by Marjorie Maddox
The sixty-year-old volunteer in a coyote T-shirt wipes the sweat from her brow with a brown bandana and then turns to us. “This morning at 10:00 am,” she says, “there were fifty people on this tour.”
It is almost 2:00 pm and nearing 100 degrees. There are only four of us waiting on two paint-peeling benches. My daughter and I look around at the large, faded sign and near-empty lot, which we passed twice before deciding we had reached the entrance to our destination. “I guess this is it,” I said just fifteen minutes earlier, as I pulled alongside a still-locked gate. A smaller sign read, “Tour starts here.” A minute later, an elderly man in jeans had strolled out, smiled, unlocked the padlock, and swung wide the gate.
Since my eighteen-year-old had slept until noon, we would have to suffer the hot sun for the second and last tour of the day. We are joined only by a sporty grandmother and her pre-teen grandson, who is visiting her from California. They have hit the local amusement park they tell us, and tomorrow they will hike under the waterfalls in the nearby state park. Today, though, today is animal refuge day. The grandmother, who is younger than I am, shields her eyes from the sun and nods towards us. “Want some cold water?” she offers.
“Yeah, sure!” I exclaim, and she retrieves a bottle from the cooler in her nearby SUV.
“To Cats of the World!” we toast.
In a sense, my daughter is on vacation as well. At home for a week from her pre-college summer job a few hours away, she has been joining me for day excursions, impromptu adventures in between medical appointments that brought her back to our suburban Pennsylvania home before she begins college classes. “This will be great, Mom,” she says as we pull away from the dentist’s office, the GPS on her iPhone now set to “T & D’s Cats of the World: Animal Refuge Specializing in Exotic Felines and Wildlife.”
And so she and I, the animal lovers in the family, are off on a last hurrah to explore a thirty-five-acre wild animal refuge way off the beaten path. The site has been open since 1985, but we only just learned of this place, and—although we have ventured out as tourists—we are surprised to find we are not at a tourist attraction, but at someone’s expanded home, a home that has been opened to over 200 abused, rejected, abandoned, or otherwise mistreated animals.
The elderly owners’ adult daughter, one of the children who has taken over the day-to-day management of the refuge, appears with feed bucket in hand, quickly introduces herself, then turns back to her chores. She nods goodbye to the guide.
I look at my daughter, who is looking at me. “Kinda cool,” I tilt my head and whisper, “It’s just you, me, and them.
The animals come from circuses, zoos, government agencies, people’s apartments—these lions, tigers, bobcats, but also bear, fox, lemurs, monkeys, parrots, and other creatures. Almost immediately, our guide tears up. She has been driving here twice a week from the next town over for twenty years. Her tears show the volunteer work continues to change her life. As she points out the spider monkeys, she tells us about the pet primate that was dressed up and treated like a baby, the raccoon that was fed primarily candy, and the black bear that was chained for years in a man’s front yard. “What’s the matter with people?” my daughter leans over and asks. What, indeed?
Near each animal is a sign that lists its donors, who are contributing to that animal’s food and care. “If it could,” I ask my daughter, “what would that otter write on the sign about its own life?”
My daughter counters, “What, if it could talk, would that skunk tell us?” We giggle, but our questions also are serious. What, we wonder, have the rescued animals learned from the strict teacher of experience?
While we stare in the eyes of a particularly mischievous monkey, I think of the TV commercials for sponsoring wide-eyed, thin-boned orphans. Yet, though many of this refuges’ animals arrived scared, malnourished, often with bones broken, today they are lazing in the sun, scurrying up and down ramps, swinging from tires, or hiding in the vast expanse of tall grasses. Our guide looks on admiringly. I don’t ask if she has children of her own; clearly she has “adopted” several of the “grown-up kids” at Cats of the World.
It is the hottest day of the summer, but my daughter, who hated any family vacations that forced her too long in the sun for “educational” tours, is mesmerized. She squints in the bright light to read each creature’s story. The names, we learn, are only known by the owners and volunteers, whose relationship with each allows them to best care for their adopted clan. They, alone, have earned this communication. Visitors calling out bears’ monikers, whistling loudly to the Macaws, throwing bread at the coatis—none of this is allowed, and for good reason, the guide explains. Animals’ well-being over entertainment is the mantra. Diverse places to hide from spectators allow animals the choice of whether or not to be “on display.”
“These animals are wild, wild, wild,” the volunteer reminds us again and again. She waves her arms for emphasis. “They are not—and never should be—“pets.”” I think of our local SPCA and, even there, of all the returned Christmas presents of rabbits, cats, and dogs—animals that turned out to be too much work for a young child or a busy family. But here, on this family plot turned sanctuary, over 200 creatures leap or growl or splash in a safe environment. If we listen closely to their healing, what will we hear about ourselves?
On our windy path down dirt roads and around wooded bends, it becomes increasingly obvious that such consistent and safe care of so many is a lifetime of hard work. “Whoa,” the grandmother walking alongside us jokes when she sees the expanse of the property, “What kind of allowance did their kids earn growing up?”
My daughter rolls her eyes. “Nothing, I’m sure.”
I wonder at what moment the owners decided to commit their lives, and in turn, their family’s lives, to the nurture not of a few goldfish, guinea pigs, or hamsters, but to this diverse fur-and-feather community. Some parrots, we’re told by the tall and rather cute grandson, live sixty to eighty years. “Eighty years!” my daughter and I exclaim in unison. Eighteen years of raising my daughter zoom past. Eighteen years of preparing her to “fly the nest.” Multiply that by almost four and a half—not exactly a passing fancy.
Soon, however, we find out that Cats of the World wasn’t a one-moment decision at all. Instead, it was a series of small choices that snowballed. It began, the volunteer tells us, when the father, Terry (the “T” in “T and D’s Cats of the World”) took in injured wildlife discovered by locals. An avid animal lover, he nursed the creatures back to health, then returned them to the wild. Later, when he rescued cougars and bobcats from illegal sales, the word spread. Here was an individual helping abandoned and abused animals. Calls came in from around Pennsylvania, from neighboring states, and then from even farther away. Cats of the World, which started out with wild cats but now hosts much more, unfurled into the homegrown refuge that it is today.
As we walk along, my daughter and I talk about how—day in and day out— the owners communicate to the animals through action. The fox darting in and out of its man-made den doesn’t bark its gratitude, but it knows its food comes on a long pole through the fence. The brown bear scratching against a tree knows that someone will clean and refill the small swimming pool of water he uses on especially hot days. What really grips us is how many of the animals were captives their entire lives; they can survive no longer on their own in the wild. Others are too weak. Some are rescued birthday entertainment, “photo animals” that were too expensive to keep and would otherwise be put to sleep. We try to look in their eyes, but they are too quick, too busy with their animal lives to heed us. Their communication is made of furtive stuff.
The owners’ wooded trail provides respite from the heat, so we take another gulp of water and continue with our five-some past wolves, coyotes, lions, and leopards. Our companions, the grandmother and grandson point at a yawning tiger and share a joke about an uncle. My daughter and I marvel at the lanky and beautiful servals, which pay us no mind. They are too busy slinking past each other, communicating in some way with their own family.
What we also see throughout our trek is the owners’ family. In the background or off to the side, they are sloshing out food, cleaning pens, mowing fields, repairing animal “playgrounds,” and building new shelters. Like their charges, they also pay us no mind—that is, until we ask about the animals. The creatures’ habits, food source, life span: the owner’s daughter is an especially rich source of information.
The last time I see her, I have one more question. “How,” I ask her as she refills a water trough for the Binturong, “do you ever go on vacation?”
She looks at me as if the idea has never occurred to her. “Well,” she says, continuing on with her work, “we don’t.” Then she heads back to a small cart for a shovel. “If I have to be away for a day, I just call my brother. He knows all our routines. But I don’t need to call him often.”
On the last leg of our educational hike, we stop to see the parrots—all sixty or so. In huge cages, some are huddled together in twos or threes as if conspiring ways to save the world. Others flap from one branch to another in great paintbrush strokes of reds, greens, blues, and yellows. A few, perched alone and aloof, peer out at us: the families displayed on the other side of the bars.
Social creatures, almost all of the birds are singing. Some are even talking. A Blue Fronted Amazon blurts out what could be “What’s up, pussycat?” but sounds more like “Wasp at?” My daughter takes out her iPhone and begins filming.
As we finish our journey, my daughter and I bid adieu to the birds and thanks and farewell to our traveling companions. We toss our water bottle in the supplied bin, thank the grandmother again for the drink, and—for the drive home—buy another bottle from the small but well-stocked gift store. Cranking up the air conditioning in our Elantra, we head back to our almost-quiet and cooler home an hour away.
There Gizmo, the lineolated parakeet that has traveled home with my daughter while her boyfriend vacations with his extended family, whistles his loud Welcome Home song. Automatically, my daughter translates: “I missed you! I missed you!”
We do our best to whistle back: short, loud bursts, then quiet, breathy ones. It is the rhythm of our communication. After a few minutes, we open the cage and let him fly around the room. When he settles on my daughter’s head, we take turns telling Gizmo the tale of our day. I wonder what, in his smart bird brain, he will think. I wonder what he already knows. About us. About the world. About cats.