Instead of standing up with Anna, Howard remained kneeling in the dirt. I watched as he pivoted slowly towards the full-grown tiger and searched for words in his limited Spanish.
“Hey, Itza…. Itza, Grande. Magnifico.”… “Bueno, Itza. Bueno.” His voice was soft, melodious. Respectful. “Hermoso, Itza. Grande y hermoso.”
Howard instinctively dipped his head down in the hint of a bow. He cooed. He watched the huge tiger and the huge tiger watched him.
When the vet called to him, Itza was laying down with paws outstretched. He was fully focused and alert. Man and tiger both stayed nearly flat to the ground. Howard watched. Nodded. Bowed and rose carefully to one knee. Itza lifted his head up. His chest rose. Howard inched upward again. Itza’s ears twitched and his head rose slightly higher.
They began a sort of dance. Without really thinking about it, Howard mirrored the tiger and the tiger mirrored him. Gradually, ever so slowly, the man began to straighten all the way up and move forward ever so smoothly as the great cat shifted from laying on the ground to sitting all the way up. They rose a notch at a time, keeping a discreet eye-contact, Howard continuing to speak – almost purring, chanting – while looking from a slight angle with Itza looking straight on.
Finally, Howard rose to his full 6 feet+ height – and those of us witnessing this held our breath. Itza was up on his feet by now. He stood there on all fours – not budging, not flinching, not backing down – for this meeting with the man. And there they remained, sizing each other up carefully.
Itza had faced many a beating in his days in the circus. He had been victim to and watched many a brutal deed done by the males of our human species. He had good reason to be wary of men and Howard clearly understood that. He slowly reached out to the edge of the bars and offered the back of his hand. Itza looked and waited and finally, sniffed and then, Itza chuffed it – with a deeper than a horse-like sound and shake of his muzzle.
It was a breath-taking moment – the two of them standing there, finally, in front of one another. There was a hushed wonder and bit of a nervous laugh in Howard’s voice as he continued to talk to the tiger. Itza had granted him the audience and actually agreed to be friends!
Just as Howard half-turned away in delight, Itza suddenly rose up to his full height on his hind legs to tower above Howard. In the same instant this stunning wild animal suddenly let out a sound that wasn’t aggressive but stated unequivocally that HE, ITZA, was boss. I laughed out loud. I couldn’t help myself.
There was no doubt! The tiger had won. He dwarfed Howard’s six-foot-tall frame. The power and might of this magnificent animal were simply indisputable. Howard jumped back, frightened out of his skin, and began to laugh, too. “Okay! Okay! Now we know who’s boss!” Itza immediately came back down on all fours and stood quietly, now that everyone understood. Then, he even let Howard feed him a snack. He generously offered more chuffs. They were friends – at least for the moment.
This was Howard’s first meeting with the animals. His first time to ADI’s Temporary Rescue Shelter. Tomorrow everyone would be on site and the real work would begin in earnest. Today, this was an introduction, a first impression, a getting-to-know-you opportunity and I wanted to tag along quietly in the background to witness and to learn.
Right from the beginning, unlike most of us, Howard never walked straight up to an enclosure or night/feeding cage. Not at first. He stood there quietly – watching instead – for a long time. He wrote notes, observations. He then asked Anna, the vet and person who cared most directly for the animals, questions in his best broken Spanish. Then he observed each animal again and ask the question from a different angle. He was careful. Thoughtful. Thorough. He noticed that Sasha, the lion stepped gingerly on her right front paw. “Ow,” he said, with a surprising tenderness, “She hurts!” He stopped. Flipped through the notes. Finally finding the section that told of a botched declawing and the infections and problems that followed, he immediately announced with clear relief, “Ah, good. We can help her. We’ll try some new meds. She doesn’t have to be in pain.”
Once more he had stopped. Looked. Paid attention. Become fully present.
Then he’d stepped forward – and only then.
I took a breath. It had been awhile since I retired from my decades’ long psychotherapy practice. Howard was doing what any good clinician does – taking the time to get himself centered and prepared to focus on the well-being of the other. Observing his compassion in action, I knew he was the right guy for the job as well as for our team.
He and Anna had made it more than halfway through the tigers when they came to the small C-shaped arrangement of cages that housed Itza, the biggest of the tigers, along with the females in his family.
Itza is father to the cubs, Max and Stripes, both of whom had somehow fortunately escaped the awkward stiff-legged gait that are tell-tale signs of excess in-breeding. Sombra, their mother, her sisters, Lupe and Bimbi, were not so lucky. All three suffered from seizures.
Howard had met Sombra and the cubs on the backside of the C. He and Anna then came around to this area and spent a long time kneeling on the ground across from Itza, getting to know Lupe and exploring as best they could her medical needs. When they finished with her, it was time for the vet to meet the biggest and most ferocious of the tigers face-to-face.
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 onagain.
“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.
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.
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.