Help for animals and hope for humanity

Michael Johansen
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Naturally, this being winter, all 22 bears are asleep. So are the raccoons, the two skunks and the one Eurasian lynx, except the lynx is not hibernating; it's only snoozing between meals.
The five wolves are very much awake - as is the blind squirrel, the deer, a great horned owl, two coyotes and a 600-pound African lion.
That's a typical roster for Ontario's Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, although temporarily missing are populations of moose and beaver. The pond - where for more than 30 years teacher and writer Audrey Tournay has defied scientific opinion by successfully raising orphaned beaver kits and releasing them back into the wild - is now empty.
That probably won't last long, Tournay says. The sanctuary has never lacked for a steady supply of ill, injured and distressed wildlife. Most of them, including at this time 20 of the bears and both coyotes, arrive young, but some only find the sanctuary after enduring years of mistreatment.
The first kind, the "rehabs," is the reason the sanctuary exists. Tournay's goal from the beginning - when she was simply a woman with a small farm in the woods who took it upon herself to keep endangered animals alive - was not only to rescue them, but to return them to nature where they belong. Today, that's the plan for the coyotes, most of the bears and raccoons, and four of the deer.
The rehab animals are given as little exposure to humans as possible. Usually, they are not even named, although there have been exceptions. The others, the ones that must spend the rest of their lives at the sanctuary, are treated differently. They all have names because they all have stories.
Banshee the Eurasian lynx had been a star of television commercials when she was a kitten, appearing in well-known ads for a big telecommunications company. But when she stopped being cute, her acting career ended. So, almost, did her life, since if the sanctuary had not taken her she would have been euthanized. She can never be returned to the wild because she's on the wrong continent.
Lucky, a four-year-old white-tailed deer, was kept as a pet until she grew far too large to live with the family. By then, however, she was far too socialized to live in the forest. She comes when she's called and will even approach strangers without prompting, not only permitting them to pet her like a dog, but seeming to welcome it and enjoy it. She wouldn't stand a chance in the wild.
Subira the African lion was also supposed to have been a pet. She'd been bought for $30 in a Vancouver market when she was only a few months old and raised in a family home until she stopped being cute and cuddly and became deadly and dangerous. Since Subira obviously isn't on her own continent either, the sanctuary is now her permanent home.
The wolves had not been kept as pets - just kept. Most of them, such as the two shy Arctic wolves that had spent most of their lives on display in a roadside zoo, had merely been confined and neglected. One, however, a large and beautiful - but now submissive - white wolf named Luna, had not just been kept, but had also been terribly abused by her keeper.
The most tragic story among the current residents belongs to a black bear called Mama. Along with her now dead mate, Mama had been held captive in a hunting camp for seven years. Their captors had smashed their teeth in and ripped out their claws so they couldn't hurt the hunters' dogs.
The hunters used the bears as bait to train their dogs to attack them. A police officer eventually rescued Mama and her mate Papa and smuggled them to their current home in Ontario.
The horrific stories of abuse heard at the sanctuary reveal some of the worst stupidities and depravities humans are capable of committing. Fortunately, most of these stories have happy endings, thanks to Audrey Tournay and the staff of the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.
Through the care they give, they show humans are also capable of achieving unbounded, unselfish good.

Michael Johansen has gone into travel mode. For the next few months, he'll be writing from everywhere between Labrador and Vancouver Island.

Organizations: Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary

Geographic location: Ontario, Vancouver Island, Arctic Labrador

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