How do I know it's been too long since I took my kids to visit Oatland Island Wildlife Center?
Because when I told them we were going to meet the new cougar in town, my 14 year-old son looked alarmed and asked, “She doesn’t like men with braces, does she?”
You may conclude that I’ve let him watch too many episodes of Desperate Housewives on Netflix. You might be right. In any case, I arched a righteous eyebrow and apprised him that while Shanti the Cougar may indeed sound like a Chardonnay-swilling dipsomaniac with a wardrobe of Lululemon yoga pants, he was sorely mistaken. And also grounded from TV for the next month.
This all had to be explained to his little sister, who, thank the Lord, had no idea what we were talking about. Until now.
“So then what’s an older man called who goes after younger women?” she wondered next, flattening her tube of yogurt with a slurp.
My son considered this, ostensibly reviewing the melodrama of Wisteria Lane in the cobwebs of his already summer-stunted mind. He replied, “A creep.”
“That’s it, no TV until November,” I yelled, dispelling any trace of the Zen I thought was supposed to come with my new yoga pants. “Get your shoes on, now.”
As we turned onto Oatland’s shady drive, I realized it had been at least a year since we’d last visited, though my hard drive overfloweth with past images of my two sassymouths scampering across the wooden walkways and screeching at the barn owls. Thankfully, this pristine maritime forest remains a respite for humans as well as more than 50 animal species.
It’s a veritable 100-acre wood of Winnie-the-Pooh wonderment, even if the center’s beloved old black bear passed on to the Big Honeypot in the Sky back in 2008.
No one knows its charms better than Friends of Oatland (FOO) chair Kim Carver, born and raised on Wilmington Island and a habitual visitor since she was “knee high to a grasshopper.” The senior cabinet finisher at Gulfstream has been a dedicated volunteer here for years, and now that her son’s in college, she’s ramped up her passion even more.
“There’s just no place like it,” said Kim as we shpritzed on bug spray. “This is a real treasure in Savannah.”
She took us through in the center’s main building and sunny atrium, home to a couple of rat snakes and a sleepy pair of possums named Aster and Tulip. A recent art installation of a mighty oak tree made entirely of naturally-dyed wool hangs from the ceiling, brimming with a diverse ecosystem of crocheted species (congratulations to the Fiber Guild of the Savannahs for an exceptional yarnbomb of the highest order!)
Kim explained that this stately edifice, first built as a retirement home for railway workers in the 1920s, has evolved quite a bit from the sterile laboratory where the U.S. Public Health Service once studied sexually transmitted diseases.
“What’s syphilis?” whispered my daughter as she eyed a baby alligator.
“It’s like leprosy,” informed her brother. “Your nose falls off.”
I didn’t correct him. He’s watched enough cable to know full well which body part falls off; I suspect he was protecting his sister’s innocence.
While the facility itself is owned by the Savannah-Chatham County Public School System to host educational programs, it’s the non-profit FOO that raises the funds to maintain the visitor’s center and support the care of the resident critters, mostly through donations and gift shop sales of adorable stuffed creatures (the kind manufactured in China, not by taxidermy.)
Kim told us how FOO helped with the acquisition of Shanti, the 2-year-old male Puma concolor that’s been sending animal lovers of all ages into a tizzy since his society debut at the end of May.
“Our next goal is to bring back some bears,” she promised as we skipped through the saw palmettos and demonstrated to our old owl pal Wahoohoo that we could still screech with the best of ‘em.
When we came to the new Cougar Crossing, we ran into facilities manager Kevin Morley, who has been building animal dream homes at Oatland for 20 years, including the wonderful wolf enclosure that allows folks to get up close and personal with the predatory pack. The master craftsman envisioned a similar interactive habitat for the new cougar and his panther roommate, Comanche, the soporific 16-year-old who’s been around long enough to grow his own Spanish moss.
“We had to renovate the fence anyway, and I thought ‘Let’s do something on ground level so people can see how magnificent the animal really is,” shrugged Morley, deflecting our applause for his cantilevered wooden shelter with its fine finishes and a tier of massive windows.
(If you’ve ever read The Dangerous Lives of Altar Boys by Savannah-born novelist Chris Fuhrman, in which a main character tries to break into Oatland Island and meets a violently cougarlicious end, you will also appreciate the reinforced locks on the gates.)
And then there was Shanti himself, pacing back and forth like he was waiting for someone to buy him a cocktail. Kim had warned me that he likes to play peek-a-boo, but I still gasped when he brought his broad face up to mine, ducked around the corner and pounced at the glass.
“I think he likes you, Mom,” tittered my girl.
I’m usually prone to flipping a middle finger in response to catcalls from strange men, but when it came to this big handsome feline, I gotta admit, I was flattered. That tawny coat! Those hazel eyes! Those teeth!
I gawked as Shanti strutted over to a shady grove, plopped down and crossed his paws. I swear on my best kale plant that he winked at me.
“Let’s come back next week and see him again,” I gushed.
My son rolled his eyes in disgust. “Gawwwd, Mom. Who’s the cougar now?”
He’s right; I’m way too old to be admiring the muscles of an adolescent male, even if he does have four paws. Plus, interspecies crushes never really work out.
Instead, I channeled my concupiscence back at the gift shop, where I laid out a very reasonable $45 for a year-long FOO family membership. I also ordered an engraved board to be placed on one of the wooden walkways for my husband as a Father’s Day gift (surprise, babe!) to remind us of happy childhoods, even when the kids’ feet are bigger than ours.
Of course, I don’t need an incentive to go back to Oatland Island sooner than later, ‘cause you’re never too old to play peek-a-boo.