Have you ever had the experience of going to a restaurant where you wondered how you ended up there? Either someone recommended you try it or it was a random stop on the highway when you needed to eat. Once you enter the place you notice the atmosphere and begin judging that it will be an awful experience. The dive looks dark and worn down, years of wear that no one bothered to keep up with repairs and decor. It feels uninviting and you are ready to leave if it weren’t for being shown to a table – a sign that you were committed to staying. Then when the server approaches it gives you an even further sinking feeling that this experience is going to get worse. The server also appears a little rough around the edges and slightly abrasive. You are careful to be extra polite to ensure that she doesn’t end up cursing about you to the kitchen staff. Finally when your food arrives and the first fork full enters your mouth you are forced to pause as the judgement about the establishment begins to melt and all you can think is “mmmmm…”
Every morsel is devoured with the same “mmm” of satisfaction. The food is so amazing that you cannot believe that it has taken you all of your life to be sitting there enjoying it. It’s the kind of meal that excites every taste bud on your tongue and in turn gives you goose bumps down to your toes. Between the delectable bites you begin to see the restaurant with a new set of eyes, even the server stops to engage in a conversation with a slight smile. And once you have licked your plate clean, paid your bill and exit the doors of your new favorite secret spot – you can’t help beginning to plot when you could possibly get back there to enjoy the experience all over again.
I know this feeling. I have been in a situation where my thoughts started “What was I thinking coming here.” I have been intimidated by the server. And I have experienced an awakening in my spirit when I visited this secluded location.
This place that I am referring to is not a restaurant, though. And the server is not presenting food – at least not to me.
I had the honored privilege of getting to stay on the grounds of Endangered Animal Rescue Sanctuary (EARS) in Citra, Florida. My sister had moved there to volunteer for a couple of months and urged me to come visit. Of course being an animal lover with an insatiable travel bug buried within me I jumped at the opportunity. When I arrived at the airport I was met by my sister and the co-founder of EARS. The co-founder’s name is Gail, and she is much like the server I was referring to earlier. She probably did greet me with a smile, however, all I remember is her larger than life presence which made me feel on edge to begin with. She wore a tan safari like shirt with the sanctuary logo, thick mascara on her eye lashes and big hair to match her Georgia drawl.
During the car ride to EARS, Gail spoke firmly about exotic animal breeding and the unwanted animals she had rescued. She talked about her first experiences with animals, training Elephants overseas, how she ended up in Florida and beginning EARS with Jaye. I didn’t think that I had ever done anything cruel towards animals, although in that car ride I felt that if I had unintentionally Gail would be able to sniff it out and scar me for it. My first impression of wanting to stay on her good side ended up being a laughable fear by the end of the trip.
As if my anxiety wasn’t high enough being in the truck with the intimidating server, when we got to Citra it was an even deeper feeling of discomfort. It was the walk into the restaurant. Citra is a small town that most would miss on a drive through Florida, empty stores and buildings falling apart. No nearby ocean or amusements parks there. Once we entered the gates of the sanctuary all of the wondering “what am I doing here” was gone.
EARS has many big cats – tigers, leopards, lions, cougars. They also have other unwanted animals like a wolf, bears and monkeys. And then there are some not so wild animals who needed a safe home like dogs rescued from flooding in New Orleans, random ducks and chickens. Amazingly, all species seemed to be living in harmony (most separated in appropriate enclosures). It was an unexplaineably comfortable and content feeling to be on the grounds.
My sister with Delila. She came to EARS after being found during a drug raid, I guess the dealer thought a pit bull just wouldn't do.
My sister and Gail toured me around the property. It was clear that the animals had a trusting relationship with their human care givers. This was not just a fondness for the hands that deliver the food, rather true recognition that Gail, my sister and other volunteers truly care and want to protect them. This was evident especially by the tiger’s chuffing response to them approaching. I had never even heard that tigers chuff until I was there in person to hear it. It would be similar to a cat purring in approval, chuffing sounds sort of mechanical like short and rapid puffs of air. Gail explained where all of the animals came from, she recalled details with dates for each. The stories varied from a rejected tiger from Las Vegas because he wasn’t pure white, a cougar kicked out of the zoo for walking with a limp, a bear meant for a circus act with mangled paws from a poor attempt to declaw him, and many big cats who were unwanted when they got too big for “pictures with a cub” jobs. All of the stories were unfortunate, many horrific. Gail went on to explain that these are the lucky ones because many big cats are killed when they don’t fit into an owners plans.
I learned more about the sanctuary itself and the vision that Gail and Jaye (the other co-founder) have for it. They strive to have the animals living with dignity, which means excelling state regulations for sizes of cages and time in turnouts. They act on what is best for the animals instead of minimal guidelines, it also means having to turn away animals in need so that they don’t forfeit the standards for the animals already there. It is quickly apparent when talking with Gail and Jaye how dedicated they are. Both live on the property in side by side homes. They sacrifice personal time, human relationships and steady incomes to be able to provide a good quality of life for the animals, a sort of priceless dedication most people could not fathom.
Both Gail and Jaye are relentless educators and advocates. Gail provides group tours on occasion to help encourage donations and teach the public about the dangers of breeding exotic animals. Jaye drives all over the south delivering food to other sanctuaries for a minimal profit to help keep EARS running.
Leopard brothers, Tafari and Odoki. Swahili for "one who inspires awe" and "little brother"
Being able to spend time getting to know Gail and Jaye, working the labor intensive weekend at the sanctuary, seeing the tigers up close and witnessing their personalities, waking up to lions roaring not far outside my window, letting a vervet monkey pick threads off my shirt, feeding animal crackers to a bear… It was a weekend that warmed my soul and reinvigorated my spirit. I was re-energized to dedicate myself to my passions and to do it with integrity. The memory of this experience, this place and these two women will stay with me indefinitely. I left there immediately plotting how soon can I get back? I know that the best place for exotic animals is in the wild and if they can’t be there – the next best place would be at EARS with Gail and Jaye looking out for them.
If you would like to know more about the animals, the co-founders and the sanctuary I would encourage you to check out their website at: www.earsinc.net
ps. There is a sound bite of the tiger SuSu chuffing under the multimedia section – Check it out!