Story and Photos by Stephen K. Peeples
As anyone who’s done it will tell you, a walk through the trails at Vasquez Rocks Park in Agua Dulce is a great way to reconnect with nature. But when your hiking party includes Tabori the hybrid wolf, Chrissy the baboon, and a trainer from the nearby Animal Tracks Inc. exotic animal rescue ranch, your walk on the wild side becomes a whole new ed-venture.
The nature hikes with semi-wild animals are part of the non-profit ranch’s dual mission — to protect exotic creatures that can’t be released into the wild for one reason or another, and to educate humans about the animals and their natural habitats, through presentations at schools and private parties like birthdays, weddings, company gatherings and other occasions.
“If you include all the little critters, including reptiles and rodents, we have probably about 72 animals,” said Stacy Gunderson, who operates Animal Tracks in partnership with her husband, Thomas Gunderson. They’ve worked as professional animal trainers in the film and television industry for 17 and 25 years, respectively.
The Animal Tracks menagerie also includes red and grey foxes, a serval, emus, African porcupines, a raccoon, a kookaburra, a kinkajou, an opossum, a Burmese Python, desert tortoises, chinchilla and more.
Animal Tracks “was founded in 2002 by a wonderful lady named Trenda Renegar, and she decided to go out and do other things in 2008,” said Stacy, who went cage-shopping there with her husband around that time, and decided to take over operations. Later that year, they established Animal Tracks as a non-profit corporation and moved to the Agua Dulce ranch once owned by Western star Monte Montana, who died in May 2008.
Stacy Gunderson shows off one of Monte Montana’s saddles in the living room of the “horse house” at Animal Tracks Inc.
While the animals are not for sale, people can sign up to be an animal’s sponsor, which will help cover the cost of the animal’s food and upkeep. The costs vary depending on the animal’s size and condition.
Nor does Animal Tracks buy exotic animals.
“The animals come to us when they need a home,” Stacy said. “This is our way of giving back. Let’s say somebody has a blind raccoon they can’t take care of, or it gets confiscated by Fish and Wildlife. It can come here and spend the rest of its life. That’s our mission. So we’re not out purchasing animals in order to entertain people.” She emphasized that caring for the rescued animals is Animal Tracks’ “No. 1” priority.
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“A lot of the animals we have here are hybrids,” she said. “Hybrids can’t live in a zoo because they’re a cross between two different species, and these animals would be put to sleep if they were sent to a zoo. So, it’s important that facilities (like ours) take in hybrids.”
Animal Tracks is a safe haven for all kinds of wild animals who have lived in captivity and couldn’t survive if returned to nature.
“We had someone who had a fox illegally, and they let the fox go,” Stacy said. “Nobody taught the fox how to be a fox, so he was starving to death in one of the parks, and that’s how we got him.”
Along with its rescued animals like Tabori and Chrissy, the ranch is also home to a couple famous movie animals, most notably Crystal, the capuchin monkey that stole “Hangover 2.” Crystal is owned by Birds and Animals Unlimited, Thomas Gunderson’s employer, and not part of the Animal Tracks menagerie, but lives at the ranch because he has been her trainer for almost two decades, and they’re inseparable.
Squirt, Crystal and Stacy Gunderson stop for a snack.
Animal Tracks is open for tours and nature walks by appointment only. The Gundersons and their staff of experienced trainers also take their “ed-venturous” animal show on the road, loading up a large van with cages holding a variety of creatures that people young and old will find fascinating.
“We take 10 animals from around the world and do a one-hour edu-tainment program,” she said. “It’s very, very hands-on. We take scorpions, tarantulas, snakes, alligators, wolves, monkeys, foxes, raccoons — things like that.”
Stacy Gunderson tries on a new wraparound accessory — Irma the Burmese python, a star of Animal Tracks’ wildlife presentations.
Along with presentations at elementary schools, “We have done weddings, funerals, adult birthday parties, kids’ parties — pretty much anything that would require an animal, we can do, and tailor it to whatever is needed,” she said. The “party animals” have as much fun as the guests.
Gunderson said the school presentations and kids’ events are her favorites. “We’re so plugged in to technology these days that I think kids forget animals even exist,” she said. “You go to school, you come home, you play video games, and if you never saw a baboon, you wouldn’t think twice about it. We go to the school, we bring alligators, giant snakes and lizards, scorpions and monkeys, and the kids just come to life. They’ve almost forgotten that (these are) there, and the kids light up like a Christmas tree.”
Stacy said she and her husband are setting up a space at the ranch so they can start doing educational presentations right on the premises, where the animals live. “That’ll be a first,” she said. They expect to have a small stage and seating area built out in the next couple of months.
“Animal Tracks is very interested in speaking to any motivated Eagle Scouts that need a project,” Stacy said. “We desperately need a new reptile room. We’re re-doing some yards for emus and dogs and wolves. So if anybody’s looking for a project, we’ve got projects. The list is a mile long.”
The Gundersons also invite volunteers to help build out and maintain the ranch’s stables, cages and habitats. “We have Volunteer Days on Thursdays and Sundays, and everybody’s welcome,” Stacy said. “Anybody 16 or older looking to volunteer should give me a call.”
Robert Redford and Monte Montana have it made in the shade at the Animal Tracks rescue ranch.
Santa Clarita Valley residents who’d like to invite the Animal Tracks crew to liven up their parties or volunteer can contact either Stacy or Thomas Gunderson at 661-268-1314. The ranch’s Web address is www.animaltracksinc.org and there’s an Animal Tracks Inc. Facebook page, too.
An Animal Tracks Tour
Stacy Gunderson took a visitor on a guided tour of the ranch, starting by introducing the pair of stallions who lazily graze in the front pasture on the right side of the driveway. Their names? “Robert Redford and Monte Montana,” she said. “They’re on about half an acre.”
On the left side of the road is an open area where the Gundersons plan to develop three yards for rescued dogs and dog-wolf hybrids and another for emus. “This is what we’re working on with Boy Scouts,” she said.
Walking up to the top of the driveway we arrived at what Stacy called “the horse house,” where she and her husband now live.
“There was still a lot of (Montana’s) memorabilia here when we bought it, like this,” she said, yanking the chain on the big bell hung on the “horse house’s” façade. “That’s the dinner bell they used to call everybody in from the rodeos.”
Inside the front door, we viewed Montana’s living and dining areas, with their rough-hewn rafters, huge fireplace and hearth bracketed by saddles, and the bar.
“This is actually the house where Monty’s horse lived, and you can see the doorways are extra-wide, ’cause you want your horse to be comfortable when he’s in the house,” she said. “I have heard stories that Monty’s wife wasn’t fond of that, so he actually built her a separate house, so there was the ‘wife house’ and the ‘horse house.’ We own the ‘horse house.’”
The Gundersons also own the large barn where Montana once stabled his steeds; it now houses gators, birds and more. However, the “wife house,” up the hill a bit and overlooking the barn and the “horse house,” is now owned by a neighbor, and not part of the Animal Tracks ranch, Stacy said.
Inside the garage is the small enclosed room that’s heated especially for many of the ranch’s reptiles, and high on the list of Animal Tracks improvement projects.
“We have lizards, bearded dragons, skinks,” she said, pointing to one glass enclosure, then another. “We have our snakes up here. This is a red-tailed boa, and we have Lucille Ball, the ball python. Outside (in other bins and enclosures), we have some scorpions, desert tortoises, turtles and alligators. And we keep cockroaches to feed all the critters. So, we have quite a few reptiles we’d like to build a nice new reptile home for.”
Stacy reached into one large plastic tub with a few inches of water in it and pulled out a giant African bullfrog, one of a few different types of frogs in the reptile room.
“Once again, we didn’t buy these animals,” she said. “People purchase them for their kids, then decide they don’t want them anymore. This is a $500 frog. Somebody decided they didn’t want him, so they just gave him to us. It’s amazing to me — they’ll spend so much money on cages and food, then say, ‘No, we just don’t want it anymore.’”
Outside the garage area, Stacy opened another, larger plastic enclosure, and pulled out a huge, 12-foot-long Burmese python, another case in point.
“This is Irma from Burma,” she said, hoisting the 50-pound yellow-skinned snake up to her shoulders. “She’s always a crowd-pleaser. She can grow up to 25 feet long, so she’s only half-grown.”
Stacy then introduced Bernie, one of two South American tegus on the ranch (the other is named Ernie) and a couple feet long, and Pincher the African scorpion, about as big as her hand.
“It’s the most common scorpion in pet stores ’cause they’re gentle, so people get them, (then) don’t want them,” she said. “Same thing with geckos, spiders… There’s quite a menagerie of things that people (have said), ‘I just don’t want it anymore.’”
Bernie the South American tegu greets a visitor with fork-ed tongue.
Heading over to the barn, there were no horses in the stable. “We’ve got alligators and turtles in there now,” Stacy said, walking into the first stall and pulling out a small alligator that greeted the visitor with a “hisssss.” “Oh, that’s alligator for ‘Hi!’” she said. “These came on the black market. People who had them shouldn’t have, and they were confiscated by Fish and Wildlife. We have a friend there that got 17 of them, and he gave us two.”
The California high desert is not the friendliest of habitats for gators, which prefer hot, humid, swampy environments. “An alligator can’t eat six months out of the year in California,” Stacy said. “It has to be 85 degrees or warmer in order for them to digest their food. So for six months, he does something we call ‘bermination,’ where he’s awake but hibernating until it gets hot enough to eat.”
Another portion of the stable has been designated the future estuary, for birds of prey, and exotic birds, like a kookaburra with a broken beak. “She lived in another facility but a macaw got mad and removed the bottom portion of her beak,” Stacy said. “So, we feed her every day to make sure she gets all the food she needs.”
Adjacent to the barn is a couple of dog run areas, one for rescue dogs (there are two right now, both available for adoption) and another for wolf-dog hybrids like Tabori, who’s about nine years old and 85 percent wolf, Stacy said. “It’s an Indian name for ‘Voice That Carries,’” Stacy said. “As our neighbors can tell you, at 3 a.m., he can sing like Miley Cyrus.”
She took the visitor inside the run to meet Tabori, who was aggressively friendly. He sniffed down the visitor, then bounded on top of a doghouse and embraced his mistress in an unabashed display of affection (pictured at right).
Joking aside, Stacy said, “There are people who think it’s really, really fun to breed a dog and a wolf and have a wolf in your house, but if you bred a cat and a cougar, would you invite it to your dinner table? Never a good idea. So, we want people to know — get an education, work with wolves, but don’t necessarily breed your dog to a wolf.”
Another portion of the row of large cages was for ‘possums, owls and animals that are hurt. “We catch the wild animal and take them to rehab facilities,” Stacy said. “We have an opossum that was deemed not able to go back out in the wild, and she’s not very people-friendly. They get something called ‘crispy ear,’ which is a massive internal infection that will kill the possum, so she’s on medication for the rest of her life, and that’s why we have her. She’s a native animal; you’re not supposed to have native California animals unless they can’t be released back into the wild.”
In a smaller, separate cage were three chinchillas, and Stacy introduced the visitor to Fuzzy-Wuzzy. “He’s just a really fancy rat, probably $150 in a pet store. The reason people love them is for their fur. They have 40 hairs per follicle, which makes their fur amazingly soft. Fuzzy-Wuzzy was a pet, but now he’s living here like the happy rat he should be. He lives with another male and a female, so they have a little family group.”
In another enclosure were a couple of African porcupines. “They’re about 40 pounds each and the largest rodents in the world,” Stacy said. “African porcupines breed very well — they have babies year-round. So, there are lots of them in captivity. They look like they should be from Hawaii, like they’re wearing a hula skirt. Their quills are modified hairs, so they cannot shoot their quills.”
Finally, the visitor got to meet Crystal the monkey and her friend Squirt, who share a large cage at the ranch, and Chrissy the baboon, who has her own palatial digs.
Chrissy the baboon can hardly wait for the next walk on the wild side with humans.
“Chrissy is a hybrid, a cross between two different kinds, and lives here by herself, so she is a part of our troupe — my husband, myself, my kids, my brother, anybody who comes to help — and it’s nice,” Stacy said. “The thing with baboons, socially, they come from a very strict background. Male baboons run a tight ship, so she comes with a lot of rules already in her head, and so she follows along with the program really easy ’cause she just wants to fit in and be part of the group.”
Chrissy’s behind looks like “her brains are falling out of her butt,” as one four-year-old described it at a recent presentation, Stacy said. “She’s actually in estrus, which means she ready for mating. It tells the males when the females are the most ready to breed and conceive a child. It’s not that big right now; it will get to the size of a basketball.”
Chrissy, now 7 years old, “can live up to 45 years in captivity,” Stacy said. “She plays on the trampoline sometimes, she gardens with me, she spent a little time in the swimming pool this summer because it was so hot. She is the undeniable Queen of Animal Tracks.”
Gunderson invited members of our community to call for an appointment to visit Animal Tracks in person.
“Come out here, bring some family, share some animal love, and we’ll show you a really wild time!” she said.