By Caleb Lunetta
Signal Staff Writer
As the Woolsey Fire burned its way through parts of Los Angeles County, Animal Tracks in Agua Dulce once again offered up its nonprofit facility as a sanctuary for exotic animals in harm’s way.
“If we take animals, we take them responsibly,” said Stacey Gunderson, the director of Animal Tracks Inc., as she pointed to two parrots that had been sent to the sanctuary after the brush fire threatened their owners’ home in Calabasas.
Taken over by Gunderson and her husband, Troy, in 2008, after decades of work between the two of them in the animal training-side of the movie industry, the Animal Tracks Inc. facility has grown to house dozens of species of animals — whether they be given refuge due to a wildfire, or because of negligent owners.
“The wild lemur now only has a tiny portion of its population left in Madagascar, and they will likely be extinct by the end of my lifetime,” said Gunderson. “We can only help so many animals here, but when we heard about Telo, a lemur who had gotten bitten by another lemur and who’s muscles had atrophied in her back two legs, we just had to help.”
Telo’s home was crafted to ensure that the public can interact with her, but also so that she’s always within the confines of a healthy environment for the creature, according to Gunderson.
“What we’re about is come here if you want to play with alligators, but don’t put an alligator in your bathtub; come here if you want to play with monkeys, but don’t put a monkey in your house,” said Gunderson. “It’s all about safety for us here: safety for you and safety for our animals.”
Guests who visit Animal Tracks are given the first taste of their hands on educational experience when Pincher, an Asian forest scorpion about the size of an average adult human’s hand, or The Erminator, a 14-foot albino Burmese python, are brought out during the visitor sign-in process.
Guests then head to the barn area, where staff members are crafting the day’s food for over 23 species of animals.
Hundreds of dollars worth of fruit, vegetables and meat are chopped daily, and many of the toys and apparatus used for the animals are handcrafted by the staff in the barn, according to Gunderson. For instance, Telo, who’s back leg muscles are just know growing back after being at the the sanctuary for three months, has her own custom wheelchair made by a local firefighter.
Once through the gate and inside the main area of the sanctuary, which is lined with various-sized cages and pens, guests are given the opportunity to have eye-to-eye, hand-to-fur moments with over 60 animals ranging from ferrets, to alligators to wolf-hybrids.
A Fennec fox named Dobby is brought out of its pen as Cavies, who resembles a smaller version of a capybaras — the world’s largest rodent species — nibble upon guests’ shoelaces. Tucked away in the corner of the lot is Monzo, a Serval big cat, who suffers from a multitude medical conditions brought on by age and a former owners’ negligence, but still comes to “rub up on” visitors.
“A lot of these guys were bought illegally by their original owners and they think that they can be kept as pets in their homes. But they can’t,” said Gunderson. “I always compare it to Harry Potter: ‘They’re similar enough to intrigue, but they’re different enough to offend.’”
Some guests are even given the opportunity to have Capuchin monkeys, named Maci and Marley, and a baboon, named Chrissy, crawl onto their backs, as Gunderson informs you about their behaviors and why they do what they do.
“These are very personal experiences,” said Gunderson. “Just by you sitting here, (Maci and Marley) are touching you and they’re getting comfortable with you, and once they are, they’ll climb on you all day.”
It’s that connection established between her and the animals, and the connection her animals establish with the guests, that makes Gunderson and people come back to the sanctuary everyday. And why people in a crisis trust her with their animals.
“This works with kids with autism, people with depression… we had a family who just lost someone and wanted to come feel better with the monkeys,” said Gunderson. “Everyday, I still feel warm and fuzzy being here.”
Those wishing to make a reservation with the Animal Tracks Inc. sanctuary, or learn more on how to donate to the nonprofit, can visit their website at animaltracksinc.org.