Sunday, April 27, 2008

Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary

Spring for a change, from a visit today to the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary, near Rosseau, with Audrey Tournay. You don't necessarily plan on these things. Life happens when you're thinking of other things, an echo from John Lennon. Audrey was a schoolteacher in St Catherines when in the mid '60's someone gave her two orphaned skunks. "They're almost as nice as beavers, and funny too." Now it's 400 skunks later, and only skunked 8 times. It took a few more years and buying an abandoned farm to set her on her way. A vet from Parry Sound kept dropping over with various adorable wild animals he'd doctored, but not yet strong enough or old enough to get back to the wild. No one, Audrey found, not the government nor any other agency would care for them. So she wound up doing the job herself on her 800 acre farm. All sorts of animals, mostly local, some exotic like a lion she has now from BC, that grew too big for a pet. Animals with hard luck stories, the majority not injured like you might expect, but young and orphaned, parents killed by cars, but mostly by hunters. Bears for instance, about 90 today in a woodland pen, black and brown, really the same species, even born together in the same litter, are common guests. At about 18 months they go back to the wild. Documentary film crews have showed up for the emotional moment. Deer, wolves still, though with so few now, they're mating with coyotes who've moved north, even with dogs. Audrey's is part coyote, as it happens. Like her other friends, from around 200 in the spring to a thousand by fall, her dog found her too. And just about any other wild animal in these parts, from raccoons, to deer and owls. Audrey never turns a wild animal away.

Beavers are Audrey's favorites. Any current resident would make himself at home in your lap, and do in hers when pint-sized, feeding and nuzzling. Since they're to return to the wild, close human contact is kept to a minimum. They're as wonderful as Grey Owl says they are, the one who used to be a trapper and lived around Parry Sound. His cabin was loaded with them, very sociable and unstoppable. Can't sit still for a minute unless they're sleeping in your bed. If you're a cottager, they could wind up gnawing your furniture. See the Aspen Valley website on how to deal with furry and feathered visitors, in a kindly way. There's a downloadable pdf, Living with Wildlife. Animals should be respected and protected. With a little understanding, they'll mind their own business, even bears.

Deer are still a delightful sight, prancing across roads and highways, so always be prepared to stop in cottage country. At Aspen Valley, unlike many zoos, they're happy here. For one thing, they're in the country, and penned in very large woodland enclosures, and that only for a time, so they can go back into the wild when they're big and strong enough. The Sanctuary is open to the public from Victoria Day through Canadian Thanksgiving, admission by donation. It's a great outing for kids and not a commercial venture. Bring a picnic lunch and roam around. Visit some animal friends. It's amazing to be able to get close to them. Over the years, as more wild animals have descended, still with no other place to go, Audrey's had to expand. Fortunately through donations and sponsors, but still no money from the government, she's been able to hire a small staff and enlist some volunteers. They're an enthusiastic lot, usually a half-dozen students from Germany, Switzerland and England, some returning year after year. It's the enchantment of the wild and wide open spaces and of course the animals. If you're a cottager, staying for the summer, check out the Sanctuary's nature study courses for your kids. Drop in and see Audrey, a great and gracious lady. She's an artist and storyteller too, inspired by her bears and beavers.