We started life over by starting a zoo
Dorothy and Fred Tapley were in their forties and life was getting dull. Then they began sheltering unwanted animals—and didn’t stop. Now they and their children have thirty wild animals and a new full-time career just doing what they like best
“It happened to us”
This Is another of the series of personal-experience stories that will appear from time to time in Maclean's . . . stories told by its readers about some interesting dramatic event in their lives.
HAVE YOU SUCH A STORY? If so, send it to the articles editor, Maclean’s Magazine, 481 University Ave., Toronto. For stories accepted Maclean’s will pay the regular rates it offers for articles.
I’ve heard a lot of people say they are in a rut, and that they'd like to make a complete change in their lives. But they feel that, first, they've left it too late; second, that they would need a lot of money, usually about a hundred thousand dollars.
My husband and I were in our mid-forties when we changed our lives completely. And we did it without the hundred thousand. All we had to start with was a baby great horned owl. We now run our own zoo on a fifty-acre farm. We have thirty wild animals, including a bear, four deer, three monkeys, several skunks, coons and foxes. We also have five varieties of bantam chickens, three different kinds of pheasants, six geese, twenty rabbits—including some angoras— twenty guinea pigs, three white rats, two donkeys, two calves, seven goats, a mouflon (a little Corsican mountain sheep), turkeys, a dog and one cat at the last count.
We attract as many as seventy-five car loads of sightseers on a good day, at fifty cents a car. Not that all days are like that, or anywhere near it. When we balance our income against our expenses, we’re just making ends meet, with my husband continuing his job for a while as maintenance man in a paper plant in Hamilton. But we escaped a way of life that was getting dull for us. Our zoo is growing. My husband expects to give it all his time within a year. In the meantime, we've found a new filterest in life, we're enjoying every minute of it, and happily making plans for the future. It was the best move of our lives.
We operated a filling station and refreshment booth in the village of West Flamboro. on the outskirts of Dundas, Ontario. Although recently the village has mushroomed, when we moved there it consisted of two stores, a school, a couple of dozen houses and our service station. This was a big. hundred-year-old two-story stone building, which had at one time been a wagon-and-buggy factory. The garage was on the lower floor. The upstairs was one big room, but Fred partitioned it into a six-room apartment. We plastered it ourselves, put in our own heating and water system. It was quite nice. We also built a separate concrete-block building, which we made into a refreshment booth. I ran the gas pumps and kept house for my husband with the help of our four children. Of all the dull jobs, keeping house is, for me, the worst. My children had reached an age at which they weren't occupying much of my time. I was trying to pretend 1 was interested in taking my house apart and putting it together —and longing for something really interesting.
My husband had been at automobile repairs ever since leaving his father’s farm as a boy to take a job as apprentice in Norwich, a town near Woodstock, Ont. Fred is a good mechanic, but since opening his own repair shop, he had found that he had too many bosses — everyone who wanted a new fan belt just as he sat down to supper, or wanted a tow just when he'd gone to bed.
Perhaps it was because we were ready to welcome any change that, one day, when a neighbor came into the garage with a baby great horned owl he had found under a tree, we both dropped what we were doing to see it. It was just a tiny
ball of fluff. We stood around holding our fingers out to it and listening to the fierce snapping sounds it made with its beak.
"What are you going to do with it?” my husband asked.
"Kill it. I guess.” our neighbor said. “What else is there to do with it? It's too young to look after itself. Anyway, it will be raiding chicken pens in a few years.”
My husband looked at it thoughtfully and said, “Well—leave it with us. Maybe I’ll make a cage for it.”
That was the first member of our zoo. My husband made a cage out of a wooden box and some chicken netting. We pul it in the garage. We fed the little owl bits of raw meat, and gave it water in a saucer. In a few months it had begun to grow horns and became a big attraction for the kids in the neighborhood. Motorists, too, who came in for gas, would call their families from their cars to come and have a look. We began to realize how interested people are in wild things.
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didn’t stop. Now they and their children have thirty wild animals and a new full-time career just doing what they like best
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“With a skunk and our daughter asleep on his lap, my husband would read his evening paper”
A few months later a farmer caught a baby skunk that had run out from under his barn. He had heard about us keeping the owl, so he brought it over to us. My husband made another cage. We began to pore over books, trying to find out just how skunks manufacture their ammunition. We never did find out, although we accumulated a lot of theories and wild guesses from passing motorists. When the skunk was about seven months old, we decided that we’d better have him deodorized. I phoned a vet and told him 1 was coming down.
“How old is it?” the vet asked.
“What! Don’t you dare bring him down here." the vet told me. “That has to be done when the skunk is about two months old. You've had it.”
But we had no trouble. Even if a skunk, through a sudden frighh resorts to the only means nature has provided for his protection, the smell disappears so rapidly that within a half an hour you’d never know it had been there. We never did have him deodorized, but we still have him: he lives by himself in our barn, where visitors can’t get close.
People began to take for granted that we were the official skunk orphanage. A truck driver told us about a mother skunk and five babies that needed a home, and we drove to Grimsby with an orange crate to pick them up. A farmer brought in another one, a baby. We had him deodorized, named him Jimmy, and made a house pet of him. He was an affectionate animal. When my husband was reading the newspaper, Jimmy would climb up on his lap or crawl up onto his shoulder and curl around his neck. Our younger daughter, Freddie, would climb on Fred’s lap too, and both she and the skunk would curl up together for a sleep.
Then we heard of a neighboring farmer who had dug out a den of foxes and was going to kill them for the bounty. We paid him five dollars and took home a baby fox. We named him Rex. We brought him into the house, too. Jimmy the skunk and Rex led peaceful but separate lives. We managed to teach Rex to keep regular hours. When we put our little girl to bed. Rex would jump up beside her and go to sleep. But Jimmy always had the habits of some people— sleeping all day and prowling around all night. He would be wide awake by five in the afternoon and stay up all night. Every morning when 1 got out of bed, Jimmy would get in on the warm spot and go to sleep. I couldn’t make the bed until he got up.
But our family developed a jealousy problem that no psychologist could have untangled. Jimmy got jealous of our
younger daughter. He resented her being in his favorite place, on Fred's knee, so often. He began to chase her. Then he got more serious and started nipping her legs. My husband began to give him swats with a newspaper, and Jimmy got so maladjusted we had to put him back in a cage. Skunks are a lot more knowing than dogs. Jimmy became a delinquent. If my husband went up to the cage, Jimmy would grab hold of the cage and scream with rage. At the same time, I could go up to the cage and say, “What’s the matter, Jimmy?” and he would quieten right down. I could open the cage door and pick him up, and he would stick his nose under my chin and cuddle. But he had no more use for Fred. He had held a grudge ever since Fred had swatted him with the newspaper for nipping Freddie. One day when 1 cleaned the cages, I changed skunks from one cage to another and forgot to tell Fred. He came in, opened the cage that Jimmy now occupied and reached in to pick up what he thought was the other skunk. Jimmy sank his teeth so far into the soft part of Fred's hand that they met inside.
Monkey in a china closet
People were now bringing us all the ducks, bantam chickens, guinea pigs and rabbits that their children brought home for pets but weren't allowed to keep. We kept them all. Fred was busy making cages. The inside of the garage started to look more like a menagerie than a repair shop. We realized that people kill a lot of wild things every year, or turn them loose to fend for themselves in a condition that means certain death, only because they don’t know where to take them or what to do with them. A refuge for stray young animals and birds, and abandoned pets, seemed to be needed badly.
Fred and I bought books to look up the foods we should feed our pets and through this became more interested in wild life in general. We began thinking of more rare things for our menagerie and one day got a lead on a woman with a carnival act who sold us a year-and-ahalf-old Rhesus monkey for fifty dollars. We named her Tina. With both Jimmy and Rex, the fox, now locked up (Rex had fallen a couple of times off the upstairs veranda, so we had to put him in a cage), we let the monkey loose in the house. Tina evidently liked housekeeping about as much as I do. In two days she had (a) got up on my china cabinet and smashed a dozen cups and saucers by throwing them, one by one, to the floor, (b) eaten most of my indoor plants, including a cactus and a rubber plant, (c) splashed water from the goldfish bowl all over the living room. We made a cage for her and put her out with the menagerie.
We now had pens along the entire length of our property, but we had gone overboard for our new hobby. We decided to do it up right by getting a llama that we had heard was for sale at Miles Park, a private zoo that, at that time, was located just west of Toronto. A llama was worth from three hundred to five hundred dollars, but we got one for seventy-five. For good measure, we spent another twenty-five dollars for a donkey. We brought the donkey home in a truck; the llama in a trailer that my husband had built. Fred built a pen for the llama outside and motorists who stopped for gas while passing through Flamboro were able, while waiting, to stand looking at an animal that's usually seen only in the Andes.
My husband and 1 realized that by now we were really running a zoo and not a service station. It took me about an hour a day just to feed the animals. We were enjoying it, but it took more time than we could afford, unless we went in for animals. One night at supper we started talking of selling the service station, looking around for a farm, and taking our chances of making our new hobby pay its way as a full-time job.
“I’d have to get a regular job for a while to keep things going,” Fred said. “I'll just be able to help after work and on week ends. Are you sure you won't mind being a zoo keeper?”
“Who me?” I looked around at my apartment. That day 1 had given the place a complete housecleaning. 1 had taken it apart and put it together again. I knew it was clean, dusted and polished, but nobody could have seen the results of that day's work. “If I do much more housework, you’ll have to put me in a cage.”
It took us a year and a half to find the right place. But we finally located a fifty-acre farm on a back road roughly midway between Galt and Guelph. Ont., about twenty miles northwest of Hamilton. It was right out in rolling wooded country. The land was eroded. The house was a bit heartbreaking after my neat apartment in West Flamboro: it was part log construction and was more than a hundred years old. and looked every year of it. There was a swamp in the middle of the property. But we figured that the swamp would be just right for certain kinds of animals, that if we fixed up the barn it would serve as winter quarters for some of our pets, and that we could do something about the house. On the good side, there was a fifteen-acre cedar bush, a spring creek with trout in it, some good pasture land, and a beautiful view. We bought it, barn, shed, house, property and all. for seventy-five hundred dollars. We began to pick up used fox pens, and Fred was getting them set up on the new property when a fire broke out next to our service station in West Flamboro, which could have wiped out everything we owned.
It happened one stormy March day in 1955. Soft wet snow was blowing so thick that you couldn't see a thing. Everyone was staying inside that day, just trying to keep warm. I had finished feeding the animals around four o'clock and was sitting in front of a radiator with my shoes and stockings off, trying to get my feet warm, when I heard our neighbor shout, “Dorothy! come and try to save some of your animals. Connell’s barn is burning.”
I pulled on my slippers and ran outside. The air was full of smoke. Big chunks of flaming material were falling over our property. Our pens backed onto the side of the barn, which was almost on the line dividing the Connells’ property from ours. Between our pens and the side of the barn was a covered corridor. something like an old-fashioned covered bridge. The fire truck was there, but the barn was roaring and the structure between it and our pens was going fast. I ran through it to the animals. As I brought each one out I handed it to a fireman or a neighbor to take into our garage. I had lost my slippers and was
running through the slush in my bare feet. My hair caught fire several times. People kept patting my head to put out the blaze.
The animals were very quiet. It was strange. None of them seemed the least bit panicky. They knew something was happening and that 1 was the one to get them out of trouble. The llama was lying down quietly in a corner. The foxes were lying very still in a puddle. I talked to all the animals as 1 picked them up. They seemed to know that I was helping them.
All the animals were saved. Some of the pens were burned, but not beyond repair. Our apartment and service station weren't touched. By the time my husband arrived home from work it was all over except to decide what we were going to do. We decided to make the move to the farm.
We call our place Cedar Trail Ranch. We've been here now for more than two years. We haven't had time to do much about our house, except to give it a coat of paint. It will have to wait till the zoo is better established. We want to do the work ourselves and have great plans, if we ever get at it. The first summer we were here, all friends or relatives who visited us were handed a shovel, an axe or a paint brush and put to work. We got cages painted, post holes dug and posts cut from the bush for deer pens. We lost a lot of friends and were disowned by a lot of relatives, but we got a lot of work done. Fred put up the fence for the deer pen, during his twoweeks vacation, with the help of some of our more sympathetic relatives. We have built half a dozen new small cages, and all the old pens will have to be replaced by new steel and cement cages, which we hope to have done by next summer. We’re also going to have some bulldozing done so that we can double the size of the deer pen and take in the pond and some trees.
We're all happy about the move. Terry, our older boy, who is now twenty-two, works in the dye-house lab of a woolen mill in Hespeler. a town about ten miles away. He has his own car and can get in to Guelph or Galt whenever he likes, but he prefers to stay and help around the zoo. Nora, our eighteen-year-old daughter. goes back and forth to Guelph High School by bus, but still does most of the housework. She does no actual work with the animals but enjoys showing them off and talking to the visitors. Our fifteenyear-old boy Bob helps a lot. too, under protest. But we put his complaints down to his age, and, as he isn't very interested in school, we feel that he’ll probably make the zoo his life work. He's very
good with sick and injured animals. Freddie, our nine-year-old daughter, plays with young animals the way most small girls play with dolls. That’s how she tamed our little fox Pedro. She would carry him around in a doll blanket, wrapped up with one of the kittens. She likes to feed the fawns, and baby goats when they are on bottles, and to ride on the donkeys. She has some girt friends who come to play with her. but she can keep herself happy and entertained right here on the farm.
We have added a lot of new birds and animals to our collection. People still bring them in regularly. A hydro lineman brought us a baby fox. A boy near Woodstock caught what he thought was a litter of three baby mink, had visions of a mink ranch, and got permission from the game warden to keep the animals. But when the warden dropped in one day and told him. “Those aren't mink, they're weasels," the boy brought them to us. A man in Hamilton caught a sparrow hawk in his attic, brought it in to us and traded it for a skunk, then brought the skunk back because it was unfriendly. The local game warden gave us a baby Virginia deer that someone had found and turned over to him. We have two English spotted deer, which we bought from Miles Park. We also have a myna that we bought for a hundred dollars. It belonged to a friend of my sister-in-law, who had to get rid of it because no pets were allowed in her apartment. The myna lives chiefly on Pablum and says, “Hi,” “Hello,” “Get going,” “Watcha doing?" and “Who are you?” He also gives such a dirty wolf whistle that a husband recently came up to Fred and said, “You know. I just found out where that whistle was coming from. I was beginning to wonder what kind of a joint you were running here.”
One day a man we'd never seen before came in and asked us if we wanted to buy a bear. My husband hasn't said no to acquiring an animal yet. “How much do you want for him?” he asked.
Fred made a deal. The man had caught the bear as a cub near Hearst, Ont. He had kept it for four months, but thought it was time to get rid of it. We named the cub Toby. Fred found that to keep a bear he had to build a cage to certain specifications of the Department of Lands and Forests. The cage had to be twenty by twenty feet, six feet high, made of nine-gauge, two-inch-mesh wire, with two-inch steel posts every five feet. It had to have a rein forced-concrete floor, with a drain at each side, and a tub of water. It cost Fred five hundred dollars, and the bear is the only animal on the place with a bathtub.
But there were good reasons for all these precautions. Few people realize the power of a bear. Toby is still only a cub, weighing a hundred and fifty pounds, but he has enormous strength in his paws. For a little while we kept him in a pen in the barn. There was a shelter in the pen, made of one-and-a-half-inch planks. Toby playfully batted it apart as if it were a strawberry box. Then he sat down on a barrel and flattened it like a pancake. Fred still gets into the cage with him, and takes him on a leash for a walk down to the creek. Toby climbs trees and cavorts around in the water. But Fred realizes that he won’t be able to fool around with him much longer. One day Toby took hold of Fred's arm playfully, and Fred began to wonder what would happen if Toby decided not to let go.
We’ve found that children love to see our farm animals up close, and often arc far more interested in them than in the wild animals. Some of the farm animals, such as the turkeys, we raise for our own use, but it becomes increasingly difficult not to start thinking of them as pets. Right now we have two calves, T-Bone and Sirloin, which we are raising for beef, and we are trying hard not to get too attached to them. The first summer we were here we raised a pig for pork, and felt like cannibals by the time it appeared on our table.
It takes me from nine in the morning until nearly noon just to feed and water the animals. The fawn gets its bottle five times a day. We have goats on the farm, including an old Nanny that provides milk for any orphaned animals we happen to be raising. Milking her every morning and night is one of my chores. In the afternoon I spend another hour or so taking little snacks to the animals. We have a kind of afternoon tea.
Our biggest eater is Toby, the bear. On an average day he eats two loaves of bread, a six-quart basket of vegetables, salt-and-bone meal, plus some fruit and table scraps. We buy stale bread from bakeries at five cents a loaf. All the animals like it. We also get cuttings of vegetables from the stores. The meat eaters get mostly chicken. These are chickens that have smothered in crates. A mink raiser buys the insides, feet, heads and legs. We buy the rest. Our ice-cream cabinet, from the refreshment booth we used to run, serves as a freezer. We buy a lot of Pablitm too. All young animals like it.
Neither Fred nor I have had any special education in wild life, but we’re learning, and the more we learn the more we realize how little the public knows of Canadian animals. Children who read and listen to animal stories at school haven’t the slightest idea what the animals look like in real life. Some of their parents are no help. Children look at the great horned owl and say. "What’s that, Daddy?”
"A screech owl,” Daddy says. “Let's go.”
(A screech owl is about nine inches from beak to tail. Snapper, our great horned owl, is nearly two feet high to the tip of his horns.)
Most people think skunks spend their lives continuously making themselves olfensive. They take the fox for a coyote or a wolf; the weasel for a mink, rat or ferret. When they see the porcupines they shout. "Stand back. He throws his quills.” Most people cling to the belief that the raccoon is our cleanest animal and washes all its food, in spite of the fact that it is one of the dirtiest that we have on the place, and if it can't find water to soften its food in, it just rolls it to a nasty dirty pulp on the dusty floor of the cage.
We get the occasional visitor who thinks it’s funny to hand the monkeys lighted cigarettes, but these people are more than offset by the hundreds who are genuinely interested in learning more about animals. One of the highlights of our life at the farm was one time when a carload of blind people came in from Indiana and were able to pick up the rabbits, guinea pigs and chickens, to feel all over the donkey, deer and the pony, and get a clear picture of them from a sense of touch.
Our animals have become our friends, neighbors, livelihood, our work and our purpose in life. We've found that animals are much like people, except they’re more civilized. They appreciate anything you do for them. If you put a skunk in a nice bed of fresh straw, he rolls in it. snorts and is as happy as a lark. Animals are quiet and don’t talk you to death the way mankind seems to be trying to do. There’s no back biting—there's just a plain bite now and then. You know what it’s all about. I don't know whether it’s because monkeys are related to man. but they’re the only animals you can't trust. If they once get the upper hand, there’s no living with them.
We've had our tragedies at our zoo. A year ago the llama died. We don’t know what happened. She just kept getting thinner and stopped eating. The veterinary from the agricultural college at Guelph couldn't find anything wrong. But she died. When we lose an animal we feel so low that we wonder why we ever got into the business. Then something is brought in to us sick, we are told nothing can be done about it. but we manage to bring the animal back to health and are on top of the world. Most of the animals in our zoo would have been killed, or would have died, if we hadn't taken them in.
We have our comedies, too. A little while ago. the ducks started marauding in the pens, poking their beaks in through the wire netting and stealing bread. Their chief victims were the slow-moving porcupines. But one got overly confident and tried it on a monkey. It was all we could do to reach the pen before the monkey wrung its neck. As it was, the monkey took a bite out of the duck’s tail.
We have plans for our farm. We intend to have a special pen of animals children can pet. It will include lots of farm animals. We plan to have a picnic site and a bathing pool and a playground for the youngsters. If we live to be a hundred and fifty we'll still have fifty years’ work ahead. In the meantime we are taking in as many animals as need a place to stay.
We haven’t drawn the line at any species yet, although a little while ago we were given a real test by a little boy who was in looking at the zoo with his father. The boy's father happened to mention to Fred that he needed an elephant around the place, and that his boy had come home with a tale about where there was one for sale. He asked the boy to say his piece, and the youngster told Fred that the elephant was for sale in Guelph. He said a man had paid seventy dollars for it and wanted to sell it for thirty. He didn’t know the exact address, but he named the district.
"How long ago was this?” Fred asked h i m.
"Just a little while ago,” the boy said.
"How long ago? A week? A month?”
The boy’s father told Fred. “Now, understand. I’m not vouching for anything. You’re getting the story just the way I got it.”
Fred took time off from work and went to the district in Guelph, and found himself knocking at doors and asking housewives if they’d heard of someone with an elephant for sale around there, feeling that an animal that size couldn't be kept a secret. He spent an hour and a half at it. getting queer looks from the women who answered the doors, until his
thoughts turned to the little boy and to little boys’ imagination. The search came to an end.
But it was all part of the fun of running a zoo. And besides, if I know Fred, it won’t be long before he beats the little boy at his own game, and actually gets an elephant, jç