He took [the wolf’s] head out of the leaves and held it or he reached to hold what cannot be held, what already ran among the mountains at once terrible and of a great beauty, like flowers that feed on flesh…which cannot be held never be held and is no flower but is swift and a huntress and the wind itself is in terror of it and the world cannot lose it.
– Cormac McCarthy, The Crossing
The Residency Match in medicine is a bit like a combination between the NBA draft and military deployment. After graduating medical school, you have only a limited say in where you will spend the next three-plus years of your life during residency. Programs wine and dine you, enticing you to join their ranks, but in the end a computer algorithm determines your destination. Our original top choice had been Asheville, so it was a bit of a let-down four years ago to learn we would instead be moving to Greensboro. In the ensuing months we would adjust to new jobs, a new house, and new friends; yet we felt we still lacked a true home, and would likely move again in a few years. That changed after the Conservators’ Center entered our life.
My wife, Cassie, and I first visited the Center on a Twilight Tour several years ago. Despite our desire, time constraints limited our ability to return until this past year, and now our only regret is that we did not volunteer earlier.
It is difficult to emphasize the profound impact this place has had upon our lives in such a short period of time. The people of the Center welcomed us with open arms and, after a period of trust-building, we now feel the animals welcome us as well.
Visiting the Center has become a highlight of our week. While here, we both experience a counterbalance of sanity and serenity to the rest of our lives. It is a place of letting go, a release for the pressures of life, an emotional, even spiritual, cleansing. And it is not just the place itself—when here, we are surrounded by like-minded individuals who have indeed formed a family, a family born not of similar blood but rather of similar passions. One cannot help but be struck by the nobility of every individual connected to this place, no matter their position or relationship to the animals.
For it is indeed the animals who form the core aspect of the Center. Caring for our residents requires one’s utmost attention, the necessity of presence, of “being here now.” Today’s information-centered society entices us to check out and become lost in our own heads. But you cannot be worried about your day or figuring out dinner or obsessing over your imperfections when standing only feet away from a potentially dangerous carnivore.
It is hard to overstate the sense of awe and marvel that accompanies being in the presence of these animals. We first felt it with Hansen Lion who, we really feel, picked us to be his adopter. In terms of overall scariness, it’s hard to argue with the lion brothers, Gryffindor and Pacino at feeding time, but during our first few weeks in volunteering in Animal Care, Hansen—another of the food aggressive lions about whom we had been warned—would wait until Cassie was near before jumping and “grumping” at her, prompting a surprised leap back and nervous giggle.
Hansen became our first love, but it is hard not to fall in love with every aspect of the Center: watching Arthur Tiger play with his toys, experiencing the power of Thomas Lion’s “oof,” bringing presents to Diego Lynx and watching him “stretch” his way over to investigate, fussing at Freya Tiger for stalking small children. We are thankful that we are now a part of all of these things, and for having witnessed firsthand the bond of trust and understanding formed between the animals here and their human friends.
And yet, and yet. There can be no escaping the fact that the very purpose of most of the animals here is to kill and eat other animals. One forgets this at one’s own peril. The carnivores for whom we care represent an aspect of the circle of life many of us in “civilized” society would like to forget, or at least overlook. The existence of these animals strips away any artifice the modern world attempts to impose upon life. Life at the Center forces the acknowledgement of a more tangible reality. Esoteric and overly-complicated philosophies of life ring hollow when you are up to your elbows in chicken guts or butchered deer carcasses.
Being out here is truly a calling. Visitors’ reactions to the place are invariably, and for good reason, reactions of wonder. But for some of us, being here touches upon a distinct cord, a raw, thrumming undercurrent embodying life itself. Animals are born here, animals will die. And by coming here, we can partake of that wonder, that mystery. This is what draws us back, time and again.
The name of the place is apt, for being here is truly an act of centering, of returning to one’s core. Thus, it is not a stretch to say that the Center occupies sacred ground. For this is the very definition of consecration: encountering the deeper meanings of life and experience and partaking in life’s essentials. The mystery of life, mystery with a capital “M,” resides here in all its splendor.
Giving back to such a place is not an accurate description, for it is not a “giving back.” Instead, it is a rejuvenation of our lives, a sense of wholeness for our soul for which we will be forever grateful. Words cannot express our gratitude for the existence of this place, yet still Cassie and I say thank you. Here’s to a wonderful past year, and to many more to come.
By Jeff Walden, MD
Tour Guide and Volunteer at the Conservators’ Center
Jeff Walden is a family physician and will be joining the faculty of the Cone Health Family Medicine Residency in Greensboro this coming summer. His interests include global health, wilderness medicine, and the emerging human-animal interface in medicine. He has traveled to Ghana, Uganda, and Honduras several times and will be returning to East Africa this summer to study the impact of humans upon lion populations in Uganda’s national parks.
Cassie Gerolimatos is a pediatric speech therapist, specializing in bilingual and preschool populations. After training for last year’s NYC Marathon as part of the Autism Speaks fundraising team, she is looking forward to spending even more time at the Center this year (and, she hopes, less time limping). She always thought of herself as a “dog person” until Hansen Lion and Naja Caracal showed her otherwise.