Jen Blood here! I know I’m kicking off the holiday week, and as such should definitely have a properly festive post. I actually don’t, though. I thought about it, of course, but short of sharing my Christmas list with you or going over my New Year’s resolutions, I didn’t have a lot of ideas. HOWEVER, a couple of weeks ago I had an opportunity to do an off-season photo tour of the Maine Wildlife Park, so… It seems to me that something like that is far preferable to listening to me wax philosophic about all the reasons I will eat less chocolate and more greens in 2016. Which, let’s be honest, will most likely not prove true.
For those who don’t know about Maine Wildlife Park, it’s a reserve in Gray that houses rehabilitated wildlife who are unable for a wide assortment of reasons, to return to the wild. Zoos generally tend to depress me, but MWP doesn’t really come across as a zoo – for the most part, the enclosures are expansive, and the animals seem healthy and relatively content. And after my tour in early December, it became clear that the folks who work there truly are fully invested in making certain the residents are given everything possible to maintain a quality of life many would envy.
I meet my tour guide, Courtney, at 11 a.m. on an overcast Thursday in December. My next mystery series features Jamie Flint, a trainer of search and rescue dogs who also does wildlife rescue and rehab – this, ostensibly, is why I’ve purchased this photo pass and guided tour from Maine Wildlife Park. It just happens that I’ve also been wanting to do this for years; a happy coincidence that makes me love being a writer that much more.
Courtney and I truck over to the MWP HQ, where I happily sign a couple of forms promising not to sue if I’m maimed or murdered while on the grounds. Then, we head out.
“Where do you want to start?” Courtney wants to know. I come up empty. I’ve been to MWP exactly once in my lifetime, and it was over thirty years ago. “Deer and moose, then?” she suggests.
That seems like a sound option. Courtney – who is a very cute, knowledgeable twenty-something with dark hair and a nose ring – pilots the big old truck over ruts and rocky roads and parks beside a large fenced area in the woods. My first meeting is with Pie – a piebald fawn who came to the park in the spring.
According to Courtney, the Powers That Be have held off on returning Pie to the wild because she’s had frequent urinary tract infections, and appears to be somewhat immunocompromised, something not uncommon with piebalds. Pie is a pretty brown and white fawn tame enough to come to Courtney and me, clearly interested in what we’ve brought to eat. She’s in the process of being integrated into the herd of deer who live permanently at the park, but the process is a slow one. For now, Pie is on her own. I pet the girl, get a couple of photos, and we move on to an adjacent enclosure.
Next door, a herd of deer weave through trees when Courtney and I enter the enclosure. Several huddle together against the far fence. On the other side, I can see an amorphous white figure standing alone. Pie is watching. Courtney and I move farther in while she explains that many of the deer have been here since they were fawns. They are relatively tame by wildlife standards, but still watchful. As we move farther in, I spot a rack of antlers atop a big buck lying peacefully in the leaves.
“That’s Jay,” Courtney tells me. “He’s pretty friendly.”
I take a photo, waiting for him to get up. He doesn’t. I take another. Step a few feet closer. He watches me with what I take as slight disdain, but he doesn’t move. Since I don’t want to stress him, I decide to retreat, and Courtney and I begin to walk toward the other side of the enclosure. I’m vaguely aware that Pie is still standing at the other side of the fence, watching the other deer. Then, Jay gets up. He’s a big guy with impressive antlers and a peaceful, quiet way about him. And he’s coming straight toward us.
“Just don’t make any sudden moves,” Courtney tells me as Jay walks up to me. He gives my coat an experimental lick. Apparently, he likes what he tastes; he takes another lick. And another. Five minutes later, the left arm of my jacket is wet through. I have to move back periodically so I’m not impaled by his antlers, but otherwise the meeting is amicable. Courtney tells me the bucks don’t usually tolerate being touched or petted, but Jay doesn’t seem to know this. I experimentally set my hand on his broad neck. He eyes me for a split second before returning to my delicious coat. Ultimately, I’m the one who has to make the move to leave – there are still a lot of animals to see. I think I could happily have spent the whole afternoon with Jay, though.
As we’re leaving the enclosure, the other deer in the herd take off running along the perimeter of the fence. On the other side, a white figure runs with them. Courtney is clearly pleased.
“This means she’s starting to be interested in the herd,” she tells me. Pie does indeed appear to be interested, continuing to nose along her side of the fence while the others ignore her. Courtney tells me the fact that they’re paying her no mind is a good sign. Integration shouldn’t be hard from here.
After the deer, we visit the moose. I feed them bananas and sweet potatoes. I fall in love with George, a twelve-year-old bull moose who has an enclosure to himself. George has a white muzzle and kind eyes, and he stands patiently while I stroke his nose and hand over more bananas.
From there, we move on to the coyote enclosure. “She won’t come near,” Courtney tells me, “but we can go inside.”
I’m uncertain, but thrilled at the same time. Wolves and coyotes have long been a fascination of mine – it’s the dog lover in me, I suppose. We go into the enclosure, and Courtney shuts the door behind us. In the brush, my guide points out a coyote who gets up as soon as we set foot inside. She’s clearly nervous, so we stay put as the beautiful girl circles us a few times, never getting close. Courtney and I talk about the difficulties inherent in trying to keep this environment as stress-free as possible while simultaneously welcoming increasing numbers of wildlife fans into the park.
“Stress management is at least fifty percent of our job,” she tells me. Courtney comes from a background in true wildlife rehab, in which the goal is to have as little interaction with the injured animal as possible so it can return safely to the wild. Knowing that the wildlife here will remain captive for the rest of their lives is a whole new ballgame. “I love it here,” she tells me. “They really do incredible work, and always make the well-being of the animals the priority. But it’s been an adjustment.”
We leave the coyote enclosure and keep moving. I go inside an enclosure with two lynx kits, a brother and sister, though Courtney tells me they aren’t particularly friendly. “Just don’t turn your back on them,” she says. I think it’s a joke, but I’m not completely sure. I hope so, since they’re on opposite ends of the enclosure – not turning my back on at least one of them isn’t really an option. The female is on the ground, the male up high. When I turn my back on the female, I take a couple of steps. I turn around, and she’s moved closer. Watching me with what seem very sad eyes, all the while.
A bobcat named Bob paces around me inside the next enclosure. “Sometimes he pees on people, so watch out,” Courtney tells her. I assure her that I’m all right with being peed on by a bobcat. Mauled, no. Pee presumably comes out in the wash, though.
We leave the bobcats (without incident or accident) and move on to a gorgeous mountain lion in an enclosure alone. Courtney tells me they’re trying to find a mate for her, but mountain lions are in high demand. MWP isn’t a proponent of breeding in captivity, which means they have to wait until a mountain lion comes to them from somewhere else – perhaps a circus or other performance venue looking to retire someone, or a zoo interested in a trade. The lion purrs and turns herself inside out while we remain outside the enclosure. She butts up against the fencing like an overgrown pussycat, then “chases” Courtney up and down the hill a couple of times, Courtney on one side of the fence, mountain lion on the other.
The wild birds are our last stop. While I’ve been filled with wonder this whole afternoon, an increasing sense of sadness has crept up over the course of the day. I’m grateful for MWP and the role they play in educating the public and providing a safe haven for injured wildlife, but there’s still something unsettling about seeing animals in captivity. The birds really bring this home, as several housed here have no mates right now. They watch uneasily as I snap my photos and talk quietly with Courtney.
There are owls and hawks, turkeys and peacocks and a gorgeous bald eagle who renders me speechless. “We were using him for educational visits, but we retired him,” Courtney tells me. “He was getting too stressed out. Birds especially have a hard time with that kind of thing, and the last thing we want to do is make things harder for them.”
And that, to me, is the crux of this. In an ideal world, all of these guys would be out in the wild where they belong. But sadly, this isn’t an ideal world. And as long as animals are being struck by cars or displaced by shrinking habitats or raised for our entertainment by zoos or individuals, I’m grateful that a place like MWP exists — a place where the priority is the well-being of the animals they serve, the staff are passionate and knowledgeable about their jobs, and an emphasis on education and forward movement seems perpetually on the agenda. So, thanks to MWP and Courtney for a moving, educational day among the wilds of this great state. I definitely won’t forget it.
Jen is a freelance writer, and author of the bestselling Erin Solomon mysteries. To get your free Jen Blood Starter Library, visit www.jenblood.com. The first Jamie Flint mystery will debut in the spring of 2016.