Photo credits: most taken by sanctuary but are of actual animals we visited while there