I was recently selected to be an exhibiting artist in the project AnimalScapes of the Sierra Nevada Foothills. This show, a tri-county project of the Calaveras County Arts Council, Tuolumne County Arts Alliance and the Amador County Arts Council, will include over 50 artists and makers. We artists will be creating pieces—paintings, pottery, photos, sculptures, even poetry—that depict animals in the Sierra Foothills, and our works will travel around the three counties in an exhibition to be displayed in 2016.
A part of AnimalScapes, we chosen artists were gifted with a trip to PAWS, an organization whose mission is “….the protection of performing animals, to providing sanctuary to abused, abandoned and retired captive wildlife, to enforcing the best standards of care for all captive wildlife, to the preservation of wild species and their habitat and to promoting public education about captive wildlife issues.”
Touring the PAWS sanctuary in Calaveras County is a coveted trip. They don’t open to the public often, and when they do, it’s usually for expensive fundraisers that many artists could never afford. I was indeed lucky.
There’s a reason the sanctuary is off-limits to most people. The president of the organization, Ed Stewart, showed us around the sanctuary, and introduced us to many of the animals, and told us the stories of their lives before they were rescued. “Most of these animals have been places where they can’t get away from people,” Stewart said. Frankly, these animals have suffered so much at the hands of humans that they should never have to see us again.
Stewart told stories that make your blood run cold: a bear cub sold at a flea market as a birthday gift for a 4-year-old, then chained, starving, in the back yard for years. Grizzlies and black bears bred to create hybrids, then kept in small cages at roadside attractions. On and on and on. And not in some crazy ignorant poverty-stricken country either; but right here in the United States. I don’t understand. Why on earth do people do things like this?
But as horribly as these animals have been treated by humans, they appear to have learned to accept the folks at PAWS, or at least have unlearned some of their fear and hatred. When we crept up to the bear enclosures, the bears, expecting food, came down to see what was up. We were admonished to be very quiet; no worries there. I was so stunned and in awe of being so near a bear that I could hardly talk at all.
There were two tigers that we could see in an enclosure (The sanctuary rescued 39 big cats in 2003. Meet them here.) One slept with its back to us the whole time we were there. Another padded out, looked at us in what seemed to be disgust, and disappeared from view. Stewart said that this was much better than when the tigers first came to the sanctuary. Rescued from an abusive tiger breeder, they hated humans when they first arrived. The two tigers we saw didn’t seem to be happy about us gawping at them, but at least they weren’t scaling the fence to get at us.
I know that the sanctuary isn’t the same as a jungle or veld or forest where animals can roam at will. But there are fewer and fewer of those places left on our small planet as the human population grows exponentially. And the Sanctuary is a place where at least a small number of being hurt by humans can live out their lives in peace and safety.
Next: Elephants at PAWS
Here’s a vid of the tigers at PAWS
The link below is live. Click on it to go to the PAWS website.
AnimalScapes blog posts
Sketching bears and tigers at the PAWS Ark 2000 animal sanctuary