Every year, thousands of captive-bred exotic animals are euthanized; it’s an ugly truth behind the exotic animal market. Abandoned, abused, neglected, and in many cases illegally obtained, these animals all needed the same thing: a home.
We met a man in California’s High Desert who has made a lifelong commitment to helping educate people about the exotic pet trade. With a great love for all animals, Joel Almquist and his wife Chemaine created Forever Wild Exotic Animal Sanctuary, a home for captive-bred animals that zoos will not take. “My grandparents had an exotic pet store for many years in southern California, so there isn’t an animal I don’t love,” said Joel.
He and his wife work seven days a week at the sanctuary. Weekends and holidays are just like any other day when it comes to the care and feeding of the exotic animals they have come to love and respect. After acquiring Fish & Game licenses, along with USDA permits, Joel began gathering volunteers to help with the mission of providing a home for the many animals that no one else seemed to want. He and Chemaine, along with their volunteers, exemplify the “can do” attitude of the American Spirit.
One of the volunteers is Kristy Emershy, who refers to herself as an “animal keeper” at Forever Wild. She says, “I’m one of the senior keepers, so I have the job of taking care of the tigers, which means feeding them, watering them, and giving them medical attention when needed.”
Not only does Forever Wild provide a safe haven for the wild animals, it also provides educational programs to teach people about these beautiful creatures and how to protect the animals from extinction.
Shannon Sharyer donates her time four days a week, noting it was her love of cats that drew her to Forever Wild. “I love them all, big cats especially, because they have such a mysterious look about them,” Shannon said. When asked if she ever gets nervous around the tigers and bobcats, Shannon replied, “I’m never afraid because we are very careful, and it’s so rewarding that I just can’t accurately describe in words the feeling you get when you’ve saved an exotic animal from death.”
Forever Wild is also home to dozens of animals that started out as adorable and appealing baby creatures, but were not meant to be kept as pets. Few pet owners possess the resources, knowledge, or dedication to properly care for these animals, according to Joel Almquist. He says, “What often happens is that someone will go online and buy a baby alligator. FedEx brings it to the house, but within a short time it’s three-feet long with sharp teeth and a strong jaw. Then law enforcement has to get involved to safely remove the alligator, and it’s just not good for everyone involved.”
Suddenly, in the middle of our visit with Joel, he received an emergency call that a woman had discovered an alligator swimming in her backyard pool. The call took us to Norco, also known as “Horsetown USA,” a city where it’s not uncommon to see horses – but a gator is a different story.
“People don’t realize if this were a female, it would get up to 8-9 feet. Males can grow 12-16 feet. The largest one on record that I’ve ever seen was 2000 pounds,” Joel said. The likely story is that the baby gator was shipped to California and simply grew too large to handle – especially with such sharp teeth! Joel crates the gator and heads back to the sanctuary.
Once the cute phase is over, owners often become overwhelmed and look for someone or somewhere to take the animal. Sadly, there are few options. The lucky ones find their way to Forever Wild.
The best reward is when families get to enjoy the beautiful animals the Almquists have in their care. Forever Wild spans many acres in California’s High Desert and is home to everything from llamas to turtles; from gators to birds.
As is often the case, the level of self-sacrifice for their mission takes a financial toll, and raising money is a constant pressure. To meet the financial needs of their operation, Joel and Chemaine became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Between the educational programs they offer and the donations they generate, their goal is to never have to turn away an animal in need.
Joel says he’s been caring for exotic animals for more than 20 years and admits he’ll never stop. He and Chemaine’s commitment to the animals in their care and to educating the public about the needs of these beautiful creatures is both admirable and heartwarming.
That’s the American Spirit.
Mary Parks is creator and host of the weekly PBS television series American Spirit with Mary Parks. She is also an award-winning journalist.