Shorn (Somewhat Torn)

Yesterday I went to a small sheep shearing show at a farm called The Point, where an attractively weathered farmer named James gave a sheep a dramatic haircut on a long, well-hoofed wooden platform in a corrugated black tin barn.

This 6-month-old Drysdale female squirmed and fussed impressively but in the end the farmer won. The wool, which looked a little dred-locky, came decidedly off. James was insistent, quick, skillful, sure of his role (though she did get a small bloody nick which James downplayed). It was her first shear; this will happen twice a year from now on.

Here’s before, during, and after.

sheep before shearing sheep during shearing sheep after shearing

She looks kind of naked, right? I couldn’t help but think of bad haircuts I’ve had and about Samson giving Delilah his most prized possession. There was definitely something biblical about the whole act. In the Bible story, Samson had two vulnerabilities: his attraction to untrustworthy women and his hair, without which he was powerless.


Anyway, here’s James’ eventual embarrassment of wooly riches, which are not worth what they used to be (the price of wool has decreased given the new synthetic alternatives, and New Zealand’s sheep population has gone from 80 million to 30 million):

shorn wool

When James’ father-in-law ran the farm, there were 2000 sheep. Now there are 300, just enough for James to run two daily tourist shows (he and his wife also run a small B&B on the farm). We also met a black sheep (they occur one in a thousand).

This sweet Huntaway Sheepdog named Jed took his job very seriously:

Me and my buddy Jed

And here’s Ram Man, docile enough for photo ops and feeding. He had a gentle little nibble, like a nuzzle, and no slobber:


So if you’ve read this far… I don’t know enough about wool production to offer an opinion about how the sheep raised for wool are treated. My understanding is that they don’t fare well on large-scale farms where they don’t have room to move and are slaughtered once they’re “spent,” as with any big agricultural operation. I was slightly conflicted in supporting this endeavor and wished I’d done more research first so I could have made a more informed decision. The sheep looked well-treated and free-range (in a setting stunning to us humans), but what do I know.

Herd of sheep

James was also selling a line of NZ commercial lanolin products like lotions and balms (lanolin is the oil pressed out of Merino wool).

During the shearing, and all night, I couldn’t get Leonard Cohen’s song “Hallelujah” out of my head:

She tied you to a kitchen chair.
She broke your throne, and she cut your hair.
And from your lips she drew the Hallelujah.

But I can’t even say what I think these words mean in this context. Something about shackling, debasing, degrading. Something about claiming another’s most gorgeous possession as their own, as their birthright.

Something like that.


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