The Guatemala Effect

The Guatemala Effect

Howard the Vet

Nothing about The Guatemala Rescue would be easy. Nothing. We counted down the days to get a flight from Guatemala to the ADI Wildlife Sanctuary in South Africa for the 17 lions and tigers and their human team and learned to take things as they came – and they just kept coming!  Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips had, of course, carefully lined up the perfect vet for the rescue long ago – or so they’d thought – one of the Latin American Team who had been caring for and knew the animals. Then, at the last minute, the route changed and that meant the scheduled vet had a new visa requirement for one of the countries we’d need to land in.  There was no time to get it.

Jan and Tim reached out to ADI Wildlife Sanctuary founder and vet, Dr Betsy Coville. No, she couldn’t make it either – but she knew someone, a colleague, who might and she’d sponsor him and his veterinary supplies!

Dr. Howard Rosner, DVM was minding his own business when the call came in. They brought the phone right into the treatment room and held it up to his ear. “You’re going to love this!” Betsy said, and then explained about this internationally-respected animal group that needed an excellent vet – NOW! Five rescued circus lions and 12 tigers had to get from Guatemala to a new wildlife sanctuary in South Africa – safely – in the next few days! He would need to get to Guatemala by Monday.

Betsy was right – he’d loved the idea, instantly, and had been seriously bummed out a few hours later when she’d called back to say it was off.  There had been yet another forced route change!  But then, she’d called back again right after that to say it was on again.

“The Guatemala Effect”

That’s what we came to call it  – that frustrating, enraging, exhausting “on-again, off-again” experience of “powers beyond our control” that continually permeated every aspect of the rescue, blocking us right and left and pulling the rug out from under us over and over again.

Howard leapt at the opportunity!  Not only is he a wonderful vet, he is a great adventurer as well, traveling around the world to treat exotic wild animals. He brought in colleagues to cover his practice for a few days and immediately tried to book a flight straight to Guatemala City. Only then did he discover that he couldn’t get a direct flight to Guatemala City from San Francisco.  (“The Guatemala Effect”) Undaunted, he booked through El Salvador and would be arriving in a few hours.

The Daunting Challenge

There are those people you like instantly. I could tell immediately that Howard was going to be one of them. From the lobby of our hotel, I watched as this big guy arrived and made room for others instead of elbowing his way into middle of the physical space or introductions. He’d already spoken with those who knew the animals he’d be in charge of. His suitcases were stuffed with the specific medications and vital equipment that the animals would need. He was ready now to debrief at the hotel and learn everything he could in order to serve each of his new patients well.

The challenge was daunting. Animals living in today’s circuses barely stand a chance. Many are in-bred to the point of acute physical disability. Most get the cheapest of food and live their entire lives in cramped, damp, unsanitary conditions. Their teeth are broken and their claws brutally removed, frequently with little or no regard to pain or hygiene. They are hit, beaten, starved, isolated and immobilized as part of their everyday routine. A large part of Animal Defenders International’s work has been going under-cover in circuses throughout the world to finally expose the underbelly of “The Big Top” in order to get the legal bans on wild animals in circuses that have allowed for rescues of animals like these.

Howard knew that three of the tigers that would be in his care had a history of seizures. Two of the big cats had diarrhea and all five lions were on stomach medication. He spoke little Spanish and Anna, the Guatemalan veterinarian currently in daily charge of caring for them, spoke no English. Howard had a couple of days at most (little did we know then how much longer it would be) to prepare these great cats for a long trip in the back of a huge cargo plane.  He had to become familiar enough with each one to be able to spot any new issues.

As I sat in on the debriefing, I felt overwhelmed at the enormity of it all. Taking any one of our “kids” who was really sick to the vet in Los Angeles was traumatic enough. 17? Really? How were we ever going to do this?!

The journey would take over 30 hours in the air, with at least three stops en route. There would be additional hours in crates at the start and finish, getting the animals loaded onto the trucks for the trips to and from the airports. It takes every trick I know to get any one of my cats into a carrier.  Each one of these lions and tigers would have their own individual travel crate. The three tigers who suffered from seizures would need somehow to get their preventative medicine twice a day while we were in transit.  You don’t just reach into a cage with a tiger in it to offer medication – or food and water for that matter. I didn’t envy Howard, who would be doing everything in his power to make sure that the nightmare of an animal going into a seizure wouldn’t happen.

The chances of avoiding that or some kind of incident were daunting. And yet, knowing all of that, Howard and everyone around the table, along with the teams of dozens and dozens of people in the background from all over the world, were committed to doing everything in their power to get all of us to Africa safely. (And, thank God, somehow they actually did!)

As the debriefing ended, Jan and Tim headed back upstairs to try to secure yet another flight out. Every flight they’d managed to book so far had been blocked for one reason or another. Howard and all of us thought we were going to be starting the countdown to leaving the following day, but that flight had been cancelled along with the one two days later. Jan and Tim somehow found the strength to keep going. They never stopped searching. They never gave up. Now they were trying to get yet another flight leaving by the weekend.

That left Mary and me to grab our backpacks and join Howard heading for the car waiting to take us to the ADI Temporary Rescue Center to finally meet the animals. It was the animals who kept us going. Every one of us. We had to get them to their ‘forever’ home, “Guatemala Effect” or not. We would not stop until we got them home.

Danger in the Kingdom

Danger in the Kingdom

At the Animal Defenders International (ADI) temporary rescue sanctuary in Guatemala we have to learn, and then follow, the rules. Pay attention: Observe, listen, wait, find our way to fit into the order of this place. We are guests here, not owners. God alone is the real owner.

Coral snakes move silently through the tall grass of the meadow. We are told that although highly venomous, their inefficient bite makes them painful, but rarely deadly, to humans. Somehow there is little comfort there. The men will find several in the short time we are here and respectfully carry each out of harms’ way.  None of the men and women who work here has ever been bitten. Neither has the dog or any of the great cats. Here there is an order, an understanding, of place and purpose.

God willing, in a few days (or more as it will turn out), this piece of a land will be a bevy of activity as we begin preparations to airlift the rescued great cats (five lions and twelve tigers) across the globe to their new forever home at the ADI Sanctuary in Africa. Life is about to change for them in unimaginable ways.

Politicians and their followers will gather to hear and deliver speeches. The media and guests will come and go. Skilled men with trucks and cranes, and good men and women on the ground, will work late into the nights re-positioning heavy steel cages and large solid travel crates. The complexity of the tasks involved in preparing to move these lions and tigers halfway around the world as comfortably and non-traumatically as possible are mind-boggling.

In all of this activity, thought out carefully and orchestrated personally by Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips themselves, great care will also be given to minimize any injury to this land and her inhabitants. The remarkable extent to which this all will unfold is worthy of its own story.

Mary and I have the privilege of being here to participate in the fulfillment of a sacred promise of reconciliation and repair between a remarkable international group of humans and the animal kingdom that we as a species have so injured and wronged.  This task is just one small piece of something bigger than we are. It is urgent and expensive in time, money and effort. It is filled with danger, real danger every step of the way, to both animals and humans alike. There is no room for arrogance or ignorance or disrespect.

This is not a vacation. It is way, way harder and far more rewarding than I could ever have imagined. And it has just begun.

Flying Teeth

Flying Teeth

Enchanted by the opportunity to photograph these magnificent great cats up close, Mary and I stand in the tall grass at the edge of the enclosures oblivious to the perils we have placed ourselves in. Sunlight dances off the leaves at the edge of the clearing. It sparkles on the water of the ponds. It fills the crystal-clear, azure-blue sky over-head providing us with great lighting. Only gradually do I realize that it’s also quickly burning the exposed skin on the back of my hands, my face and neck. In rushing to get here, I have forgotten to use the sunscreen. I cover up and promise myself not to make the same mistake again.

But I am already just a little too late. The heat is also bringing out tiny black bugs. They rise with the heat coming up off the warming ground into the air around us. They look like miniature flies and draw our casual attention only when walking on those same small areas of pale skin left uncovered. Innocent enough. Not swarming. Dismissed without a thought. A mild annoyance. That is – until they sting.

That first painful stab deep into the tender flesh between my fingers sounds the alarm! OUCH!  I swat. It circles. Another attacks – this time on the back of my hand! On the palm of my hand! In the crease of skin just under my wedding band! My cheek! Dang! Enough! I see Mary spinning away – swatting at them –  quickly pulling out her gloves. Smart. I follow her example and pull my cuffs down ‘til only the tips of my fingers protrude. We back away quickly walking towards the dirt. Lesson learned.

The sunscreen, I am soon to discover, miracle that it is, will keep both sun and bugs away.

A tiny clear blister will soon make an appearance over each wound. A speck of black will inhabit the center. A stinger? A droplet of blood? A parasite? A medical colleague examines the photo we send and thinks it’s not a parasite. Thank goodness, but we really – actually – have no idea. We ask and no one seems to know. We will be mindful to keep these wounds clean as we come to live with them in the weeks ahead.  And, in the middle of the night –  they will itch like crazy!

Howard, the vet, will name the bugs: “Flying Teeth”.

It will be weeks from now, long after I am home, when the last of these wounds caused by my carelessness will finally be completely healed.

This is not a vacation. The dangers here are real. Most will turn out like the “Flying Teeth” to be more annoyance than tragedy, but only if we are careful, vigilant, respectful of the world we have entered, mindful to wear the spray that will tell the bugs to stay a safe distance from us. They, too, have the right to live.

Lions are like Dogs and Tigers are like Cats

Lions are like Dogs and Tigers are like Cats

Looking at the lions laying quietly together or sleeping in the heat side by side, I thought about the phrase I had heard over and over again: “Lions are like dogs and tigers are like cats.” I thought about the dogs who have been the great four-footed companions throughout my life. 

Precious Mr. Patches, a Jack Russell terrier rescue, loved the sunshine and me more than anything. Buddy, Rags and Thunder, different dogs who spanned the years, all had been far more content to be positioned beside me on the floor than to be running down the beach chasing seagulls (even though they all loved chasing seagulls!) Being by my side definitely came first. Any one of those dogs would have given its life in an instant to save mine. 

And then there were the cats, the most recent being Mia and Keira, the two young feline rescues I’d left at home. I had already taken to calling them “The Little Lions”  so as not to hurt their feelings with all the “Lion Talk” preparing for this rescue. I realized now that they were definitely far more “Little Tigers” than lions. They’re loving and dear but always choosing mischief over affection, ever watchful and eager to play in a heart-beat. 

Mr. Spenser and Molly who came before them were our feline guardians. They were something else entirely. Pure Spirits. Guardians. Companions on the Journey. 

Something deep within my heart and mind began to open: The rescued wild lions and tigers here, as well as the dogs and the cats who had shared my life, were so much more than I had thought they were. I always knew they were special but now I felt it in a whole new way that I couldn’t quite articulate. There was something tangible and loving and deeply sacred and transformational about each of them. 

Being here in the ADI Temporary Rescue Center where the well-being of the animals was more important than anything else, enabled me to begin to slip into their world, to allow myself to experience who they were in their own right, in their own families, in their own relationships and what they needed and sought with one another and with me. Honesty. Kindness. Trustworthiness. Respect.

I began to experience being part of a web of life that interconnects plants, animals, and all life forces including the Earth Herself. I felt connected at a depth that was stunning, where I knew that what we do to and with every other being and force on this planet matters.

Lions and tigers are different and so is every being from every other and yet, through the web of life, we are joined, all ultimately seeking the same things.

Lions and Tigers are Different  – Part 2

Lions and Tigers are Different – Part 2

The Lions

I noticed that these lions were smaller, much smaller than the tigers.

I’d never seen a single lion get anywhere near water at the compound – they were always the sun instead. They would spread themselves across the tops of their platforms like melting puddles and sleep in the heat. While the tigers parked themselves in the water, the lions parked themselves in the sun.

The lions stretched. And, so far at least, I’d never seen a lion pounce.

These lions also watched each other, but differently than the tigers did. The tigers watched everything, even when they were in their small night feeding cages.

The lions watched each other. They’d look before approaching to plop down next to one another. Or lean up against each other. Their groupings seemed quieter than the tigers, too, somehow. Less playful and more relaxed and comforting. They’d often be seen lying beside each other touching or almost touching.

I wondered to myself if it was because they were older than the tigers here and not in very good health. I decided to walk down towards them to get a closer look.

It is much quieter down at the far end of the meadow where the land dips off into the valley below. Most of the activity occurs up closer to the entrance. Here, in the quiet, where the five rescued lions were grouped, I came to know ADI’s most fascinating feline couples.

Tarzan and Tanya

His name is Tarzan. His head is huge and scarred. His lip is torn. His tongue often left hanging out. He sits or lays on the highest level of the platform in the late morning sun. I know that he has already had surgery to repair the painful damage to his face. ADI’s Jan Creamer and Tim Phillips immediately took care of that. The lip repair will come once he is safely settled in South Africa.

Always with Tarzan – often right beside him – is the littlest lioness, Tanya. She seems to be ever at his side and, in the few moments when not, her eyes are always on him. I am struck immediately by the contrast between the fragility of her size and the ferocity of her vigilance. They are, indeed, a pair.

“What’s the deal?” I ask, wanting to learn more. No one seemed to know for sure, but finally someone told me that he thought that the two had lived in a circus together where lions and tigers were not kept apart. Apparently, one day, a tiger attacked Tarzan without warning, grabbing his face and tearing into him. By the time the two great cats were separated, Tarzan was pretty badly mangled. There was a rumor floating around that in the midst of it, tiny Tanya had gone after the tiger and caused just enough of a distraction for the men to rescue Tarzan. “Is it true?” I had asked, incredulously. “We’ll never know,” I was told. “It was a circus. There are no records, just lots and lots of stories.”

It may be just a story. Perhaps – even probably.  But then, every time I looked into Tanya’s eyes, I saw the way she looked at Tarzan and I knew – it’s true – at least in her heart, it’s true.