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Answering The Call Of The Wild

Rusty Pray

LAURI CARON AND THE VOLUNTEERS AT OCTAGON WILDLIFE SANCTUARY SPEND THEIR DAYS LOVING AND CARING FOR ANIMALS THAT HAVE BEEN ABUSED AND NEGLECTED IN CAPTIVITY.

It didn’t just suddenly dawn on Lauri Caron.

It took a good eight, 10 years of doing it every day for her to come to the realization that Octagon Wildlife Sanctuary was her life’s calling.

She had always loved animals first – unless you count her crush on Johnny Cash. And she’d always intended to work with them. But becoming the heart and soul of a haven for abused and neglected wild animals? That wasn’t the hand she thought she would be dealt.

Back in her native Illinois, “I wanted to start my own dog and cat rescue.” But when she went to work, the people at those places told her she “cared too much. They told me, ‘This isn’t for you.’ I was blown away by that.”

One day, she was playing volleyball. The guys told her they knew of a place in Southwest Florida that would be perfectly suited to her intensity.

“I moved down here in 1992,” she recalled. “It took me about three weeks to find the sanctuary. I never looked back.”

At the sanctuary, a 10-acre compound off State Road 31 in southeastern Charlotte County, she also found Pete Caron. The sanctuary’s founder wore a wide-brimmed black hat and a necklace made from a tiger's tooth. People called him Florida's version of Crocodile Dundee.

The difference was, he would tell them, he was real.

"I walked through the front gate and I met Pete and his mother, Mildred, and I fell in love with the place," Lauri recalled in an article published in 2005.

She also fell in love with the guy in charge. The two were married for three years before Pete died at 66 in 2005 after a series of illnesses.

“Something like that happens, you get a reality check,” she said. “You find out how much you really didn’t know and how little you were prepared for. When Pete passed, it was, ‘Now you have to put everything you learned into practice, and it has to work.’

“I never expected to be involved like I am now. Going back, I’ve been here every day, sometimes at 3 a.m. to unload a semi of meat.”

Octagon is home to some 150 animals, including 14 tigers, seven bears, three lions, four hyenas and a gator named One-eyed Jack. Jack, of course, is missing an eye.

Some of the animals were injured in the wild. Others are abandoned exotic pets, or are retired after careers in circuses or movies. Others were seized from owners who beat or neglected them.

It costs more than $8,000 a month to run Octagon, including $3,500 for raw meat alone. It is a nonprofit entirely funded through donations and fundraisers. It has loyal sponsors such as the Harry Chapin Food Bank for meat and Target for this and that. It leases the land it calls home for $1 a year. Lauri is not paid.

It is not a zoo. In a director’s message posted on Octagon’s website, Caron explains:

“Though we rescue zoo-type animals, these are ones that are 17- to 20-year generations of being born, raised, and sold in captivity to be a ‘pet’ or be used in a business. None of the animals have been taken out of the wild. Zoos will not care for these animals due to their physical and/or mental conditions.”

Welcome to Lauri’s world.

It’s one she shares with about 40 volunteers, including veterinarians, who help feed and care for the animals, including daily cleaning of their enclosures.

“We don’t get paid. We love animals,” said Ron Ramsey, who has been volunteering at Octagon for 16 years. “Lauri picks up stuff from Target twice a week, Harry Chapin brings us meat, Winn Dixie gives us stuff. The animals on meds get meds seven days a week.”

Jackie Krohn, a Punta Gorda Isles resident, has been volunteering at Octagon since 2006, and she knows the place inside out.

“We don’t have a lot of young animals anymore,” Krohn said as she prepared to lead a tour. “Once they come here, they stay here. It’s the wildest retirement home in Charlotte County.”

Before starting the tour, she chatted for a few minutes with Kathy Kresge. Kresge and her husband, Rich, live in Punta Gorda Isles. They own a string of high-end animal boarding resorts called All American Pet Resort. They are not on the Octagon board, but they come frequently. They bring their friends. They’ve sponsored a fundraiser.

“We’ve been to Africa several times,” Kresge said. “We’ve always had a fascination for exotic animals. Because we’ve seen them in the wild, we appreciate them and we want to do things to conserve them.

“These animals are not here because they want to be here. We have put them here by bad things we have done. We want to support anybody who wants to support these animals so they can have a comfortable life. We just love the animals.”

Krohn opened a perimeter gate and walked up to an enclosure. It housed Zulu, an 8-year-old male lion and a battle-scarred veteran of domestic abuse. His owner wanted to stunt Zulu’s growth, so he kept him in a large dog carrier.

Zulu didn’t have any room to turn around, and because of that, the fur won’t grow on parts of Zulu’s face and nose. He was fed canned dog food. Octagon got him when he was five months old.

He got up from his spot in the shade and limped over to Krohn. Neither the volunteers nor the public is permitted to interact with the animals. But over time the animals get to know the volunteers – and vice versa – and a bond is formed.

“All the animals recognize the volunteers,” she said. “The person they really recognize is Lauri.”

Zulu rubbed the cage where she was standing

“They wanted to keep him – this is so bizarre – small, so they put him in a dog crate,” she said.

Every animal at Octagon has a story, Krohn knows them all.

“You can see all the fur is rubbed off his nose and his cheeks, and that’s because he was outgrowing the dog crate,” she continued. “He’s got hip problems and bone problems. That is obviously because he was kept in a crate.”

Without being asked, she launched into an anecdote about Zulu: “I was cleaning his enclosure one day. And I was talking to one of the other volunteers. Next thing I know, he was up against the fence with his tail up. My mouth was open. You know the rest.”

A story like that could come only from someone deeply in love with animals.

“He’s a sweetheart,” Krohn declared.

If you say so.

Then she turned to the limping lion.

“Lay down, honey, lay down.

“He’s having a hard time today.”

Across the way, Valerie Wolfry was cleaning Bella’s enclosure. Bella is a tiger, a Bengal-Siberian mix born in 2013. Wolfry, a resident of Arcadia, had been volunteering for about six months. She’s a wildlife rehabber at the Peace River Wildlife Center in Punta Gorda, a nonprofit that rescues smaller animals. She’s also a veterinary technician.

She cleans enclosures twice a week. She and Bella know each other, of course.

“She adores swimming in her pool while I’m filling it,” Wolfry said of her charge.

Taking care of big cats and bears and other exotic animals may seem like a cool thing to do. The animals are damaged and will never leave Octagon. They’ve been mistreated in oh, so many ways by people, so this would seem a good way to give back.

“It takes a commitment,” Krohn said. “It takes training. Everybody thinks, ‘Oh, man, that would be so sweet. Let’s go down and play with the animals.’ That’s just not the case. It’s really hard work. There’s nothing glamorous by any stretch.”

“It is hard work,” Wolfry said, “but it puts you with the animals. They get to know you and they interact with you. All of the volunteers play an important role in, ‘Are they acting normally today? Was their urine and poop normal? Do they act like they’re not feeling good?’ All these things you can notice. The volunteers, because we’re out here every day with them, every one of us is valuable that way.”

Wolfry came to Octagon after quitting her job as a vet tech.

“All of my time was devoted to my job and Peace River Wildlife,” she said. “Now, I quit the technician job because wildlife rehab is my passion. I went almost full time at Peace River. But I only work four days a week, so it freed up a couple days to come out here.

“I’m good friends with Laurie, and I totally believe in this place. This isn’t a sanctuary like in Tampa, where they purchase animals to put in these beautiful habitats for people to look at. Every one of these animals came here because of a story or an issue.”

Take Kali, for instance. Kali is a female black bear about 16 years old. She was confiscated by the USDA. She had traveled the country with another black bear, Sierra, in the back of a box truck without air or fresh water.

“They were in a roadside zoo,” Krohn explained. “They were fed a cup of dry popcorn and dog food a day, So, when they came to us, oh, my God, it took us months. They were full of fleas and mites and feces. Not well taken care of at all. It took us months to clean them up, months.”

Sierra has since passed.

Laverne, Shirley and Squiggy are bears who were used in commercials.

“And when they wouldn’t perform,” Krohn said, “they’d beat them with pipes. So they beat them into submission to get them to do what they wanted them to do.

“That’s the problem with using animals for business. If they’re not food-driven and you can’t get them to do what you want them to do with food, then you beat the crap out of them.”

Another story that makes observers question human motivation is Jake’s. Jake is a female hyena, born in 2000. She was named Jake by her original owner because he thought she was a male. By way of explanation, female hyenas have their reproductive system on the outside of their bodies.

“Hi, Jake,” Krohn greeted the resident. “Jake has been with us about five years. Hi, honey. She was bought by a guy in Miami Beach who kept her in a ninthfloor apartment, along with a sloth. When he went to feed her, she broke his arm. They have 800 pounds of jaw pressure.”

Octagon’s website features of video of “that guy” coming to visit Jake upon the occasion of her fourth birthday.

He seems like a nice young man. He seems glad to see the animal he unwittingly made sure would be caged for life. The animal is beside herself when she sees him. She vocalizes. She rolls on her back. She crawls to him.

It is a joyous reunion, if not a joyous occasion. She’s a long way from him now. She’s in capable hands now.

“We’re here to make a safe place for the animals,” Caron said. “They may not be out in the wild, but, first and foremost, they’re safe.”

Caron has dreams for Octagon. She’d like to see it expand, take in even more misused animals. But there are no firm plans.

What Octagon can do right now is “teach our kids. We want to educate our visitors so they better understand our residents. Each animal has its own intelligence, its own uniqueness, its own purpose. These are beautiful beings who deserve our respect.”

According to the 78-year-old Ramsey, Octagon’s animals are given a special kind of respect.

“These are animals that have been neglected or not taken care of properly – or people just don’t want them anymore – so they end up coming here, Nothing is ever mistreated here.

“The animals here? They die of old age.”

Caron is also here for life. When she met Pete, she met more than her future husband, she met her mission in life.

Who knew?

“I’ll retire when I’m six feet under,” she chuckled. “I’m 50. My body tells me I’m 70. But I love it. I still love it.”

“It’s all about the animals,” Kresge observed. “And Lauri, the work she does here. She’s the heart and soul. Her heart beats for these animals.”

And theirs beat for her.

Read the full article at http://trendmag2.trendoffset.com/article/Answering+The+Call+Of+The+Wild/2834566/424397/article.html.

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