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The Healing Ground, Page 3: The Lives They Left Behind

Permanent residents of The Fund for Animals Wildlife Center found refuge from neglect and exploitation

All Animals magazine September/October 2012

  • Hannah the pygmy hippo. Kathy Milani/The HSUS

by Michael Sharp

For animals like these, the needs are urgent, the main goals recovery and release back to the wild. But for those raised in captivity and unable to live on their own again, staff must provide long-term care tailored to the needs of each species—for years, sometimes decades.

In the case of one round-faced resident, that has included making sure she has bodies of water for her swimming pleasure—and by the looks of her antics this June evening, she approves. After spending much of the day simply floating in her pond, the 38-year-old pygmy hippo bursts into a rare flurry of action. Here comes Hannah, racing along her fence line, head swinging, mouth open wide—a blur of pink tongue and huge white teeth.

Suddenly, she goes racing back down a short hill, into a clump of trees, and then crashing out into her pond, where she promptly pushes her blue barrel to the other side. She rests her chin on the barrel. She climbs on top of it with her front legs. She pauses. She pushes it back across the pond, bumping it into a tree.

Life wasn’t always so easy for Hannah. Records indicate she was born at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.; she later ended up in a California backyard without adequate care or habitat. When rescued, she was in poor shape, her skin dry and cracked.

The center’s staff began nursing her back to health, later building a swimming pool. It is this type of specialized care—like balance platforms for the mountain lions and automatic solar-powered misting systems to keep the bobcats cool—that has helped create a desert oasis for 22 animals who never had the chance to return to the wild. Animals like Hannah, doing barrel rolls in her pool, and Samson the African lion, idly watching the planes fly by, and Sheba the mountain lion, rubbing affably against her fencing like a 110-pound house cat.

Chewy drives his front paws into the ground, kicking up dirt like an angry baseball coach arguing with an umpire.

Because of their prior histories of mistreatment and improper care, the needs of many of these victims of the trade in exotic animals often go beyond typical species requirements. Across the dirt road from Hannah’s enclosure, staff typically begin their morning rounds with Samson.

“He’s spoiled and he gets kind of jealous sometimes,” explains wildlife caretaker Mirjam Schippers. But there are medical reasons for indulging him as well: Samson, who was confiscated from a trainer in Los Angeles at 3 months old, has a form of dwarfism—the result of inbreeding common in the exotic pet trade. As Crumpacker puts it, he’s “the right-sized lion on the front and the wrong-sized lion on the back,” an affliction that can wreak havoc on his internal organs. Samson takes as many as 12 pills a day, if he decides to eat, so feeding him first spreads out the medicine further between morning and afternoon meals.

On this morning, Samson yawns at the breakfast Schippers presents him at the end of a stick. She inspects a little blood on his nose as a summer intern cleans the other two sections of his enclosure. They refill his six big blue water bowls.

Samson can be excused for not getting particularly excited: After all, Grammy-nominated singer Leona Lewis serenaded him on his 11th birthday in February, so it’s understandably downhill from there. Still, on occasion, he likes to stick his head into his big yellow barrel and roar his way to an echo. And he loves—loves!—to roll around on a donated Christmas tree until there’s nothing left but the trunk. Notes Schippers: “I think we finally removed it in April.”

From Samson’s area, it’s on to feed the mountain lions, whose three enclosures mark the back right corner of the facility. There’s the talkative Tonka, a victim of the exotic pet trade and a notorious scaredy cat. There’s the wild-born Sasha, whom the Department of Fish and Game took in as an orphan and used for practicing net captures and darting. And then there’s the purr machine known as Sheba.

During a routine traffic stop, an officer found Sheba in the back of a car—declawed, supposedly being trained to ride a horse. Her pink harness had dyed her fur, and a poor diet and improper sheltering had left her with bowed legs and poor balance. “She wouldn’t have made much of a horse rider,” notes senior wildlife caretaker Christine Barton, “because when she came here, she couldn’t walk up ramps. She couldn’t jump right. But she was young and quickly recovered with proper nutrition and then the right type of enclosure.”

Read more about The HSUS's campaign against the exotic pet trade. »

The biggest sanctuary enclosure belongs to Chewbacca, the 7-year-old coyote—or “Chewy,” as he’s affectionately known. Chewy spends his days chasing lizards, playing with stuffed animals, napping under his pine tree, and sneaking up on staff members working near his fence. “I spill coffee on myself at least once a month because I forget,” jokes Crumpacker. Later, when a stranger gets too close to his enclosure, he lunges forward, driving his front paws into the ground, kicking up dirt like an angry baseball coach arguing with an umpire.

The buzzword around Ramona is “imprinted,” and that’s precisely the fate that found Chewy and many of the sanctuary bobcats. Thinking he was an orphaned puppy, a concerned citizen took him home and began bottle-feeding him on the couch. By the time his true identity was realized, the damage had been done—he didn’t take when introduced to other coyote pups, and he was too comfortable with humans to return to the wild.

Now, as staff continue to emphasize community outreach and education, they hope that people will turn to the center before attempting to intervene with a young animal—much like Bill Freeman did in emailing those pictures.

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