East Coast Exotic Animal Rescue educates public one animal at a time
FAIRFIELD, Pa. — East Coast Exotic Animal Rescue opens its doors each spring to educate visitors about abuse, abandonment, and extinction of exotic animals. This year, when workers opened the doors for free for the spring kickoff during the first weekend in May, they were surprised by the volume of people who came seeking to be educated.
Nearly 2,500 people poured into the 84-acre facility that is home to around 140 animals from hoof stock llamas, parrots, and reptiles to white tigers, an African lioness, and a serval jungle cat.
“It was kind of like when a naughty kid teenager invited 20 of his closest friends to a party and ends up with thousands of kids in the yard and they are kind of like, 'What happened?'” Melissa Bishop said.
Bishop is director of development and office manager for the rescue and works closely with owner Suzanne Murray, who purchased the property that was formerly Gettysburg Game Park.
“It was such a blessing that so many people cared and so many people came. We were definitely not ready for that many, but it was wonderful. It was a lot more than we ever expected or ever had before,” Bishop said. “We were shocked, but it was a very good group.”
Bishop supposed the rescue garnered so much attention and drew such an unexpectedly large crowd due, in part, to exposure on Facebook.
“This year, it seemed like everybody shared the event. Honestly, I saw one post. I looked at the original and it said, 'Please share with friends.' I saw that it had been shared more than 3,000 times,” she said.
Bishop thought the rainy weather would deter visitors, but it did not.
“People were getting muddy. There were people who drove from about a two hours radius. We had nowhere left to park, the roads were all blocked,” she said. “Thankfully, (Liberty Mountain Resort) opened up its parking lot and we got a bus service to the parking lot, which is only one mile away.”
Rooted in rescue
Such crowds are new territory for the operators of the rescue, which seeks to reduce the number of exotic animals that are displaced from their natural habitats.
When Murray purchased it, Bishop said, it was “totally different.”
“It was a very poorly run, small roadside zoo," Bishop said. "It was about buying, selling and breeding animals when she started working there."
But during that time, Murray began to take in animals she heard of that needed help, and she “fell in love with them,” Bishop said. When the previous owners of the property decided to sell, she “had no choice but to purchase it, or the animals would go to whoever.”
“She had to take it over so they would always have a home. There was a Bengal tiger, Katrina. She couldn't see selling her off to somebody. She was kind of the reason for the rescue,” Bishop said. “There were Gibbon apes, one named Beanie, on the property when Suzanne purchased it. She wanted to give the animals a forever home and that was the only way she could do it.”
At that point, the property was “a very rundown, tore up place” that had suffered neglect for 50 years, she said. Murray, Bishop, and a small band of others people who loved the animals committed themselves to cleaning it up enough to care for them.
“When we came in, we had no idea all the rules and regulations needed. We all used our credit cards and worked other jobs to try to fix each thing as we could, to get the habitats where they should be,” she said.
The facility is licensed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
While much of the work has been physical labor, research and grant writing also have been considerable undertakings. During 2000, the rescue became a nonprofit organization.
Tragedy struck in May 2014, when a fire broke out at the sanctuary, displacing about 60 animals. The main building and many of the habitats were rebuilt and the rescue reopened for the spring of 2016.
“The first year back after the fire, we had 780 people opening weekend. I was shocked that that many came and I thought it was wonderful,” Bishop said.
So when the number hit nearly 2,500 during 2017, she was even more surprised. The animals responded in different ways to the crowds, she said.
“Our philosophy is if they want to visit, they can. If they want to be away from people, they have a space to do that. Our bobcat decided she didn't want to see anyone. There were too many people. She hid all day,” Bishop said. “We tell people, this is their home, they can decide.”
The African cattle mini was “in heaven.”
“He was so excited to see all the people that he was jumping,” she said.
Only to educate
An exotic animal is “anything that should not really be a pet,” Bishop said.
Among the ones living at the rescue are parrots, lions, tigers, apes, monkeys and Savannah monitors that have been removed from their natural habitat and in some cases were abused.
Some of the animals, like a Marmoset, have been confiscated from drug houses. A sugar glider at the sanctuary was rescued from the black market pet trade.
“We hear people have all kinds of things. We hear stories about mountain lions,” Bishop said. “We are the place that the authorities call when people find illegally owned animals that are considered exotic animals and should be in the wild. You can't drop them off at the SPCA. There needs to be a place where they can go when you don't have a place to put them.”
The purpose of opening to the public from May through October is to teach visitors.
“We are here only to educate. The reason we open to the public is to change that one person's mind,” Bishop said, “that person who mindlessly thinks of getting an alligator, but has no clue the alligator is going to outgrow his bathtub. Then they're like, 'Where do I put it now?'”
“It's cool to see how far we have come from trying our best to get the place pulled together 18 or 19 years ago to now,” Bishop said. “People come to us asking what to do with animals that have been confiscated from different things. They can trust us to take care of that.”