Surrogate mother cares for sick animals

Out of the swirling snow on the stormiest night of January 1987, a woman arrived at Audrey Tournay’s doorstep in Rosseau, Ont. The woman reached into her bosom and pulled out a tiny black bundle that looked like a baby squirrel. No animal had ever been carried to the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary in quite that manner, Audrey says. The orphan turned out to be a 10-day-old black bear cub weighing just one pound.

The rescuer was the secretary of a logging company. Their machines had killed the cub’s mother in Algonquin Park. The woman had done the best thing, placing the cub somewhere warm, near a reassuring heartbeat. Now it was up to Audrey to see that the animal survived.

“No one knew how to raise a baby bear,” recalls Judith Brocklehurst, then a member of the board of directors for the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary.

So Audrey used common sense, feeding the cub goat’s milk from a bottle every time it wailed – which turned out to be every two hours, day and night. The cub, Neech-ka, instinctively clawed at Audrey’s hands, kneading them until they were raw with wounds.

“It never occurred to her to say, this isn’t worth it,” Judh says. Later Audrey confided: “I told God: you got me into this, now get me out.”

Bear first of many
God, it appears, found a way. Neech-ka, the sanctuary’s first bear cub, grew into a 500-pound adult. They released him in a place where he would be safe from hunters. Since then, hundreds of orphaned bears have joined the ranks of animals, large and small, who have found a surrogate mother in Audrey Tournay.

You never know what you’ll find at her house: a tray of young snapping turtles, a bucket of baby skunks in the bathtub, a young beaver in the basement.

“So many of my friends are off to Europe, off doing exotic things,” says the 69-year-old wildlife rehabilitator, who has created a whole new career for herself since retiring as a teacher. Her friends encourage her to join them on far-off destinations, but Audrey declines.

“Why go?” she says. “I’ve been walking in the woods with bears. I’ve swum in ponds with beavers. This is the life I choose and it is a privilege.”

Her cheeks glow from her work outdoors. She wears her long grey hair snatched up in an elastic band. Bits of fur cling to the fibres of her favourite grey sweater, which is now about as old as the sanctuary and frayed at the cuffs.

“She has no interest in mundane things like TV, meals out, a vacation,” says Brian Brocklehurst, treasurer of the sanctuary. “She works seven days a week.”

Love of animals
Audrey sees it as the fulfilment of some master plan, set out for her when she was just a young girl. Her father was a minister and a strict disciplinarian. While sentimental pastimes were frowned on, Audrey did receive a gift that brought joy to her childhood: Her aunt left her a package of animal books. She grew up on stories like Buff the Collie by Albert Payson Terhune.

Audrey became a teacher, a profession which took her to Parry Sound, where she taught art and other subjects. The principal, Dave Marsh, didn’t mind her bringing animals to school. One of the first was an orphaned beaver the students called Swampy.

In 1972 she moved to a pioneer homestead outside the village of Rosseau, which allowed her to take in more orphaned animals.

Animals sent to Audrey
In accepting her first raccoon, she thought she would have a companion for a few months.

“I did not dream of all the hundreds of raccoons that would follow,” she says. The Ministry of Natural Resources began bringing her injured animals “because I was willing and there was no place else for them to go.”

Today the animals come from humane societies, veterinarians and from people who have learned of Audrey’s work at Aspen Valley. Her sanctuary, now in its 27th year, remains one of the only rural sanctuaries capable of caring for large animals such as bear, deer and moose.

In 1987, the Aspen Valley Wildlife Sanctuary became a registered charity. A board of directors was formed to  help manage business affairs. Today Aspen Valley is a “flourishing concern,” as its chairman Jennifer Wood explains. “It’s entirely due to Audrey. There’s something about her. People sense this complete dedication and love of animals.”

Over the years, Audrey has seen amazing interactions with animals – perhaps none more curious than her own friendship with an orphaned beaver called Quibble (who has since died of old age). For 12 years she shared her home with him in the winter months.

“He’d sit on the chesterfield with me. He’d wander around the house,” Audrey says. Once when Audrey was sitting quietly in her chair, having just received news that her friend had died of cancer, Quibble hoisted himself up into her lap and put his arms around her neck and his head on her shoulder.

“When trappers tell me beavers are stupid, I get so angry,” she says. “Animals like this are amazing creatures.”

Quibble, of course, did “unspeakable damage” to Audrey’s house, including chewing through the bottom of the kitchen door. If Quibble didn’t like you, he’d grab your leg and push you out the door.

Recording stories
She had a black lab called Hamish who once directed her to a litter of baby raccoons in the woods. Their mother, Merry, had been a friend of Hamish’s. Even when she was released, she often returned to visit Hamish at the sanctuary. When she died, Hamish fetched Audrey to care for her babies.

Audrey began writing these stories down, including them in her newsletters and in columns for the local newspaper.

“She is a brilliant writer,” Jennifer Wood says. When she talks, people give. When they were down to their last penny one year, Audrey made an appeal on the local television station. The money flowed in. The sanctuary survived.

Through the generosity of many, many people, the sanctuary now operates with a budget of $100,000, much of that going into construction of large enclosures. Three years ago, they were able to hire a manager, Tony Grant, who has taken over the heavy work.

More than 1,000 animals
In 1998, more than 1,000 animals passed through the sanctuary, most of them released back to the wilds when they regained their health. Here on 700 acres, the animals find the care they need in purpose-built enclosures – the bigger the animal, the bigger the pen. Several black bears share an eight-acre enclosure that encircles the forest. The diversion of a nearby creek provides a pond for the bears to splash in.

Two coyotes frisk in another huge pen. Brought in as orphaned pups, the coyotes now hide whenever Tony Grant comes to feed them – an encouraging sign, as it means they’ll be able to return to the wild this spring with a healthy distrust of humans. Aspen Valley is definitely not a zoo, but a “halfway house” for animals to get well and move on.

Some, however, can never be returned to the wild. Wolves that have been raised as dogs live a schizophrenic existence – half wild, half tame. Jennifer Wood recalls a time when a volunteer took a pet dog into the wolf enclosure when she fed the wolves.

A wolf turned on the dog and killed it. The people of the village demanded the wolf be put down. “They arrived to shoot the wolf and Audrey stood her ground. She didn’t let them on her property,” Jennifer says.

Audrey’s strong views on hunting don’t sit well in the village. To irritate her, some townspeople purposely hunt round the boundaries of her property, sending their dogs in to chase out deer that have been raised and released by volunteers at the sanctuary.

While her board members try to encourage her to consider euthanasia for the most desperate cases, Audrey refuses.

“Her theory is that everything deserves a chance,” Jennifer Wood notes.