As We Say Goodbye to 2014…
The Conservators Center is now officially fifteen years old. It’s unbelievable to imagine, but we’ve got fifteen long, wonderful years of educating the public about the rare species in our care, participating in conservation efforts worldwide, and rescuing individual animals in need under our belts. We have much to be proud of, so much to be thankful for.
As we look back at the trail we’ve blazed in this industry so far, the leadership of the Center can see a number of eras that have come and gone with very distinct delineations. Much to our delight, it is becoming evident that our conservancy is entering yet another exciting new phase in its growth and development. We’ve got new programs, new experiences, new ideas, and all kinds of new adventures waiting for us in the new year. All of us are eagerly anticipating this bright new dawn as it moves slowly over the horizon.
However, as 2014 draws to a close, it is becoming evident that the end of this particular era in our organization will be marked with the loss of many beloved animal friends—friends who have shaped this organization, and who will continue shaping it as they live in on our hearts for many years to come. This has not been an easy year; in fact, 2014 has been the year we have dreaded for a long, long time.
Our Geriatric Residents, and Bracing for the Inevitable
There’s a charm to working with so many wonderful geriatric animals. We have spent years marveling at their unbeatable love of life, their health and vigor, and their sheer longevity; the majority of our elderly critters have lived many years past the average life expectancy of their species in captivity.
But, with so many elderly animals in our care, it was only logical to expect that one day, we would have to endure an unbearable number of deaths in a short amount of time. Yes, 2014 is the year that we knew was coming, a year we have dreaded, a year of saying one heartbreaking goodbye after another. But just because we’ve spent years expecting something to happen doesn’t mean that we’ve accepted it. We’re still working on that.
Sometimes the decline of an animal is sudden, and you are sucker-punched by it, stunned and wondering where your beloved companion went, and how they went so quickly. All of us have that one loss that stands unparalleled by any other, demarcating a point in our lives that was forever changed. For me, losing Buffy Tiger—the tiger who watched my husband’s proposal to me (because he knew she was the one that I would want present), the tiger who convinced (and re-convinced) me that this is the way I want to spend my life—was that loss.
Weeks before our marriage, my husband John David found Buffy Tiger in distress during his daily rounds. This was completely unexpected, but it was clear that we didn’t have long. After receiving the call, I raced to her side, and arrived just in time to say goodbye. I tried to stay calm as she labored for breath, not wanting to upset her, and when she was gone, my soon-to-be-husband held me up as I wailed with grief. I had no idea when I woke up that morning that I would be saying goodbye to my best friend, my Buffy. That loss shook me to my core, and it caused me to redouble my efforts on behalf of those residents to whom I still felt responsible. I took my grief and I threw it into the Center. But her memory still reduces me to tears, and I don’t know if that will ever change.
Sometimes the decline of a beloved animal friend is gradual. We lost Amadeus Wolf slowly throughout the summer of 2012. His pack (human and wolf alike) tended him diligently in those difficult months. He relished in all the attention as his body failed him, piece by piece, but his mind was still very much intact, and I could see in his eyes that he was still my Ami. That made it so very, very hard to say goodbye to him beneath the watchful eyes of his pack when his life’s journey was finally through. (It is bittersweet knowledge that his sister, Hopa Wolf, rejoined her beloved Ami this year after passing away from old age.)
After he was gone, I looked around at my shattered human friends, and the only thing I could think to do for them was feed them. So we pulled everything we could find out of the refrigerator and had an impromptu wake for our alpha wolf. He would have been proud of the roast beef we cooked and the sides we cobbled together from the odds and ends in our communal kitchen. We toasted his life, ate our grief, and consoled ourselves with one another’s company.
If you look closely at the wrists, ankles, and upper arms of many of our staff and key volunteers, you’ll sometimes catch a glimpse of a tattoo commemorating someone’s special animal friend—usually a face or a paw. The memories of them are printed on our bodies and our souls. There is one tattoo on me that is a constant reminder of why our work is so important, and the consequences of regret: the paw-print of Sam Lion.
In 2004, we took in a tidal wave of what-would-become 29 big cats from a neglectful breeding facility in Ohio. One of the cats was named Sam. He was the quintessential lion, most likely weighing 600 pounds, with a fabulous mane that reached halfway down his immense, tawny body and a rough personality to make even the gruffest lion proud. However, he still enjoyed baby talk in private moments from the humans he trusted the most.
For several years after that devastating intake of big cats, we worked tirelessly to get these formerly abused animals, like Sam, into bigger and better enclosures. They came bearing the physical and emotional scars of horrific neglect, and they were accustomed to having to share tiny, meager cage spaces. They had never been on grass. They had never run among trees. They had not been cherished and cared for the way they deserved, so we made it our mission to make sure that each cat got a large, green space in which to live out the rest of their lives.
Sam didn’t live long enough for us to realize this dream for him. He died right before the spacious enclosure that we had been constructing for him was completed, before he was able to enjoy the feel of grass under his paws. I can never, ever forget that. To this day, you will render our founders and me weeping if we discuss him at any length. Sam is a constant reminder of why our work will never be done, of the wounds left behind when we are unable to finish what we set out to do. The regret is still piercing. Did Sam have a much better life after coming to us? Yes, of course. But he never got what he deserved. And that haunts me every day.
When I look at my tattoo of Sam’s paw-print, I remember that the decision to take care of these animals is not a decision at all. It is not a choice. These are lives for which we have accepted full responsibility. Walking away is not—and never has been—an option. So we work harder, trying to do better by our residents, selfishly not wanting any additions to the crushing regret that will always be Sam.
The walls of every office in our building are lined with the framed paw-prints of our friends who have passed away. I know each impression by heart; many of them are prints I took myself. I remember paw-printing Sam with our beloved volunteer, Amy Bittle, the two of us hunched in the den space of the enclosure, crying as we hefted his impossibly heavy leg over and over, hoping that these marked canvases would provide some solace to those who loved him. Taking paw-prints from an animal that has passed away is a physically exhausting task, which is almost a relief when you are grief-stricken and desperately need a way to work out all of your sadness.
Photos of our deceased friends look on from the walls of our homes and offices. I only have a small picture of Sam above my desk. That’s all I can manage. But he is there, watching over me, as are all the others. They peer through the years, reminding me of good times and bad times, reminding me of what we do and why we do it, reminding me that this is the life I want and the life I need.
The incredible depth of our love for these animals can be measured by the incredible depth of mourning we endure when they’re gone.
Moving On, Together
The volunteers and staff at the Conservators Center do not have the luxury of grief. We have to pick ourselves up and move on immediately, because we owe it to all of the animals that are still relying on us. Personally, I throw myself into work following a resident’s death. I’ll go days with minimal sleep, pounding out emails, outlines, documents… anything to turn the grief into something productive.
In quiet moments, sometimes time will trick me. As I walk our paths, visiting different enclosures, I’ll find myself suddenly surprised that Ami is not with his pack. I will realize that Ife New Guinea Singing Dog is really gone. It will hit me, once again, that I will never hear Solida Tiger’s chuffle again. Those are the times when I find a secluded spot next to an enclosure and talk about it to whichever furry resident will listen. And then, eventually, I get up and keep going, reburying that sadness until it rears its head again.
While these solitary moments are personal and lonely, I know that there are few emotions that bind a group of people closer than the experience of shared loss. We all mourn each resident’s passing, but we also know which of us is going to be the most devastated based on the intense individual relationship he or she shared with the animal who has passed away. Those are the people we rally around, the people we focus on tending to and caring for.
I suppose the most precious aspect of this process is the fact that, at the Conservators Center, everyone grieves, but no one grieves alone.
Julia Matson Wagner
To the friends we have lost in 2014: we will actively tend to your memory in our hearts just as diligently as we care for the presence of the friends who are still with us to love. This organization is forever changed because of your time with us, and it will be forever changed because of your absence:
Our silly and loveable Spike Tiger
Our regal leader, Mufasa Lion
The stately gentleman, Taz Lynx
Our grumpy, chatty Tarzan Jungle Cat
A truly great lady, Shelby Tiger
The gentle, loyal Serabi Lioness
The finest male soprano we will ever know, Kodi Singing Dog
Lord of the head snuffles: Ruffian Binturong
The perfect wolf mother, Hopa
Prince Charming himself, Jacob Tiger
Ear-tuft extraordinaire, Oliver Binturong
Our sweet princess, Tia Tiger
A laid-back and endearing guy, Archer Binturong
The superhero of binturongs, Lobo
The social butterfly, Taz Caracal
And, though she was not an official resident of the Conservators Center, the indomitable maternal presence of our sweet Mama Dog
Goodbye, sweet friends.