I was all set to write a couple of recipe reviews when a letter arrived that squashed my mood for today. No recipe writing, now. I need to write about something, someone, else.
I wrote to the veterinarian who was in charge of this “wild animal orphanage” and asked if I could please bring my husband to their facility to look at the big cats as a birthday gift. Dr. Sheperd returned my letter and gave me the name of Dr. June Iben, another veterinarian who lived on the property and might be able to give us a tour.
I called her and was a bit surprised by the deep, forceful voice which answered the phone, wishing me “Jambo!!!”, which I later found means hello in Swahili. She told me that we were more than welcome to visit, and she would give us a tour of the facility, the following week on Jack’s birthday
This place ended up being less than a half hour from our house, nestled in hills and farmland in an area we had never been before. We saw the huge fences before arriving at her small home, and drove up the dirt driveway. She was waiting for us, a medium-height older woman, white hair, bright blue eyes sparkling as she greeted us. It was a very memorable visit. She walked with us on a tour of the large area where lions and tigers and other cats were housed in huge chain-link enclosures. Although we weren’t allowed to, she would reach her arm through the fencing and scratch the tigers on their foreheads, rub the ears of the lions. She clearly adored them, and they her.
In addition to the lions and tigers, the Western Pennsylvania Wild Animal Orphanage had rescued numerous other big and smaller cats (panther, lynx, cerval, etc.) and also any other creature who was in need of a good, safe home (wolf, llama, and so on). Dr. June also had two large dogs living in her house, I believe that they were greyhound rescues, and that little house burst at its seams.
Through the course of our visit, we discovered that she had previously had a practice in another town near Pittsburgh, had been to Africa, and actually had lions living in her house at various times. In fact, after the tour we went into her house to get out of the June sun, and there was a cougar in her bedroom! This room was halved by a chain-link fence, a platform was built on the wall for cougar-lounging, and a large “pet door” offered Munchkin outdoor access (into another fenced area).
At Dr. Iben’s urging, Jack placed his face close to the cougar, and received a birthday lick. Then the cougar reached his paw through the fence and tried to pull Jack into his area! We laughed and laughed, what a wonderful experience for his birthday!
After that, we tried to visit at least once a year and after the Orphanage started to have monthly public tours, we would see her at those as well. One time we visited and she treated us to videos of one of her big cats from when she lived in suburban
This past year, we didn’t visit. A couple of times we spoke over the telephone, once while I was recuperating from a broken ankle we both commiserated about doctor’s visits (she was having back problems). I don’t know why, but the rest of the year slipped by and in late October we received a note from Dr. June that she had surgery recently, but was doing well. I sent her a get well card and mentioned that, if the weather was good, we would like to visit her sometime between Christmas and New Year. Then, a few weeks later, I sent her a Christmas card.
Well, the weather was not good after Christmas this year. I can’t remember a more miserable ending to a year, but this one was filled with extreme cold, sleet, rain, etc. Not very conducive to walking around outside, talking to the animals.
Because we liked to make a donation to the Orphanage each time we saw Dr. June, and it was the end of the year when Jack and I sit down and figure out what charity we would like to donate to, we had just written her another letter and enclosed a check. I told her that, as soon as we had a break in the cold (and on a Sunday, because that was the preferred day), we would call and set up a visit.
Jack walked these letters down to the mailbox, but the mail had already come. He came into the house, set our stack of letters with contributions on the table, and pulled an envelope out of the mail we had just received. It was from Dr. June’s niece, MaryLou. We both looked at each other, and hesitated to open the envelope.
I am so upset, and more than angry with myself. We should have made time to visit her. Even though we didn’t know that she was so ill, we still should have done it because we enjoyed her so very much. She dedicated her life to her animals, and she was so willing to talk about her experiences. Here will never be another person like June Iben. Ever.
The Western Pennsylvania Wild Animal Orphanage goes on, and if anyone out there would like to learn more, or contribute, please do. It’s an organization made up of volunteers and they all work so hard. But the hardest working of all was our friend, Dr. June. We shall miss her terribly, and I can't imagine how her animal friends, and other human friends, feel..