Stephanie Campbell is used to working with seemingly playful animals that can turn surly or dangerous with little or no warning.
As a bartender at Duffy’s Tavern, the pixie-ish young woman applies equal amounts of compassion and authority to quell any nonsense from customers whose liquored-up exuberance exceeds the boundaries of acceptable behavior, and as a volunteer at the Barry R. Kirshner Wildlife Foundation she employs a similar skill set to observe and tend to the needs of the animals that the foundation maintains under its stewardship.
Campbell has been a volunteer at the foundation for about two years, and her enjoyment of her unpaid work and commitment to the mission of the foundation was evident in the enthusiasm she brought to greeting a group of 20 sixth-grade students who recently had come to tour the facilities.
Her introductory lecture concluded with having the students repeat a pledge to respect and protect all the myriad life forms that inhabit the Earth, and then she turned the group over to another volunteer guide to make the rounds of the enclosures that house the foundation’s collection of exotic and endangered animals.
Many of the animals, 72 percent for the record, are “special-needs” individuals who had been rejected from other situations for not meeting the quality standards of breeders who raise them for the exotic-pet or zoo trade. But, as foundation President Roberta Kirshner put it, “They are still perfectly capable of serving as ambassadors for their species.”
As our tour progressed, I became enamored of the metaphor of the foundation serving as a sort of diplomatic inter-species meeting place, a literal common ground set in the rich orchard country at the edge of Durham to be shared by anyone who cares to come and interact on a face-to-face basis with some of the more exotic coinhabitants that share the biosphere.
Viewed in such a manner, the foundation becomes a laudable manifestation of the ecologically ethical notion that we human interlopers can afford to spare some compassion for the animals that have been displaced or endangered by our ever expanding civilization.
But one can’t maintain the metaphor for very long without noting the flip side: These large and potentially dangerous animals have accepted a world hemmed in by hurricane fencing and human training that often contradicts everything we have been taught to think of as their insurmountable, instinctive animal nature.
The animals, in other words, seem to accept and even reciprocate the affection demonstrated by their human keepers.
For instance, Adonis, the 9-year-old, 620-pound Bengal tiger, seemed to be purring at idling-diesel volume as he rubbed his huge head against the cage wire in a pleased-as-punch gesture any cat owner would recognize as Campbell filled his water dish—actually a 10-gallon soup cauldron. Campbell assured us that the big cats are incapable of genuine purring and instead express pleasure by “chuffing"—a deep, percussive, growl-like vocalization that was later demonstrated by Nyla, a Sumatran tiger who, in her cub-hood, was the model for the “Put a tiger in your tank” gasoline ads.
Even the tiny bat-eared North African fennec foxes, Mulder and Scully, seemed genuinely appreciative of a cuddling session with a visiting reporter and photographer when Campbell, after checking with Kirshner, allowed us to enter their cage.
Observing the easy-going rapport that Kirshner maintains with her all-volunteer cadre of workers, I couldn’t help asking how she so successfully recruits and maintains such a dedicated, unpaid staff. Her reply was that volunteers come from all walks of life, from bartenders to students to Highway Patrol officers, the only common criterion being that they all have a genuine love and respect for the animals. Beyond that the level of interaction has to do with time and training.
All of the volunteers are trained in how to care for and interact with the animals. The big cats are given much personal attention and affection on a daily basis but even so must be watched very carefully because, as trainer-volunteer Dave Vickers put it, “All of their play behavior is about practicing predatory skills.” And without very strictly enforced boundaries of behavior, play can go from fun to dangerous very quickly. It’s a tribute to the skill and dedication of the foundation’s trainers that there has not been a serious animal-inflicted injury in its 10-year history.
Being dependent on donations to maintain the facilities and feed the animals, the nonprofit foundation is continually engaged in outreach programs, such as taking smaller animals to visit schools or offering tours to groups and individuals by appointment. This writer advocates going for a visit.