by Martine Colette
There was sure a lot they didn’t tell me about the animal business! It was a major learning process. I had to very quickly become a welder, carpenter, plumber, electrician, butcher and fund-raiser and I’ve certainly learned something about roofs.
During a major windstorm several years ago, 12-foot sheets of metal were taking off like parasails. We were afraid someone would get decapitated! Fortunately, our construction skills have improved over the years.
Originally, there was only the house where I lived and a small block house for a staff of about four people. I did all the cooking in my kitchen and we ate ranch style. Everybody did everything. Of course, we were always short of money for materials.
An occasional six-pack helped induce a local junkyard to save the best stuff for us-chain-link and pipe, etc. I get such a good feeling now when I purchase brand-new building materials, but memories of those old junkyard days persist. The Wildlife Waystation seemed to have a life of it’s own and everything just sort of evolved. I brought with me approximately fifty animals and within a few weeks, I received another twenty-seven that had been left with me when an animal trainer died. We soon began to get in injured or orphaned native wildlife. We all took care of the baby animals that came in and began our rehabbing program. Word of mouth about our work spread through local animal shelters and veterinarians, and we just continued to grow.
This anniversary brought back a lot of memories. One of the high points came only recently when we took down nearly the last of the original caging and replaced it with brand new enclosures. But those old enclosures certainly should not be disparaged, since they did hold up for 20 years! And I especially remember the barren landscape of 20 years ago where we now have 20-year-old trees. We started out with all our records on 3×5″ cards, but we’ve been in the computer age for some time now.
In 1978, Paramount Pictures shot “WHITE DOG” here and the location deal included the building of some permanent structures. This was a major step in our growth when Paramount brought electricity across the creek and left us with the arena, some small structures in Western Town and on Chimp Hill, and built our current office and health center.
Lots Of Firsts. Another milestone was our first full-time staff veterinarian. Silvio Santinelli joined us in 1986. He’s still here but we’ve now reached the point where we need two full time vets and Silvio has been joined by veterinarian Rebecca Yates. We have in the past had other staff vets, used several outside vets and were a contributor to an internship program through the West Los Angeles Veterinary Medical Group.
Some other “firsts” which made lasting impressions on me: Sheena was the first mountain lion brought to us–she arrived in 1977. Sadly, she passed away recently at the age of 20. Our first tractor was a borrowed 1932 something-or-other; the first fund-raiser was a barbecue attended by 400 people; our first water-truck, a white and orange job dubbed the “Orange Crush”, due to the many crushes it’s poor body had sustained. The first vehicle we purchased was a 1956 flat-bed Chevy truck with no doors. Well, maybe not that much has changed!
One of the major disasters to strike the Wildlife Waystation was the flood of 1978. We lost our water supply, power, sheds, lumber piles and supplies. Even large oak trees were pulled up by the roots. Our little creek became a raging torrent, four or five feet deep, and we had no bridge. To get food and supplies to the animals on the other side, we had to string a rope to keep from getting swept away and carry everything across.
With a 1/2-mile section of Little Tujunga Canyon Road wiped out, we were marooned for six weeks. We had no trash pickup and food was brought in by helicopter. One sick little coyote even had to be choppered out to a vet.
Without a doubt, the most devastating blow of my life was the disastrous distemper epidemic which first struck in June, 1992. An alarming number of raccoons and skunks had been coming to us that spring already infected with canine distemper. The first we knew we had something scary in our midst was when M’toto, an 18-month-old African lion, began to show signs of illness resembling distemper. Symptoms quickly appeared in other large exotic felines.
We sought expert advice from UC Davis and Cornell University veterinary schools. It was a mystery. Canine distemper had crossed over to infect the felines and we had the dubious distinction of being the first to experience the deadly effects. (NOTE: Some two years later, this same distemper crossover began to appear in the wild lion populations of Africa.)
The Wildlife Waystation was closed to the public for nearly a year. By the time the epidemic ended, 18 of our beautiful big cats succumbed, including Reesha, the Siberian tiger, who had been sent to us from a dentist in Pennsylvania some twelve years earlier. Reesha was only four months old when he arrived here and was raised in my yard. It’s still hard to talk about this dark period. M’Toto, the first to show the symptoms, survived and with special medication to control the lasting symptoms, is living a comfortable life.
Over these 20 years, I have been involved in many rescues, but by far the biggest and most difficult one was in 1995, when authorities requested our aid at a ramshackle Idaho game farm where 19 escaped lions had been destroyed and 27 remaining lions and ligers needed help. We brought all these animals back to the Wildlife Waystation.
From a population of about fifty animals in 1976, we have grown to an internationally-known facility now housing over 400 permanent residents, with another more than 4,600 passing through each year. More than 75,000 animals have passed through these gates in the past 22 years from all corners of the world. And the future seems to indicate a continual need for even greater growth, with the new chimpanzee compound and expansion into Arizona with the proposed Wilderness Edge project.
There have been wonderful times, difficult times, heartwarming times and tragic times. But I feel so lucky the Wildlife Waystation has been my life’s work. And it certainly hasn’t been dull.