Wild Wonders

by Jessica Hanewinckel April 28, 2010


It’s 5:15 a.m., and the sun has yet to rise over Bonsall, just east of Oceanside and north of Vista. The various nighttime sounds that come with living at the end of a long road in rural North San Diego County permeate the stillness of the pre-dawn air: the faint engine rumblings of an occasional truck and horse trailer in the distance; a coyote yip; leaves rustling on an acacia tree; crickets. Then, loud enough to be heard a mile away comes a series of high-pitched chirps from just outside the window of a well kept, tile-roofed home.

An unsuspecting visitor might take them for a common bird with some serious volume, but Jackie Navarro (née Levine), who is trying to sleep inside, knows better. She awakens, fully expecting the cheerful chirps that, for the past three years, have served as her alarm clock. They’re a reminder to “hurry up and come see me!” from Victor, Navarro’s cheetah, who has come to anticipate her daily early-morning visit.

Victor lives in a large enclosure down a small hill from the home Navarro shares with Henry, her husband of 19 years. The 90-pound spotted South African native is not Navarro’s pet (though judging by his loud purr and nuzzling when she enters his enclosure, it’s hard to believe). Rather, he’s one of about 120 exotic animals who live on Navarro’s five-plus acre spread, built specifically to run Wild Wonders, Inc., a federally and state licensed and insured wildlife education organization she started in 1991.

Many residents, like Victor, are ambassadors who help to educate the public about the plight many wild animals face in their natural environments and about the importance of conservation. Victor counts American alligators, wallabies, boa constrictors, owl monkeys, Burmese pythons, Siberian lynxes, foxes, porcupines and various other animals among his neighbors.

“We focus on what people can do as individuals at a grassroots level to help these animals in the wild,” Navarro says. “It’s really tough, especially with kids, in today’s increasingly urban environment. They’ve lost their place in nature and don’t even realize we are the only ones who have the capability to change nature, which we do every single day. We talk a lot about the animals’ value in their environment.”

About 60 percent of the animals at Wild Wonders find their way there after being picked up by the California Department of Fish and Game or because of owner relinquishment, abandonment, confiscations or development of issues that make them non-releasable, Navarro says. None are taken from the wild, but under Navarro’s care, one suspects they might not even choose to go back if they could. Navarro has been in the industry since her senior year of college in 1989, and she’s an impassioned animal lover at the very root of her being.

“I’ve been interested in animals since I was 2,” Navarro says. “My mom said I would pick up anything off the ground and play with it for hours…bugs, snails, little lizards. As a kid, I would bring home injured birds, bunnies the cat had caught, anything and everything.”

As a child, Navarro says, she and her father made a habit out of watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom or National Geographic every night. But perhaps on a more subconscious level, it was her Jewish upbringing that helped to nurture her interest.

Navarro’s great-grandparents were Russian Jews who escaped persecution by the Cossacks and immigrated to New York. Her parents left New York for West Los Angeles and successfully established themselves in the garment district there. She and her family attended Temple Beth Shalom and celebrated Passovers at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, and all of the children in her family save her (“By the time they got to me, I don’t know if they got lazy or what!”) attended Hebrew school.

“As far as growing up with [Jewish] morals like caring for others,” Navarro says, “I do think it played some part in the amount of empathy I had for other living things.”

It didn’t hurt that as a child, Navarro also had a very up-close and personal model for what would ultimately be her own animal sanctuary as an adult. In Palos Verdes, where her family lived, Navarro had a friend whose mother ran a sanctuary, so Navarro would “hang out there literally dawn to dusk every day. She had a chimp there…and arctic foxes, little marmosets, squirrel monkeys.”

It wasn’t until her senior year at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo that Navarro really started to focus on her specific career aspirations, though, of course, she’d always known animals would be front and center in some capacity. That year, she discovered her interest in the welfare of captive animals when she volunteered, then worked, at the Charles Paddock Zoo in Atascadero, Calif.

“Once I got there, I really became interested in making the animals’ lives better, making them more enriched,” Navarro says. “I saw the value in having captive animals for education, having living teachers for kids to get excited about.”

Navarro earned her degree in environmental and systematic biology, and then moved to the one-acre Vista property she would call home — and her first sanctuary — for 12 years. Her first job out of college was one of the most coveted in her industry: working at the San Diego Wild Animal Park in Escondido. Navarro was a trainer for a now-defunct contract show, Rare and Wild America. She also traveled to local schools for outreach education programs.

1991 was a busy year for Navarro. She married her husband Henry in a Jewish ceremony and left the Wild Animal Park, adding a North American opossum and a desert tortoise to her menagerie from college: an iguana, an Amazon parrot (who still lives at Wild Wonders today) and a boa constrictor. After a few short-lived jobs, she founded Wild Wonders and set out on her own. She then commuted to the Santa Ana Zoo when they contracted Wild Wonders to put together a weekend show called A Walk on the Wild Side. After that, she had a short stint with American Wilderness Experience, a now-defunct indoor zoo at Ontario Mills Mall, where she commuted to her job as a behaviorist who taught their keeper staff to train and enrich the animals’ lives.

Following those jobs, Navarro contemplated what to do next. She passed up a position working at the San Diego Zoo’s Gorilla Tropics exhibit because it didn’t fulfill her main interest — teaching kids.

“I put some feelers out there and started seeing if there was any interest in preschools and little local schools, and the interest was huge,” she says. “There was such a grassroots need at that point in San Diego County for conservation education programs for kids. And it just kind of took off like wildfire.”

Especially when she met a representative of the newly formed Animal Planet in 1997. They then introduced her to Steve Irwin, of “Crocodile Hunter” fame.

“We started providing animals to Steve Irwin for some of his live events and TV shows, and Steve became a pretty integral part of Wild Wonders as far as jobs and getting different venues,” Navarro says. “[Working with Steve] really grew us. It made us known and opened up so many other opportunities for us to work with Animal Planet and Discovery Communications, as well of Mutual of Omaha and National Geographic.”

A new world was opening to Navarro’s tiny animal sanctuary. Her collection of animals was growing, as were her opportunities to spread her message to kids nationwide.

In 1998, Animal Planet and Discovery Communications chose Wild Wonders to travel with them for four months each summer, producing free-to-the-public Animal Planet expos in communities nationwide. Their partnership would continue until 2008 (when Animal Planet decided to retire the money-losing venture), all the while helping Wild Wonders build a vast network with other animal conservationists in the U.S. The money Wild Wonders earned in this relationship greatly helped the organization to expand its care for animals domestically as well as internationally.

In 2003, Navarro realized Wild Wonders was outgrowing its one-acre Vista compound of 12 years. Its 70 animals needed more space, as did the additional rescue animals that kept pouring in. So Navarro and her husband purchased their current home in Bonsall, along with five acres, on which they constructed the current Wild Wonders compound over two years.

But a combination of rapid growth and an end to the traveling Animal Planet Expo meant funds grew scarce. In 2006, Navarro founded Zoofari, Inc., a 501c3 non-profit organization whose goal is specifically to support and raise funds for Wild Wonders, as well as each of the organization’s conservation partners around the world. The non-profit also funds outreach conservation programs for disadvantaged youths and low-income schools.

“Through Zoofari, we have fundraisers and seek corporate and private donors and employee matching and giving programs,” Navarro says.

Zoofari provided part of the answer to the organization’s growing pains. The new, larger facility helped in other ways: Wild Wonders could expand its housing for animals and better serve their needs. They now house 120 animals comfortably and are even in the process of constructing a cheetah run for Victor. But with growth comes more challenges.

“Whenever you grow, you bring a whole new set of problems with you,” Navarro says. “Where the husbandry of the animals used to take three hours, it’s now six. Bills have gone up excessively — heat, electrical. We have the constant threat of coyotes here, packs of six or more threatening to jump the fence. We had eight rattlesnakes on the grounds just last year, some in enclosures. It’s a lot more work than it used to be, and it requires a bigger staff.”

Where four degreed and professional staff members were more than capable of caring for the animals at the old facility, seven or eight staff members are now necessary, and Navarro would ideally like more.

“We’re extremely under-staffed,” she says. “We’re very small, and each staff member is already wearing a million different hats…Here, you may be repairing an enclosure, then you’ve got to feed and clean an animal, and then you have to load up and go do a program.”

But since the funding isn’t there to have separate staff for husbandry, maintenance and programming, volunteers have become an integral part of the organization, and their numbers, too, have grown dramatically. Where one or two used to be sufficient, about 25 now give at least four hours per week to the facility, cleaning, feeding, housekeeping, grounds keeping and providing behavior enrichment to the animals.

“We could not survive without the volunteers,” Navarro says. “There’s absolutely no way we could do this without them.”

Besides staffing issues and an increased cost of operations, one of Wild Wonders’ most arduous challenges is its proximity to arguably the world’s most famous zoo.

“We’re not big enough to have a development department or a marketing department,” Navarro says. “It’s always a constant challenge. Word of mouth gets out when we do a program, but as far as getting the word out about what Zoofari is trying to do, it’s tough. We’ve got this behemoth over us in the San Diego Zoo and Wild Animal Park, but at the same time, we’re not trying to be the Zoo. We’re very different. We’re not open to the public, but we do onsite, scheduled tours of the center. It’s a much more intimate situation here…[the Zoo] has really good conservation messages, but I think we’re much more of a grassroots operation.”

Besides paying for the daily operation of Wild Wonders (total annual expenses push $300,000), and regardless of how tight finances are, Navarro says money raised also goes to the organization’s global grassroots partners in preservation — one of the core goals of Zoofari.

“We really screen them to make sure they don’t have big funding of the World Wildlife Fund or Conservation International behind them, that they really need the money,” Navarro says. “We can see directly where our money goes. We can see that the $10,000 we raised for Cheetah Conservation Botswana last year went to buy exactly four GPS collars and some education materials that Rebecca, the director, took out to farms in the community to stop killing cheetahs. We’re not just focusing on animals. We really focus on people’s relationships with these animals.”

Today, Wild Wonders supports and donates to several organizations that seek to preserve wildlife in third-world and impoverished areas of the globe: Cheetah Conservation Botswana; Brazil’s Pro-Carnivoros, which works to protect the jaguar, maned wolf and other South American species from extinction; Snow Leopard Conservancy in Central Asia; Columbia’s Proyecto Titi, which studies cotton-top tamarins and educates the local community about protecting Columbia’s biodiversity; and Zimbabwe’s Painted Dog Conservation.

The one thing these organizations share, Navarro says, is their dedication to getting to the root of the problem of wild animal decimation.

“I think there are far too many organizations out there that talk the talk and don’t walk the walk,” Navarro says. “You’re not going to conserve animals in cages. Breeding a gorilla in captivity doesn’t necessarily help the animals in their natural habitats. You’ve got people starving to death in the Congo. How does [breeding in captivity] affect what’s going on over there and that seven more gorillas were just murdered? It doesn’t. I’d rather be working with somebody on the ground over there who’s actually doing something about it. A lot of the organizations we work with have community outreach projects. Painted Dog in Zimbabwe has been able to given people a viable economic alternative to make wildlife important. Instead of setting snares to put meat on their table, [villagers] are going out and collecting the snares, making beautiful sculptures and art out of them, selling those art pieces and getting the money to actually buy the food to put on their table. Wildlife must have value other than dead.”

At Wild Wonders, each feathered, furry or scaly resident has irreplaceable value, and each receives the utmost in veterinary care.

“Tinkerbell, one our North American opossums, is the million-dollar opossum now,” Navarro says, adding that, at age 3, Tinkerbell is possibly the oldest opossum in captivity. “Between her compound fracture to her pyometra surgery…I guess some people would wonder why we spent $5,000 on an opossum. Well, because the alternative was to euthanize her, she’s an integral part of this program and she deserves to have a chance and to have a great life.”

Veterinary care doesn’t run cheap, and with 120 animals and five acres of land and enclosures to maintain, it just adds to a running list of expenses.

“Right now, I’m happy if we can just get enough money to [cover the fixed costs],” Navarro says. “You can’t stop feeding the animals. You can’t stop giving them veterinary care. At $22,000 a month [for all expenses combined], it’s killed us. I’d be happy if we can just get to the point that we’re self-sufficient again.”

Facing the reality of finances is necessary, but it doesn’t stop Navarro from dreaming about the future.

She hopes to someday acquire the nearly six empty acres across the road to use as a network of nature trails and an outdoor education area for kids. Even more loftily, she’d like to start her own rehabilitation center in Botswana or South Africa.

“I’m seeing so much decimation of wildlife going on and the lack of facilities, education and community support over there,” she says. “We have our problems here too, but we’re not a third world country, so we don’t have that added challenge. I would love to be involved in opening up another rehab and education center there at some point.”

For a little girl who once watched in awe the same television shows for which she later provided animals as an adult, would it really be that surprising if she succeeded? Not at all, and especially not for a woman whose life, in every possible way, has been dedicated to the welfare of exotic animals.

“This isn’t a job,” Navarro says. “It’s a culture and a lifestyle. My work defines me. I think that for anybody who does this, it’s so much more than a job, and so much more than a career. There have been times when we’ve been up night after night with a sick animal. Someone has to be here at all times, 24 hours a day. I’m always on call. During the 2007 wildfires, we did watches every two hours and evacuated the main group of animals. When we got that final call from the police saying we had to get out in 20 minutes, we had to be here at 2 a.m. to load up and get the cheetah and the rest of the cats out of here. It’s a lifestyle. It can really impinge on the rest of your life, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world.”

If you’re interested in supporting Wild Wonders and Zoofari while having some fun yourself, the organization has two upcoming events:

The Second Annual Safari Scramble, a golf tournament to benefit the animals of Zoofari and its conservation efforts, will be May 21 at the Meadow Lake Golf Resort in Escondido. Victor will make an appearance.

This year, Zoofari is also charity partner for the Wine, Blues and Brews Festival May 22 at the California Center for the Arts in Escondido. To purchase tickets to the festival, go to www.bonsallrotary.com and select Zoofari as your charity of choice.

For details on both events or to learn more about Wild Wonders, including offsite programming, onsite private tours, sponsoring an animal or donating, visit www.wildwonders.org or call (760) 630-9230.

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