Who Tells Your Story?

Why I Write Nonfiction About Animals

Hamilton poster

I just saw Hamilton (and it really is all that)! One of its themes is “who tells the story”—who gets to write history and determine others’ legacies. At the end, long after Hamilton has died, the cast sings a song about this, leaving the audience kind of undone, unable to get up and leave the theater.

In case you don’t listen to it (but you should!), George Washington opens with:

Let me tell you what I wish I’d known/
when I was young and dreamed of glory/
you have no control/
who lives, who dies, who tells your story.

I’m painfully aware of the “no control who lives, who dies” part, but the song helped me name the fire in my belly. It’s the need to tell the stories of vulnerable and threatened animals, the creatures without voices. (“Will they tell your story?” Eliza sings to Alexander after he’s gone.)

In college, I wanted to be a journalist, but soon learned I wasn’t exactly a crackerjack investigative reporter. I never could have imagined that, decades later, my favorite project would involve listening to those who don’t actually use human language.

I’ve learned the stories of so many cats, dogs, wombats, koalas, kangaroos, bats, wallabies, and wallaroos. If I have my way this year, I’ll take in more stories from seals, sea lions, anteaters, and kinkajous. These stories are all nonfiction, but may have elements of comedies, melodramas, farces, parables, mysteries, or tearjerkers. Like all good stories, they have characters you invest in, strong narrative arcs, unique voices, and intriguing settings and details. And, sometimes, on a good day…a happy ending.


The Road to Release

I wrote this before Hurricane Earl had its way with Caves Branch. I’ll write more about that experience soon, but first I want to catch up on my account of this trip.

After almost 10 weeks at Tamandua Refuge, Abe (pronounced “Abby”), the resident young tamandua who had been attacked by dogs, is almost ready for release. (Tamanduas are a genus of anteaters; Abe is a Northern Tamanudua.)

Abe had a pin put in to fix her paw.

Ella monitors her behavior with great patience and attention to detail. Abe is currently in the large indoor enclosure; she will skip the final outdoor enclosure and go right to the wild, because she already possesses the requisite wild instinct.

Abe’s surgery, photo by Maritza Navarro

Abe before she was transferred to the current enclosure, munching her termite nest.

Ella holding Abe, photo by Maritza Navarro


This current enclosure is like a tamandua jungle gym: ropes and branches on which she can climb, hang upside down, and twist, reach, and contort herself as she likes, especially for food.

Abe’s current enclosure, the “jungle gym.” Safe climbing opportunities abound.

This morning I observed her eating her breakfast of avocado and termites from the mound (she was also offered a seedy bright magenta fruit called pitaya, but she only destroyed it with her giant claws, as if to say, “I don’t even want to look at this”). She nibbled the avocado and got it all over the tip of her long nose as she made lip-smacking, snuffle-like sounds. Then she moved on and leaned into the termite mound, which is presented in a plastic bin. She flicked her long, thin tongue into the termite nest, which looks like a hard, rocky sponge but is actually made of termite spit and poop.

These are the termites we gathered from the citrus grove the morning after I arrived. Fortunately they’re to Abe’s liking (she’s picky; they all are).

Abe was all worked up in the enclosure for awhile, possibly trying to engage Ella in play. She also up-ended her water bowl and eventually went back into her “bin” to methodically clean herself and have another long snooze. Tamanduas will literally climb the walls (and doors). They’ll find or make a tiny hole and make a break for it. The climbing instinct, and the eventual call of the wild, is that strong. She’s not only ready to bloom, she’s ready to bust out. So Ella has to balance caring for her with dehabituating her to human contact (Abe knows Ella’s smell but no one else’s, so I was a distraction and kept a safe distance).

This “jungle bin” is meant to replicate the choices she will have in the wild, including fermented fruit.

Previous gobbling.


After our human breakfast (no avocado for us), Ella and I walked in the botanical garden that Ella manages with a staff of six (so far I have met Marvin, David, Don Luis, and Junior).

The garden is a marvel. Ella is a botanist and has the largest botanical collection in Belize, including a species she discovered.

Each specimen is painstakingly marked with a color-coded ribbon or metal tags indicating if they are in bloom, about to bloom, need to be send to another botanic collection site, need to be photographed and recorded, or have been collected on an expedition.

This garden map shows the same care and precision that guides Ella’s tamandua rehabilitation work.

The garden staff examine the specimens every day. Soon after this photo was taken, Ella pointed out to David one specimen about to bloom and said, “It will be spectacular.”

Tonight the staff has secured all of the fragile specimens in anticipation of the hurricane headed our way (the rest of the lodge is also prepared, of course). Abe doesn’t seem to notice, though she did eat an especially large breakfast. Ella theorizes that she was filling her belly before the storm, as she would do in the wild.

Shelter From the Storm in Belize

my shelter

Here I am on Jungle Planet to experience the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of anteaters (known as tamanduas in these parts)! The drama of a long delay in Miami was heightened by the news that Tropical Storm Earl is heading straight for Belize. Time will tell—it’s pouring at the moment. So far, Belize feels part Caribbean and part Central American.

The lovely tamandua rescuer and rehabilitator Ella Baron picked me up in her truck at the small airport in Belize City. Turns out I got luckier than I’d felt in Miami and mine was the last flight in. Ella drove us the 1.5 hours (we gabbed gabbed gabbed the whole way) to Caves Branch Jungle Lodge, my home for the next week, and the site of Tamandua Refuge, Ella’s rescue endeavor. My cabin is “rainforest glamping” style and I woke up to this trippy green panorama:


The next morning began with an amazing breakfast, which included two new tastes: breadfruit and mammy fruit. Breadfruit tastes a little like yucca or cassava:


The first order of wildlife-rescue business was a short drive to hunt and gather termite nests for the tamandua’s meals. More on that later—that adventure truly deserves its own post. A teaser: it involved machetes!

After lunch, as the resident tamandua snoozed, Ella gave me a detailed stage-by-stage tour of the seven enclosures in which they stay during their rehabilitation process. Each is designed to meet their individual needs—their size, whether or not they are injured, if they can climb (and if so, how high), and so on. Here are just a few of them. They are each custom-made or adjusted for each animal, which requires Ella’s and her staff’s constant ingenuity and improvisation.

dog carrier

A large dog carrier with a safe climbing area. That figure on the left side of the top shelf is a stuffed tamandua, obvs. The babies actually like to cling to these stuffed animals and squeeze them repeatedly with their paws/claws, sometimes two at a time. Sort of like a cat “kneading.” They also do this to Ella’s hands!


This plexiglass area is for when the tamandua is ready for a little more movement and climbing.

This plexiglass area is for when the tamandua is ready for a little more movement and open space. The logs and branches are kept low for the safest climbing opportunities.

This "jungle gym" is for when the tamandua is nearly ready for the final outdoor enclosure. Safe climbing opportunities abound.

This “jungle gym” is for when the tamandua are nearly ready for the final outdoor enclosure. Safe climbing opportunities abound. Abe (pronounced “Abby”), the female tamandua that is now sleeping in here, will hopefully be released several hours away in the next few weeks, most likely by the usual team: Ella, Don Luis, and Junior.

This is as close to the actual jungle as it gets for about-to-be-wild tamandua.

This is as close to the actual jungle as it gets for about-to-be-wild tamandua. The darkness simulates the rainforest canopy and the trees and plants are all the same as their release sites. It’s more fabulous than this photo shows.

Pinky Protection


[Photo credit: Wildlife Victoria]

Wombat joeys are called pinkies, for obvious reasons. Recently, this little guy was found in his mum’s pouch after a road accident. Soon after, the good people of Wildlife Victoria stepped in to do right by him. He’ll be bottle-fed hourly, massaged with mineral oil, and kept in a warm cloth pouch. My fantasy: this photo is a book cover and I am the editor of the book. I get to choose the title and subtitle:

  • Wombat Dreams: Australian Habitat Conservation and Wildlife Protection
  • In Our Hands: Holding the Promise of a Better World for Wildlife
  • The Story’s Not Written Yet: Life, Love, and Loss in Wildlife Rehabilitation
  • Life Finds a Way: The Fierce Hope of Wildlife Carers