Ollie the Owl did not like having her sleep interrupted. The rooster knew that, too. But every morning the rooster would sound his alarm just before Ollie dozed off. With a belly full of mice, all Ollie wanted to do was sleep. So when she heard the rooster clearing his throat that morning, she unleashed a torrent of hoots and clicks, cursing the flight-challenged bird into oblivion. The rooster refused to remain quiet in the face of such an affront and fired back a series of well-placed clucks before running for cover under his plastic igloo. This was my introduction to life at the Mission Animal Rescue.
Our little family moved to this exotic wildlife sanctuary shortly after a seven-foot long, three hundred fifty-pound alligator bit my wife. Naturally, the shock of having half a hand pinned between two crushing jaws caused her to reconsider her line of work. And despite being a tall, attractive gator wrestler, tips just weren’t what they used to be. When the opportunity to run the Mission arose, Sandy jumped on it and held it by the jaws. Her dream had come true.
I thought it would become our saving grace. I had spent the previous year battling her depression and a barrage of belittlement. Sandy doled out punishment like a power-hungry traffic cop. I suffered her berates, her spontaneous absences in the middle of the night, her arctic shoulder, and her condescension. None of my beatings brought us closer together, though I took them silently, clinging to the hope that one day I’d remit my penance. Our two children hung in the balance, and I desperately wanted us to stay together while she desperately wanted out.
Frantically, I suggested moving into the Mission together. It was actually more of an annoying persistence than a suggestion, but I thought it would raise her spirits and restore what had fallen apart between us.
South Florida hid the Mission Animal Rescue by the hem of its long skirt, just east of Everglades National Park. It needed work, but it was beautiful. Subtropical trees welcomed you, lining an asphalt path that pulled you inside. The Florida sun beamed through green canopy, creating patches of dancing light on the narrow road and inhabitants. To the right and left of this road, enclosures contained all sorts of animals: macaws, ostriches, monkeys, snakes, alligators, horses, a camel, bears, wolves, and many more. Over two hundred animals cooed, screeched, and roared at the Mission. But it wasn’t the lush greenery, tropical birds, reptiles, and weather that captured everyone's attention, including my own; it was the tiger.
Bemel was a massive Siberian-Bengal mix. On all fours, his boulder-sized head floated near an average-sized man’s chest. On his hind legs, Bemel towered almost four feet above me. There was no doubt in my mind that a swipe of one of his baseball-glove-sized paws could disembowel me. Yet, he would approach the chain-link fence and, with a pseudo-purr called chuffing, beckon visitors to scratch his head. It was hard not to fall in love.
I met Bemel a few years prior to moving to the Mission, on a visit. I remember throwing caution to the wind when I slipped my fingers through the fence to pet his rough coat. He leaned into it like a domestic cat relishing a scratch, nearly crushing my twisted digits. I pulled back my throbbing fingers and admired his mesmerizing form. Bemel was a killing machine, but his eyes exuded penetrating, indescribable peace. It felt good to be close to him.
Our home was located in the midst of the ten-acre property, half-hidden from view by the primate enclosures. It was a tiny, two-room habitation. One room served as a bedroom/living room and the other as a kitchen/dining room. It had a bathroom and a couple of decent-sized closets, just big enough to fit our few belongings. Jeremiah and Salem slept on a twin bed set up in the bedroom/living room.
Someone had died in that house—or so we were told. It had been the first house built on the property. An older man and his manic wife lived there for five years before the woman committed suicide. She placed their then-one-year-old daughter on a high-backed recliner and turned the gas stove on high. The blast that ensued after she lit the match knocked the recliner forward, safely covering the child beneath it. The roof partially collapsed around her, but the chair protected her fragile being. The man found his wife’s body just a few feet from where their child lay crying.
Later that year, Will, the owner of the Mission, bought the house and property from the widow who ached to be rid of it. Will rebuilt what came to be known as the House, but eventually designed and moved into a new home for himself and his aging wife closer to the main road, at the western edge of the Mission property-line.
Sandy moved into the House ready to offer her sweat and blood to this wildlife sanctuary. Suddenly being given the opportunity to run every aspect of the park and rescue center after having volunteered there since the age of fifteen became an emotionally overwhelming opportunity. The Mission had fallen into disrepair in the previous years and her heart longed to give it the T.L.C. it begged for. She was also anxious to prove her worth to those who claimed she wasn’t prepared for the job.
Like a rabbit released in a field of tall grass, Sandy took off, and I yearned for the nights when she’d return. She didn’t treat me like I didn’t exist; I was more like the tree in the front yard that catches the tenants' attention when they first move in, but suddenly vanishes into the periphery, only recognized when it's in the way. Sandy was free in the lush, green grass, where she was born to be.
I rarely saw Sandy. The little free time she had belonged to Jeremiah and Salem, whom deserved it. But I believed that moving to the Mission would restore our relationship. In reality, I saw construction where there was ruin; I smelled health where there was sickness. Nevertheless, the park prospered under her care as she and it became one.