Finding love among the jungle critters

Written by Candice Choi, CNN

Animal psychologist Tim Bishop went into a low self-consciousness trance when he met rescuers holding a dehydrated and emaciated 2-month-old snowy owl.

As they lay the bird on Bishop’s couch, he began to scratch it, weep, and say “awww” — a response he remembered is more common to children rather than adults.

“They really give away these emotions,” he said. “Just for a split second, they let us in.”

It was as though the owl had seen the humans’ compassionate warmth, to say nothing of his own, and a sense of humor.

“They don’t have to do this for us — we can’t help at all.”

He’s obviously relishing the unique encounters with wild creatures — including taxidermied takin, Mongolian dwarf sumatran rhinos and 40-year-old golden baboons. The big draw: unusual wildlife preserves.

The Ramona Desert Animal Center , north of Oroville, California, in the aftermath of a wild fire. Credit: Candice Choi

“The animals at my center… are not in cages, they are in large enclosures,” he says. “They go on outings … where their habitat is as close to their own. So the animals don’t feel like strangers.”

Animal bonds are everything to him. So it’s not surprising that when a snowy owl called Bella escaped her mother’s cage during fire last year, he quickly stepped in to keep her safe.

Bishop has done work for the California Wildlife Center (CMAC) in Oroville, where Bella lives. One of the center’s partners was Lake County’s Sierra Club, whose volunteers lost their homes in the flames. They’re now working with CMAC to restore other animals to their homes.

“The initial response was very traumatic,” said Sara Bernstein, who leads a program designed to help volunteers recover.

For those interested in adopting or working with specific animals, help is also being offered. “We’re trying to develop a continuum of care where they’re getting things in the beginning (just like humans do) to make them more comfortable.”

Volunteers giving ice breaking advice to the birds at the Willow Creek Land Trust

The Ramona Desert Animal Center, located north of Oroville, California, says it’s all about letting nature take its course. Credit: Candice Choi

There’s a point, she says, when animals become too “part of the zoo environment” and need “different supports.” That’s where the Ramona Desert Animal Center steps in.

“Tim is different — he’s not seeking to manipulate or mimic nature,” she said. “He’s really passionate about the rehabilitation of animals, and he really embraces other animals.”

The center also allows Marshall White to work. A sultry frog whisperer, he’s a mix of Betty White and Sade. When guests visit the center, the amphibian whisperer gives them an A-list tour of their favorite amphibians.

White’s seen customers brought to tears by the animals’ stories. “I’ve seen a couple come in and cry because their cat had to leave them and they could have put it down.”

Grouper sometimes swam by the boat — it was Fisherman’s Cove — but WAG’s main source of inspiration comes from its curative vision for each species. The center is currently focusing on Mexican gray owls, champion diving birds who like to practice diving at the Ramona Hills.

Although the owls are domesticated by hunters into eating ducks and geese and hawks, the bird has a healing purpose in feeding the dry cliff lakes.

A snowy owl at Ramona Desert Animal Center. The ramona desert animal center, in the aftermath of a wild fire. Credit: Candice Choi

“The owls are very powerful in terms of teaching humans how to care for land animals.”

Discoveries of leatherback turtles, manatees and even sharks are just the tip of the iceberg — the desert animal center runs a wildlife center on a network of islands.

A heat wave presents tough challenges, he admits, but he credits the center’s humans with handling all of this with grace.

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