ROCKINGHAM — Dianne Emanuel of Ellerbe drove more than 300 miles to Locust Grove, Georgia to deliver a trunk-load of bowling balls to tigers, bears, lions and other residents of Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary on Sunday.
Emanuel, a retired Georgia teacher, is a member of a bowling league at Strikers Bowling Alley in Rockingham — and with owner Mike Hill’s help, she is able to indulge her pet project of providing destruction-resistant toys for the sanctuary animals.
“It started the first of last year,” she explained. “I lived in Atlanta for 20 years and never knew about (Noah’s Ark). Even taught school within 10 miles of where they are, and never knew about ‘em. After I retired and moved up here, I was staying in touch with a lot of my kids on Facebook, and a lot of them and teachers I knew who worked on the south side of town talked about Noah’s Ark, and about taking their classes to Noah’s Ark, and that’s how I found out about it.”
She said she was surprised she had not heard about the sanctuary, especially since it has been home to a group of celebrity animals since 2001.
“Noah’s Ark is ‘Home of the BLT,’” Emanuel said. “They are a bear, a lion and a tiger who have lived together in the same enclosure for years. They were rescued from a drug dealer’s basement and had been so abused, and the bear had a harness on that had grown into his skin. After they were rescued, people tried separating them a few times, but they didn’t like that. So they let them live together. They were inseparable until Leo, the lion, passed away.”
She said that since Leo’s death in August, Baloo the bear and Shere Khan the tiger still share the space they enjoyed with their best friend, and that Leo was buried inside the enclosure with a concrete monument covering his grave. There are many videos of the three playing together on YouTube, and in March the trio was featured on “Inside Edition.”
“It’s a big park,” she said. “It’s 400 acres.”
“I didn’t realize it was that big,” Hill said.
“They have 300 miniature horses, 500 parakeets and parrots, five bison,” Emanuel said. “And people give them animals. This guy had this small sanctuary and he was keeping these five bison, and he loved them. He got real old, and his children didn’t want to take them, so he willed them to Noah’s Ark.”
She said the park also houses monkeys, foxes and wolves, wolf-dog hybrids, alligators and snakes and several varieties of small mammals.
Emanuel said she first got the idea of donating bowling balls to the park when she noticed Hill was discarding old ones from the bowling alley. While remodeling, Hill had taken the first of the old bowling balls “to the dump,” and she asked him to start saving them for her. He agreed to hang onto them until she could pick them up. She said that because the animals are in captivity, the handlers strive to provide enrichment activities to keep them happy and healthy — including the use of pinatas, toys made of tough, fire-hose material, and balls.
“The most beautiful thing to me is the tigers,” she said. “They have the most gorgeous tigers. They have this one tiger named Doc, and every time I see him I swear I just start crying ‘cause he’s so beautiful. He weighs 550 pounds. He is humongous. And while we were there, our guide, Paula (Hedgecoth), called him. She just said, ‘Hey, Doc.’ And he came right up to us. He rolled around the ground to show us what he looked like, and he would chuff.”
According to the animal sanctuary’s official website, www.noahs-ark.org, Doc “…was one of the ‘surplus’ cubs born at a park, and when he was too large to be used for photo opportunities, the breeder didn’t want him. Surplus animals like Doc face a grim future when they outgrow their cute and cuddly stage, and are usually sold to circuses, roadside zoos, private owners or canned hunting facilities.”
“They have a white tiger, which is a real unusual situation because most people do not realize that white tigers are caused by inbreeding,” Emanuel added. “They inbreed them and inbreed them until they get the perfect, white tiger that they want. And the ones that don’t come out perfect are euthanized.
“So they had this one white tiger named Zuri,” she continued. “When they got her she looked like she was close to death. She had no hair, just all these mats all over her skin and she was really sick. And Paula, and her mom Jama (Hedgecoth) were the ones who gave her her bath. Chlorine baths, she had to have all this stuff to get her healthy. And (Sunday) this tiger looked at her like she was her mama. She gazed at her like my dog gazes at me. Honestly.”
Emmanuel explained that Noah’s Ark campaigns for an end to the breeding of white tigers, since they are born with illnesses that last their entire lives.
“They have 1,100 animals,” she said of the sanctuary. “It costs $33,000 a month to feed them. They exist entirely on donations. They do a lot of fundraisers, and they don’t charge admission for people who want to tour the park. And I think that actually encourages people to donate more, ‘cause they don’t charge you, but they have little donation boxes everywhere where you can throw something in.”
Emanuel, who got a private and thorough golf cart tour of the facility Sunday, said that prairie dogs are not the cute, innocent creatures many people believe them to be.
“They said those were mean little (critters), and when they try to go in and clean their (enclosure), they will bite you like crazy,” she said. “And the birds, it’s hilarious — gosh, they must have eight cages of birds, there are so many. Because people buy parrots and they live 70 years, and people don’t know that they’re going to have this loud creature who is hard to take care of, who is dirty as can be, for 70 years — and you’re going to die and your children aren’t going to want ‘em.”
While Emanuel was there, she noticed one bird cage set apart from all the rest, and Paula Hedgecoth immediately explained the reason.
“She said, ‘Let me tell you about these guys. These guys are the outcasts. They are so mean. They bomb their caretakers when they come in. They peck ‘em. They throw stuff at ‘em — and they say bad words.’ So they were separated from all the other birds because I guess they didn’t want them teaching the others their bad behavior,” she said. “They were the deplorables.”
Hill said he has known Emanuel for about five years.
“She took a bunch of bowling balls down last year,” he said. “It was, I don’t know how many. I didn’t realize how many animals were down there. I was thinking, just the tiger and lion, and that bear. As far as bowling balls used as toys, I thought, ‘Well, it makes sense.’ They shouldn’t be able to break ‘em, anyway. At first I was wondering how they were going to be able to push them around. Now it’s like, I guess they can.”
Hill said Emanuel told him Noah’s Ark had a hard time keeping toys around that could stand up to being handled by large, exotic animals.
“I said, ‘Well, we can try it, anyway,’” he said. “I wasn’t sure if it would work or not, but I thought it was a great idea. I kept a bunch of balls.”
This year, Emanuel took thirty bowling balls to the sanctuary. She said that driving with that many of them on board felt similar to hauling a small trailer.
“It’s got to affect your breaking distance and stuff, because those balls, some of them are 16 pounds,” Hill said. “When you’ve got to stop, I bet it felt like you had to be pushing a little harder.”
In addition to being an animal sanctuary, Noah’s Ark supports the Children of the Ark — “an inviting and loving home to orphaned children victimized by abuse and neglect, provides appropriate medical treatment for children who are classified as ‘medically fragile,’ and provides assistance to children in emergency situations regarding their behavioral, environmental, or physical needs,” according to its official website.
To learn more about Noah’s Ark Animal Sanctuary and Children’s Sanctuary, visit them on the Web and through social media or call 770-957-0888.
Reach reporter Melonie McLaurin at 910-817-2673 and follow her on Twitter @meloniemclaurin.