I was finishing a story called Last Night The Werewolf, and the synchronicities were running wild. A book fell into my lap called Women Who Run With The Wolves by Clarissa Estes, and my chocolate Labrador Lana and I found ourselves surrounded on a late night walk by a pack of howling coyotes. Once I got serious about driving from the Berkshires to California this spring, I asked myself what I wanted most from this trip. I perused the web for wildlife rehabs along my southern route: Arkansas and surrounding. I thought I might find someone who took in injured bobcats or raccoons, a hawk with a broken wing, that sort of thing. If I could get in touch, maybe they would let me come and help out for a few days. Then I came across the website for a place called Safaris in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. I was about to get a lot more than I bargained for. It was this photo that first piqued my interest, especially since it was titled "volunteer."
The cat looked as if it had poured itself around that lady's shoulders. If this was what happened to volunteers at Safaris, I wanted in! I perused the website for a while longer, got my courage up and sent an email. Could I come and volunteer? I would shovel dirt, clean cages; I didn't care. Not only did I hear back, the president of the sanctuary, Lori Ensign-Scroggins wrote me and said, Yes, come and play. Here's my number, call us when you're in town.
Yes! What luck. I even liked the name of the town they were in: Broken Arrow. I plugged Safaris into my GPS (this doesn't exactly work by the way, you have to call once you're in the neighborhood, or find a guy on a yellow Harley at a stop sign and ask him where the place is, which is what I did.), and set them as the centerpiece of my trip. Looking back, I find the mechanics of destiny quite fascinating. You're driven by intention, you take action, and forces coalesce. Be careful what you wish for, as they say. I don't think there is anywhere else on the planet where I could have dove into this experience so deeply.
I pulled into Tulsa on a Friday afternoon, the fourth day of my trip, so hot, disoriented and exhausted I wondered if Safaris was really going to happen. I had been okay driving into Oklahoma on I-40 but something about heading north on a cracked, bumpy highway to Tulsa took the spirit out of me. I'd hit a low point and the relentless Tulsa heat, the cement and construction, trashy convenience stores and super chain restaurants weren't helping. I was worn out from the cheap, musty hotel rooms, heat, fatigue, the feeling of homelessness. I called Lori and left a message just to let her know I was in town. I must have sounded pretty low on energy.
I called my friend Randi, and luckily, she picked up. I told her what was going on.
"Oh, you need a hotel room, sweetie. A nice one!"
Randi is from Maryland. I love the way she talks.
"Really? I was thinking about maybe trying to find a campground, pitch a tent or something."
"Oh, God!" she said. "You need to get yourself somewhere cool. Comfortable! Order room service, watch a movie. You deserve it... ."
She was right. I was feeling better already, glad I had called her. We talked for a while longer, and by the time we were done, life had improved. I have to credit Randi in part for the experience that followed. If I hadn’t found a good home base and rested myself, this story could not have unfolded.
I felt better as I rolled into Broken Arrow. It was cooler, less frantic. I found a Starbucks, bought a slice of zucchini bread and ate it slowly, drank some cold spring water with Miles Davis playing on the speakers. I left, wandered around for a while and landed myself at the Comfort Inn. I sat in the parking lot and watched a trio of crows filling up on scraps of bread. I'd found the hotel on the internet weeks ago and planned to stay there, even called ahead to check on the details. I should have checked in right then, but I drove off first in search of dinner. I found a Panera not far from the hotel, ate a sandwich and a chocolate duet cookie, bought another cookie, cooled off, fueled my body up and was feeling much improved when my cell phone rang. RESTRICTED, it said. I took a chance and answered. It was Lori!
“Thank you for calling me,” I said. It really was nice of her.
“Do you have a place to stay?” she asked me.
“Uh, yeah," I told her. "I’m staying at the Comfort Inn in Broken Arrow.”
“Great,” she said. “I’ll see you tomorrow morning. You can meet the cats. Plan to get dirty.”
I thanked her again, and we hung up. Then I decided I’d better call the Comfort Inn and let them know I was staying there.
I strode into the hotel around 8:30 PM. The Indian guy at the desk was called Roopesh, and we quickly became friends and talked about life, travel, health, Ayurveda. I loved my room. It was the lap of luxury compared to what I’d been living. Marble counter tops, a cushy black office chair at an oak desk on which I promptly set up my laptop and charger, a fridge for my rice milk, an absurdly large bed that was quite comfy and loaded with cushy pillows. The décor was muted and simple. It may not have been to Donald Trump standards, but I liked it. Roopesh had given me the room for a good price, too. I breathed a sigh of relief. Randi was right; this really did make a difference. I opened up a window, let the spring air in. I relaxed, worked on my travel log, did a load of laundry, set out some clothes for tomorrow. I was nervous for the next day, but so exhausted I slept through the night.
I arrived Saturday morning, well scrubbed and carrying two boxes of treats from Panera. I did not know what to expect. I paused at the gate. A big, bald headed guy named John came along and let me in. I rolled up a steep dirt driveway, slowly, my eyes open wide. I was going to love it; I could tell already. I spotted chickens, geese, heard the strange, plaintive call of the blue peacock; but it was my glance leftward that really woke me up. Driving in your car, it's a pretty mundane thing to do. What I saw not twenty feet away from me changed all that right quick. It was a gorgeous Bengal tiger with the orange fur and black stripes, playing with a giant blue barrel: pouncing on it, tossing it around like it was a ball of string. I would later inspect the barrel: it looked like a grizzly bear had used it to sharpen its claws. This pretty much set the tone for a pale skinned man who would walk around the sanctuary for the next hour in wide-eyed amazement, just taking it all in. The tiger turned out to be a full grown female named Honey. Her colors were more vivid than everyday life: the bright orange fur, sharply tapered black stripes. She was like a Disney cartoon come to life.
I parked, shut the engine off, jumped out, and headed down toward the compound that houses the giant cats. I met up with a volunteer named Corbin, a boy of about fourteen. He was highly knowledgeable, and good with the animals.. "Lori's down there," he told me, and pointed me towards the big cats. I walked through the gate. Two huge Great Danes roused themselves, stood up and ran straight at me, barking forcefully, but when I stood my ground and ignored them they quickly lost interest. I stood in front of Honey's cage and gawked.
Lori was across the lawn, just finishing up feeding two giant Siberian tigers, Jasmine and Jade.
I went over, met people, shook hands although Lori didn't offer me hers; it was covered with the meat they feed the tigers in the morning. There was a long, thick metal pipe running into the tigers’ cage with a green garden hose running through it, filling up the water tub. The pipe was there to protect the hose. It wouldn’t have lasted a day with these kitties. One of the female tigers was resting, her muscular body lax on the pipe.
“It’s a game she plays,” a man named Brian explained to me. I later found out he was a kind of daddy to Jasmine and Jade. “She lays her weight on that pipe, and you’re supposed to try and move it.”
Brian took the pipe in his hands, wrenched it around a little. It was a thick gauge of steel, very solid.
"Aren't you afraid you'll hurt her," I asked him.
They all laughed.
"You won't hurt 'er," he assured me. "She might hurt you; but you won't hurt her."
He gripped the pipe more tightly, and she let up so he could wrench it around a bit. Then she put her weight down again, and he could barely budge it.
It had only been four days ago that I'd left the Berkshires. I had driven to Safaris, parked, and here I was, standing in front of two full grown Siberian tigers. Jasmine shifted her weight now and then, but mostly just laid her six hundred pounds on the thing, limp, with her head down, waiting for Brian to try and budge it. That was the game.
We moved on to the Serval enclosure. I carried some old water out, dumped it and cleaned the bucket out with a brush.
Brian was heading up to the wolves’ compound, and I asked if I could help.
“Sure,” he said. “Jump in the cart with me.”
We rode a diesel powered golf cart up to the wolves’ compound, and what followed was me walking around their cage with a garden tool and a bucket, cleaning up after them while they ate breakfast. We got the wolves fed, cleaned up the cage and afterward, I went to work cleaning plastic bowls and buckets, one of which I had just used in my forementioned task. I squeezed the hose with too much pressure, and sprayed wolf shit all over my face, hair and t-shirt.
You really can't be squeamish after an initiation like that. You either give up and go home, or you’re committed.
I would have never left. The only thing I would have changed was that at first, some of the people seemed to think I was just a tourist. "So... headin' to California are ya?" they asked me. "Just passin' through?" They thought I was doing some kind of tour of wildlife sanctuaries, Safaris just a stop on the way but that wasn't the case at all. Safaris was my destination, the centerpiece of my trip. I had raced to get there and didn’t give a damn when I left. My dad's a logger, I wanted to tell them. I grew up in the country with goats, chickens, geese. I’ve been working class all my life. Hopefully, that came across after I climbed the new bear cage to help clamp on a metal fence in the hot sun, and after I left the first day with my shirt stained with wolf and skunk excrement, dirt and blood (my own) and my pants soaked with alligator water.
Sometime in the afternoon I headed back up to high ground and found a small crowd circled around a young woman standing in a wading pool with a four foot alligator in her arms. He was wearing a harness, gray duck tape wrapped around his jaws.
“This is a North American alligator,” she told the crowd. “His name is Stumpy. He was rescued from a chemical dump in Florida. That’s why part of his tail is missing, and he won’t get any bigger.”
I waited my turn, then stepped forward and petted Stumpy. His underside was much softer and more vulnerable than I thought. I hung around till the people left, and she must have sensed my interest.
“You can take over if you want,” she said. “Just take off your shoes, roll up your pants.”
For the first time, I hesitated. I had no change of clothes with me. Rolling up my pants was a good idea, but realistically, the water would come way up my thighs. How cold was it? Would I be uncomfortable and smell like alligator water for the rest of the day?
Well, I thought, this is it. Once in a lifetime.
“Okay,” I said. “Thank you.”
I took my cell phone out of my pocket, set it off to the side, took off my shoes and socks and stepped into the shimmering water, cool against the midday heat.
“Grab the harness to pull him out of the water,” she told me. "He likes it when you hold him like this.” She showed me how to cradle him. Basically, you got an arm under his belly, just before his back legs, and another just after the front ones to hold him up. I messed it up at first, but eventually I did okay.
For a short while I found myself standing in a wading pool with a North American alligator and a cute nineteen year old girl. Then the girl stepped out. She stayed to watch, and there were other staff around if I needed them, but if a crowd came by I was on my own. They soon did: families, parents with curious kids in a tight little circle around the light blue wading pool, the water glinting in the hot sun. I lifted Stumpy up.
“This is a North American alligator,” I explained. “His name is Stumpy. We rescued him from a chemical dump…” I was a little nervous, but I loved it. The crowd eventually left, and I set Stumpy back down in the pool.
“He’s gonna hide behind your legs,” one of the girls told me, which is exactly what he did.
Was Stumpy shy?, I wondered. It seemed fair enough that he had a job to do, but I didn’t want to overwork him. I held him up several more times, but once the last batch of people were gone I surprised myself.
“I think he’s worked hard enough,” I announced to the staff standing there with me. “I’m gonna bring him home.”
They seemed okay with this. Apparently, Stumpy’s schedule was an informal one. I carried him in my arms back to his cage, opened the gate with my leg and set him down in his pool. I was prepared to keep from dropping him if he started thrashing around, but he was good the whole way. I ended up bringing Stumpy back home the next day, too. They took off the tape at dinnertime.
Stumpy has a big brother named Brutus, easily twice as long. He lives in the cage next door with a pool of water, a little house, logs and such for him to sit on if he likes. I think it would be more daunting to get into a pool with Brutus. I gazed at him for a while in his cage, soaking up the hot sun, watching me with that relentless alligator grin. To me the look in his eyes said, Hello, Tristan. I see you there. I wouldn’t think twice about eating you alive, and that's why I’m smiling.
Toward the end of day one Lori took me and a few other wide-eyed visitors into a cage with two ring tailed lemurs (a brother and sister), and a bunch of skunks. "Here," Lori said, and dropped one of them in my arms. I held her for the rest of my time in the cage. She was very docile and sweet, and a little heavier than I thought she would be. Skunks get fat if you let them! Or so I learned at Safaris. You have to watch their weight.
We stepped into the adjoining cage, home of a female fox named Lucy and her roommate Choxie, a very affectionate blonde raccoon. I was crouched down for some reason, maybe trying to get Lucy the fox's attention, when I felt the blonde raccoon reach his paws up onto my back and straddle me. I think this was just his way of saying hello. Or maybe he liked the smell of my shirt or had a crush on the skunk, who knows.
Day two, Sunday.
I showed up the next morning, showered and ready for more, and what followed was a rare privilege. "I'm just about to feed the cats," Lori said to me. "Come on."
She drove a golf cart towing a wagon full of red bricks of frozen meat, the minerals sparkling in the sun like some kind of carnivorous glitter. The big cats eat eight to twenty pounds of this stuff a day. Expensive. With the Bengal tigers, the Siberians, the lions and the liger you toss the bricks over the fence into their cage. The fence is high; you really have to whip it. The thing was, several of them caught it in their jaws on the way down! Plucked it right out of the air.
I noticed one of the signs outside the cages:
Be a Safaris Donor, the sign read. It followed that with various facts about the large cats, ending:
Eats 8 to 20 pounds of meat per day.
This could be you.
This could be you meant the donor part, but I loved the syntax. It was one of the reasons why I deferred to Lori during feeding time. If she didn't invite me in, I stayed.
There's a male liger at the sanctuary, a one thousand pound half lion, half tiger named Rocky. Rocky may eventually get so big his skeletal structure won't support his weight. He's proof that mating a lion with a tiger is a questionable idea, born of breeders with more money than brains. It's Safaris' job to take care of him though; he's a rescue, so they do the best they can. Rocky's is the largest enclosure of any of the giant cats. When he roars, the entire camp feels it. Even the roosters stop crowing and pay attention. You know those scenes in Jurassic Park where the ground shakes with the bellow of dinosaurs off in the distance? That's how it is with Rocky at Safaris. Rocky is such a powerful animal that no one can go in with him, not even Lori, because if he rubs on her affectionately he can break a rib. If he licks her hand it will draw blood. Also, Rocky doesn't like hats, or vests. You cannot wear a hat or a vest when you stop to see him, or he will get very upset and the whole place hears about it. It's no joke. Hats off.
We reached the cage of a full grown male lion named Mufasa. His head and mane looked massive to me up close. Lori opened a gate and stepped inside, just a fence now separating her and this monster cat. This didn't surprise me much; I knew she had raised many of these animals from cubs, and I'd seen her in the cage with the Siberians. Still, this was a lion. She and Mufasa high fived. Then she tapped the cage, and he roared.
"Oh God!" I said. It was quite a thing to hear it in person, so close.
"Com'ere," Lori said. "I want you to feel this."
She was calling me into the space between the two fences. Basically, the antechamber where I would now be as close to a full grown lion as you are to your sweetie when you lay down to go to sleep at night. It was safe enough, but I wouldn't have gone in without her permission. Lori moved to the left and gestured for me to crouch down in front of Mufasa. He was very close to me, laying down, pressed against the cage. His golden fur pushed through the little diamond shaped holes in the fence. Lori pounded the fence and Mufasa roared again. It blew my shirt back! Very powerful, very loud. I was trying to figure out what it reminded me of when Lori named it. "It sounds like a Harley that needs its carburetor adjusted," she said. That was right. It's a low, jagged, ripping kind of sound, and as loud as it is it doesn't hurt your ears because it's visceral: more in your chest and your legs than your eardrums. That was a thrill.
Next we fed the two black bears, Hercules and Honey Bear. They ate apples, lettuce, and fresh raw eggs from a local farm. The farm had just started donating these, Lori explained to me, and the bears’ coats were a shiny black from it.
We moved on to a beautiful female cougar at the far end of some cages. "Do you wanna water her?," Lori asked me. She took care of a pair of black panthers while I went and turned the water hose on. The tawny colored female cougar was such a lover she laid down and rubbed her head and whiskers against the bars of her cage while I filled her water tub. I found this kitty at Youtube, doing something very similar. I looked over at Lori to make sure it was okay, crouched down and pet her through the cage: felt her whiskers, the softness of her fur. "Hi baby,” I said to her. “You're so beautiful.”
Next I ended up in the cage with two Canadian Lynx, and one of them was such a sweetie she let us stroke and pet her. "This is okay?" I asked Lori. She nodded. "It's fine. She's very friendly."
What followed was possibly the most amazing experience Lori shared with me at Safaris. She walked into a cage with a full grown female mountain lion, this one the same tawny, gray brown color as the cougar I had just pet through the bars while I filled her water. I stood inside the fence but well outside the cage while Lori cooed and pet her. I heard a loud, whirring coffee grinder kind of sound.
“She's purring!” I said.
Lori smiled. “Com’ere,” she told me. I paused for a moment, then walked breathless through the open door into the cougar's cage.
I approached her slowly, talking quietly, my heart beating fast. I stroked her head, her ears, put my hand on her chest while she purred. It was loud!, like she had a motor in there. It's a lot like a house cat's purr actually, only much bigger. I didn't talk for a while after this. I'd just had the thrill of a lifetime.
I spent much of Sunday with the barnyard animals at the top of the hill: chickens, geese, goats and sheep, a miniature horse named Outlaw,
a house pig named Porsche with pink painted toenails,
and a truly lovable kangaroo named JackiLeggs.
JackiLeggs is one of the sweetest animals I've ever met. His fur is very soft. Jacki has a roommate named Cardigan, a handsome looking sheep with white wool and a black head. Also up here was possibly my favorite animal in the whole sanctuary: a fallow deer named Dama Dama. Dama is speckled with white dots. She's a great listener, and an incredibly sweet animal. She ate from my hand, and nuzzled my cheek. I weathered a short thunderstorm with Dama, just hung out and chatted while the primates reconsidered and the ducks talked quietly amongst themselves.
Safaris also features a striking collection of birds and reptiles. If I thought the lion's roar was loud, the bird room topped it. Nothing compared for pure sonic chaos. I walked in late Sunday morning, with two birds immediately to my right that I could not identify. They were larger than parrots, with very long beaks. One of them had a dead mouse hanging limply from his beak. He didn't seem to be doing anything with this dead mouse, just displaying it proudly for all the world to see. There was an African Gray parrot, a couple of the brightly colored, talking Macaws that most of us are familiar with, and three of my favorite variety: Umbrella Cockatoos. One of these, a female named Madonna, would later step up onto my forearm, snuggle for a while against my chest, then clutch my sunburned arm with her claws while she danced up and down to the music on the radio. Cockatoos are known to be dancers; it's all over Youtube. The sun was shining, birds were screeching and the girls were blasting a country song:
"I step outta the shower, steamin' up the place... Wipe off the mirror... shave my baaaby face. Can't help but smile... hey what can I say? I got my game on."
The band hit the IV chord while the birds screamed and squawked, bounced up and down in their cages and I wondered if this kind of sensory flooding might be good therapy.
That afternoon I walked through a tour with a very astute, lovely young lady named Lindsey. All of thirteen years old, she was a true animal lover (she and her sister chatted with me on our break about zoology classes at school, and how they couldn't wait to visit the San Diego zoo this summer), and very knowledgeable about the animals and their history. We had a nice older couple with us, although the man kept lighting cigarettes which was driving me crazy. Two minutes, and he'd light another one. Lindsey just patiently explained how this Siberian tiger was missing a toe as a result of zoo over-breeding, or how our Servals were native to Africa. She seemed to not only comprehend the scientific background of the animals, but their soap opera history with humans as well. This tiger once belonged to Mike Tyson, she explained to us; and this one had been a present for a five year old on his birthday (that hadn't worked out). I backed her up when appropriate, but when the lady asked me if I worked there, I said I was training under Lindsey.
The one animal I did not mess with at Safaris was a seventy-five pound baboon named Missy. I had discovered Missy when I drove in that first morning, sitting at a picnic table with a man named Donald who I would later learn was essentially her best friend. Donald and Missy drove around in a golf cart all day, and they were truly a pair. They drew a crowd. Donald was a natural showman, and liked to explain various things to the people as Missy twisted opened a bottle of juice for him, or tore open a bag of chips. She preened him constantly. It was quite a thing to see. Then, when the crowd was at its peak he said, "I know what I forgot, I forgot to brush your teeth!" and whipped out an electric toothbrush. The seventy-five pound primate patiently bared her teeth while he brushed them, top and bottom.
I have very little experience with these animals, and chose to give Missy a wide berth. I talked to her friend quite a bit though, from my eight feet of distance. I liked him.
"You know how strong these animals are?" he asked me in his crinkly, raspy voice.
"Well, stronger than me," I offered, eyeing her there in the seat next to him.
"You add a zero to their body weight." He explained. "That's how you tell."
So Missy was capable of seven hundred and fifty pounds of torque. She certainly could have thrown me across a room.
I loved it. I loved plunging into the pool with a four foot alligator; I loved Chomper the goose following me around and biting me all day (I scored some pellets later on and found out he wasn't so tough). I loved getting dirty, meeting new people, the giant cats, Jacki the kangaroo and Dama Dama the fallow deer, the floppy eared goats, the roosters crowing every five minutes, all of it. Safaris is built on twelve acres of land but currently, uses only a few. I would love to see the tigers prowling around a mini jungle, the wolves running through their own little forest, the alligators getting lost half the day in a massive pool.
These days at the sanctuary were so packed with overwhelming experience, I missed a lot. I realized early on I would have to live through this and process later; but looking back, Safaris is a story of generosity. These people give of themselves day after day, year after year to care for these animals. The experience is amazing, but once you process through it you realize what's also astounding is that they find a way to keep this place going: that they take care of two hundred plus animals each and every day with a few volunteers and the budget of a 501c3 non-profit. This entire sanctuary came out of one woman's commitment to help abandoned and injured animals, and it's obvious she has real talent and a gift to share.
As much as I wanted to work, to help out and show my gratitude, it's clear looking back that Lori intended for me to have the time of my life. It was a gift. I guess my experience crouching down inches from a Barbary lion while he roared, or stroking a full grown female cougar while she purred and rubbed her head against my hand were the most sensational parts of my time at Safaris, great for the telling, but it is JackiLeggs the kangaroo and Dama Dama the fallow deer that leave the sweetest, most lasting impression of true mammalian (and marsupial) kindness and warmth.
Tristan L. Sullivan