Roberto Saucedo

Marketing/Creative/Photography

Unexpected.

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There I was sitting in a hotel room somewhere in the middle of Wyoming. Yes, that was kind of unexpected. Our 80 hour long-haul trip to rescue a couple of tigers and a bobcat in the mountains of Montana had come to a screeching halt due to a temperamental fuel pump in one of our vans. I gave myself the short straw and decided to stay behind to wait for the it to be repaired while the rest of the team headed back down south in the sprinter van and a rented U-Haul box truck. We were still fighting the clock. I wasn’t really sure why the tigers needed to be in Mississippi by Friday at 3PM but that was the deadline. Either way, we had a big event on Saturday back at the sanctuary in Wylie and 4 of us had to be there. It was the annual Easter egg hunt. It's usually the busiest day of the year as well as the biggest fundraiser. We all were assigned to help so that started to be another deadline that was edging closer. Since I stayed behind, I was preparing myself for the 16-hour solo drive back to Dallas. Sitting in the room I tried to unwind, go through some photos and respond to emails. My plan was to finish eating and be asleep by 9. The van was supposed to be ready by 10:30 so that would put me home by 2AM on Saturday morning. I could get a few hours of sleep and be at the sanctuary by 9AM. Unless anything unexpected happened.

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I ordered a taco burger and burrito form place called Taco John's. We saw them as we were driving through Colorado, Wyoming and Montana. I figured I'd give it a try. Their tater tots and raspberry tea were pretty good. That's about it. If the place was called Taco Juan's, I'd a been a whole lotta disappointed. As I was about done eating I started to think about my work situation or lack thereof. It was a weird feeling. I worked at the same place for 18 years. I had been there through 2 major moves, 4 company name changes, 5 title changes, 4 CEOs, you get the picture. Now, it was over. I started to feel bad about it. Then I started to wonder if I would find another job. I could freelance, I thought, or open my own shop. But then I would need clients. What if I couldn’t find any? These thoughts swirled in my head. I started to get a feeling of overwhelming insecurity. Then I realized that something else was swirling. The toilet. I guess the flapper didn’t set right so I got up and jiggled the handle and after a couple of minutes it stopped. Ok, it was time to go back to my wallowing. What was I going to do? What’s next for me? Just then, the toilet started again. Self-pity was put on hold. I opened the toilet tank and watched as the float would rise and then the water would shut off. After a minute the water would start again. It would run for 5 minutes and shut off for one. This was as inconvenient as it was unexpected. I was tired. I really didn’t want to wait for a maintenance guy to come and get the thing fixed. I also knew that the hotel was sold out so they weren’t going to give me another room. The off and on of the water was unacceptable so I did the most logical thing. I cut the water at the shut-off valve. Boom. Done. Back to back to my sadness. Just then I got a call from Ken. Gees, can’t a guy feel sorry for himself without being constantly interrupted?

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“Hey man. we had a problem with Mindy” Ken said. Both Mork and Mindy were pretty fat. While that seemed normal for Mork, the male tiger, we already had a suspicion that Mindy might be pregnant. We were in a rush to get them delivered to the rescue center in Mississippi as soon as possible because of the potential complications of giving birth on the road. Being confined in roll cage could be dangerous for Mindy and the newborns. Since she had a prior pregnancy where she lost the cubs, there was a possibility she would require a c-section to help the delivery. None of the scenarios were good. “We can’t go on until we get her checked out” Ken continued. “Where are you?” I asked. “We’re at a rescue in Ft. Collins”. Apparently, they had only traveled about 100 miles south before they had to stop. "Tomorrow morning we’re going to Colorado State University. They’re taking some x-rays and then we’ll figure out what’s next.” So now my plans changed too. If I got the van at 10:30, I could meet them at CSU and then we could drive back together after all. Ken said he would keep me posted if anything happened over night but for now everything was ok. I hung up the phone with Ken. Where was I? Oh, yeah, woe is me, I don’t have a job, blah, blah, blah. Then the phone rang again. It was my wife. She has the most comforting voice. She wanted to make sure I was okay because I had told her about David, the garage owner that was quite vocal about his disdain for Hispanics and African Americans (See previous post). I assured her I was fine. Whenever I talk to her everything seems right with the world. We talked for about 45 minutes. By that time all the day’s excitement had taken it’s toll. At that point I was too tired for self-pity or any emotional self-flagellation. I’m generally not that type but somehow I figured I was probably entitled to it or something because of what I was going through. Right? Either way, I was done. I had everything ready for my long drive back but it was time for bed. I don’t remember a thing until my alarm went off at 9AM.

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At about 9:30 I got a call from the young lady at the garage. "Your van will be ready in one hour” she said. “Ok. Will someone be picking me up at the hotel?” I asked. “Hmm, I guess that would be me”. She didn’t seem too happy. I told her I had confirmed that with David. “Well then I’ll just have to get him to come get you” she snapped. I guess we know who actually runs that place. I finished getting ready and then I got a call from the garage. David was on his way. About 5 minutes later he pulled up. He rolled down the window and greeted me. “Good morning sunshine” he said in a chipper tone. “How’s it going?” I said in a low voice. It was a rhetorical question but David went off on another one of his stories. “Well I’ve had this problem with my knee. I can’t seem get this thing fixed.” Then we passed an auto repair shop. They were working outside. There were several cars up on jack stands. He waved at one of the mechanics. “Yeah, I’m gonna sell him my shop one of these days. Though I don’t think he would get used to working indoors. Haha!” He talked the whole way back to the shop. I was reduced to an occasional “Yup” and “You’re kindling” and “Really?” He parked the van and we got out. I pulled out the cash for the repair. “Five-hundred-and-nine dollars”. I tried to say it with the same emphasis as he did when he gave me the estimate. He told me to pay the young lady as if he didn't want to be tainted by the appearance of an under-the-table transaction. As I paid her, I asked if she could give me a receipt and the original part. She handed me a piece of paper and we went into one of the repair bays to retrieve the old fuel pump. David saw her putting in the box. He came at us quickly and said “Yup, it was the fuel pump”. When I was back in high school my Dad taught me to ask for the original parts whenever I had work done to my car. That was just to make sure they actually did the work. As I was walking out, David followed me through the door and said goodbye after one last story. He was an interesting character. His comments from the day before really shook me. Once I let the feelings go, I stopped trying to figure out why he said what he said. Thanks to him my insides were stirred. My passion was ignited. Quite unexpectedly, David had become an important part of my adventure. I really wasn’t expecting that. I asked if I could take a picture with him. He said “Oh, one of them selfies, sure!” Snap!

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I jumped into the van just and as I put it into drive my phone rang. It was Ken. I was waiting to find out what had happened to Mindy. He said “Hold on to your seat.” He started to break up as he was talking. I lost the signal. I tried  a couple of times but couldn’t get through. I would have to wait to find out what happened.

Why?

Image Rarely do we care when things go right. But when they go wrong, we often ask “why?” Maybe it’s because of the implications of things run amok. I guess it’s different when you don’t have control over the outcome. But when you do, it can leave you wondering for a long time. The third day of our trip would be the most memorable for me. It shook me to my core. I have a warning, some of the things I will recount may offend some of you.

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It was around noon and we were somewhere between Casper and Cheyenne. One of our vans was having trouble. We were stuck on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Really, I looked it up on my phone and it couldn’t tell me where we were. The spinning click wheel mocked me. We had to look on a physical map, and, based on when we passed the last city, we determined we were about 15 miles north of Wheatland, a small town of about 3,000 people. We made a decision to drive slowly until we got there. The van sputtered and popped. A few miles down the road we came to a rest area. We stopped to assess the situation. We finally had phone signal so I started calling ahead to try to find a mechanic or service garage. Stephen called back home to let them know we were having trouble and that out timeline was in jeopardy. After several calls and referrals I ended finding a place. A pleasant sounding young lady answered the phone. I explained the situation and she said to bring the van in. She gave me the number of a tow truck driver just in case. We drove the next few miles very slowly and eventually reached our destination.

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The garage was what you might expect to find in a small town. It was an old gasoline service station. There were about 15 cars parked outside. Some of them had their hoods raised. I walked in and saw the young lady I had spoken to on the phone. I told her that I was the one that called earlier and she directed me to 3 men sitting around a desk in a small office. The room was cluttered with used auto parts and inventory catalogs. I greeted the gentlemen and explained that we were having trouble with our van. A man with his back to me said “It’ll have to wait, we’re having lunch.” He was about 30 years old and was hunched over the remnants of his meal. Oookay, I thought. Just then, an older man with white hair and a ball cap pushed over his head got up from behind the desk and said “Don’t mind him. What seems to be the problem?” I explained the symptoms our van was having and he immediately said “Sounds like the fuel pump.” Cha-ching! “Well, can you at least take a look?” I asked. He started to tell me a story about how those vans have that same problem in this part of Wyoming. “You can’t give them vans away around here.” Just then the other guy came out of the shop. He was finishing the last bite of his food and jumped into our van. He started it up and said “Yup, it sounds like the fuel pump”. We asked if he could hook it up to a machine or something. All the while the older man was telling stories. He asked if we knew how to move an ostrich from one place to another. Said he had a friend who used to hunt exotic animals back in the day. On and on he went. Ken and the other guy took the van on the road to replicate the problem so the could get a firmer diagnosis. We stayed behind with good ole David. Another young man walked up and sat next to us as we were listening to some more stories. And then it happened.

 

At first he told us that he owned about a thousand acres just outside of town. Then he told us how Wheatland got it’s name. He then talked about the power plant east of town. He said, “Boy this town has changed. That plant has a union so so now we’ve got a lot of them card carrying liberals around here.” I don’t know why he was telling us that. Then he squinted with one eye and said “Things changed when we got that nigger president.” Wait, what? I thought. He went on. "Them coons go on and on about wanting things.” Oh gees. What was that all about? “Take that coon, MLK, he’s got a street named after him in every nigger city in the U.S.” I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I looked at Stephen and he didn’t know what to say either. David looked at us as if to get some sort of “Yup!” with a guzzle of beer and a crush of the can on our forehead. What he got was stunned looks.

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Why was he saying this? I get that that’s how some people really feel. I know that’s under the surface in many places but in others, I guess, it’s right on top for all the world to see. I couldn’t tell if he was assuming he was around like-minded folk or if he was challenging us with his comments. Was he just an old man that felt what he said and said what he felt? I couldn't wrap my head around how I should feel when he fired off another one. “You know, illegals taste just like elk…if you cook ‘em right.” This one made him chuckle. He looked at the young guy sitting next to him and nudged him saying “Ain’t that right?” The young guy reluctantly nodded in agreement and then David said “That is unless them Mexicans been through the sage. Then they don’t taste so good.” He made himself laugh with that one. Stephen and I locked eyes. “You know,” David pondered, "I wish I had a hundred acres along the border. You now how many of them illegals would get through?” I had about enough. You see, this wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this type of stuff. Throughout my life I’ve been exposed to bigots and racists. I have been called out as a spic and a wetback. I’ve been bullied and mocked. I’ve been embarrassed and humiliated but I’ve always made it through. I am a proud 3rd generation Hispanic of Mexican heritage. Now this man was using a powerful and life-threatening human experience to show off and try to exert some sort of false power. His ignorant comments expose his failure to fully understand or acknowledge that this great country was founded on the backs of people from all walks of life both, legal and illegal, free and slaves. Some have risked life and limb just to make a better life for themselves and their family. The legacy of many proud men and women have ended tragically in the sage of the Sonoran dessert. The ones lucky enough to make it through have to start from the bottom. They build our houses, cut our grass, cook our food and take care of our children. Then they become a political football  when all they want to do is take care of their families. So no, this wasn’t funny. Not in the least. I’ve been known to shoot off some confrontational sarcasm or stealthy passive aggressiveness in situations like this but  there were a couple of problems: this was his town and he was supposed to fix our van. Basically, we were 1,500 miles away from home and I really didn’t know just how crazy he really was.

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As David was being David it dawned on me what he was doing. I don’t know why but he was playing head games with me. You see, I noticed something he said a little earlier when he was about to get in our van for the first time. As he opened the drivers door he made a quick comment. “I need los yayves.” (Las llaves or the keys). It went unnoticed by everyone. But I heard it. He tried to say something in Spanish. So he probably assumed I was Hispanic. Bastard! Just then my anger turned to pity. Poor David. His blind anger will never allow himself to see how much richer his life is because of the very people he dislikes so much.

 

So now what? Well, they determined it was the fuel pump. “$509.00” he said slowly as if savoring it’s meaning “and we only take cash.” Of course you do. David so freely ridicules those he thinks are taking advantage of our system but, by only taking cash, one can only assume he bypasses his obligation as a citizen to pay his fair share of taxes. What a patriot. “Ok, let’s get it done” I said. “We can’t get the pump 'til the morning so it won’t be done today,” he said. Why is this happening? We needed to get the tigers to Mississippi so I made a decision I was hoping I wouldn’t regret. I told Stephen I would stay behind in Wheatland to wait for the van. They could rent a truck to fit the rest of the group and get back on the road. Stephen said no at first but there really wasn’t any other choice if they were going to meet the deadline. So I guess I would probably be spending the night in David’s hometown. Lucky me.

 

After Stephen reluctantly agreed I called around to try to find a hotel room. Apparently the power plant was undergoing a yearly maintenance and they had booked every room in town. I managed to find the only place that had room available due to a cancellation just a few minutes earlier. I wondered if when I got to the hotel, I would run into any of those “card carrying liberals” David hates so much. I was pretty sure though, that I would run into a bunch of Latinos. Who do you think they bring in to do the back breaking maintanance work? The guys dropped me off at the hotel and I figured I could finally get some rest. I would just lay low and wait for morning to come. I don’t mind saying that I was a bit unsettled especially when I went out around 6PM to find a place to eat dinner. I couldn’t help but feel that people driving by were taking an extra long look at me but I know that was all probably just in my head. The evening was pretty uneventful after that. That is until I got a call from Ken. “Robert, we have a problem with Mindy. There’s been a change of plans.” All I could think was “Why?”

RBTO

Calling.

Image Now it was time to go back home. After a marathon 32 hour drive and the 4 hour rescue of 2 tigers and a bobcat there was no time to lose. We mounted up the vans and headed back down the road. It was about 8 PM and it was starting to drizzle. I was first up to drive on the initial leg of our return trip. The adrenaline and excitement we felt on the journey up to Montana gave way to exhaustion and fatigue. Within 20 minutes of being on the road everyone else in our van was fast asleep including little Nola, the bobcat. She was resting comfortably in a large dog crate draped with a blanket. Everyone was getting some well deserved sleep except for me and Stephen. Stephen was driving the sprinter van loaded with the tigers.

 

The darkness had reduced the beautiful Montana scenery to a winding patch of asphalt stretched out only as far as my headlights would allow. Earlier in the day we were so amazed at the beauty of the mountains, the river and the little farms we passed along the way, that I didn’t realize how winding the road actually was. At night the drive became more tactical in nature: follow this road back to Texas. I suspect, with an extra 800 pounds of weight in the sprinter, Stephen was thinking the same thing.  He slowed down ahead of me every time we entered a curve in the road. What was a 75 mile per hour sprint to Noxon was now a very calculated regress down winding hills on a 2 lane highway. We were on a tight timeline but it seemed that the highway gods were on our side. It was nighttime and the roads were mostly empty. Nothing could go wrong.

 
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We drove for 3 hours and finally stopped in Missoula for gas and to give the tigers some water. Keep in mind, we do not sedate the cats during transport. Due to the many stresses on the cats already, we had planned to stop more often to make sure they were ok and had plenty of water to drink. We also minimize the amount of food that may eat during the trip because they can experience motion sickness. Plus there is the, how do I say, occasional evacuation of the digestive system. We don’t want to encourage that. There's nothing worse than driving across the country with a tiger poop in an enclosed van.

 

This was the first time we would be in close contact with Mork and Mindy since the were loaded into the van. The roll cages were secured with heavy straps so they would not move during the trip. Aside from the guillotine doors on both ends of the cages, they also had small openings along the side at the base to allow things to be put in or taken out. A long plank of plywood covered the opening during the trip. Mork and Mindy had a layer of straw to cushion them during the ride. This meant that if the boards were removed the straw would have to be pushed away to allow the bowl to be placed inside. This could be tricky with feisty tigers. First up was Mindy who was in the cage closest to the drivers. Mak poured bottled water into a stainless steel bowl all the while talking calmly to her. “Hi girly!” she said. “Are you thirsty?” She carefully removed the board and slid the bowl into the the cage. Mindy quickly started to lap up the water with her long tongue.

 
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While Mindy was drinking Mak poured water into another bowl and turned her attention to Mork. He wasn’t as pleasant. As soon as she opened the back doors he began to pace in the roll cage. Every time she got close to the remove the board he would growl loudly, or as we say, “bark”, and then he would lunge at Mak. He was being 100% tiger. I don't think there's anything more bloodcurdling than a 450 pound tiger, 10 inches away, barking right into your ear. As she talked to him in a gentle voice she managed to remove the board and carefully slide the bowl into the cage. He also began to drink the water. After a few minutes they were done. Mak distracted Mork with one hand as she pulled the empty bowl out of the cage. Her soothing voice calmed him down considerably. She closed the back doors and did the same with Mindy. Then we were back on the road.

 

Mork was quite calm while we were driving. He would pace jut a bit and then settle down facing towards the front of the van. Mindy, on the other had, began to pace within the roll cage. She couldn't seem to get settled. She would lay down only to get back up and pace some more. She was a big girl. Thick. Ok, fat. That led to the suspicion that she may be pregnant. We were told she had been pregnant before but that the 2 cubs were stillborn. If she was pregnant it would be a huge concern. Especially if she had the cubs on the road. Aside from the complexity of managing a tigress with cubs, the state laws regarding the transport of multiple tigers was murky. What if the sanctuary in Mississippi wasn't equipped to handle newborn cubs? What if they didn't want them? Since she had stillborn cubs before, what if she went into distress and needed a c-section to get the cubs out? For our sake we were hoping she was just fat and couldn't get comfortable.

 

I was really tired and didn’t know how much longer I could go.  We drove another few more hours and at 2 AM I was ready to “tap out”. I radioed to Stephen that I was done. We stopped in Butte, Montana. I had driven 6 hours. At this point, Mica took over and I went to the back of the van and fell asleep…hard. We stopped in Bozeman and then again in Billings as we made our way out of Montana. The next few hours were sort of mundane. We drove and stopped and drove and stopped. At this point I was riding shotgun and Mak was driving. I had some time to think about my next step in life. At the same time I kept going back to the finality of it all. It was hard to wrap my head around my situation. Maybe it was because of the sameness I lived for many years. Then again, it could have been because of the extreme juxtaposition of my current location: on the road, 1,500 miles away from home with spectacular scenery. Everything was just so different now.  I felt so liberated yet so useless. What was I supposed to do? Was this all part of a greater plan? Was this the soul cleansing I was looking for? I was warned about feeling this way. I didn’t want it to ruin my adventure but the reality of it all wasn’t far behind. Things started rushing though my head as I nodded off again.

 
 
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We were somewhere south of Casper, Wyoming. Mak and I were having an interesting conversation as the mile markers wooshed by.  We talked about many things but especially about her love for animals. There is an obvious passion there. I could tell by the energy she exuded as she told me about her experiences. It wasn't a giddy excitement. Mak is not that kind of woman. It was more a glint in her eye. An attention to detail reserved for passion. I began to think about what truly motivates me. I guess I do like a lot of things. Different things. But the things I love tend to be the people and animals closest to me.  But Mak? Mak loves animals. All animals. Even the ones she’s never met. It’s refreshing to see someone so giving to nature's creatures. I see that working with animals is her calling. I envy her in that it seems so clear. But what is mine? Have I heard the call but not listened? Have I been living it but just not noticed? Just then, Mak said “Oh no”. The van started to sputter and shake. We drove another mile or two and then she pulled over. Our adventure had suddenly taken a turn.

 
RBTO

The rescue.

arrival So now it was time to get down to business. The reason we'd driven all the way up to Montana was finally here. It was time to meet the tigers. After a 2000 mile drive we finally reached what was possibly the most dangerous part of our journey. We didn't know what to expect. We were directed down the driveway into an oversized garage. We walked through an open door that led to a side yard. About 20 yards away you could see a ramshackle assemblage of fence panels. While we were trying to assess the situation one of the women said “Watch for the bears that can come from that drop off.” Wait,  the first warning we got from the women was not about the tigers but about wild bears? Apparently there were wild bears that lived in the area. Of course. We were in Montana. They would often come up onto the side yard and the older woman would feed them. They said if they came while we were there that we should head over to the porch and let the older woman in the wheelchair wave the bears away. So I'm thinking to myself—not only do we have to watch for 2 tigers and bobcat, but we also have to watch out for wild bears. Great.

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We walked up to the makeshift enclosure. At that moment a huge tiger walked up to the us and began to chuff and rub his head on the fence panel. A chuff is a sound a tiger makes by closing his mouth and breathing though the nostrils. It is a friendly sound that they make to each other or to their keepers.  "This is Morten” she said (We later found out his name was also Mork). Mork was a hefty tiger—no, he was a fat tiger.  In most rescues we often find cases of neglect. Cats are often malnourished or have some form of skin condition. They are also not very happy and are distraught and agitated. That was not the case here. It seemed that, if anything, we might be rescuing him from eating too much. Overall, Mork seemed very healthy. Maybe a few pounds too healthy. Three sides of the enclosure were made of chain link fencing. The fourth side was their den which actually looked like it was connected to the main house. There was a small opening right in the middle of the den and back in the shadows we could see another tiger. She was a bit shy and the owner had to coax her out. “This is Mindy”. Mindy looked out but stayed inside. She also looked quite healthy…ok, she was also fat.

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The main enclosure itself was about 40"x50”. The panels were 8 foot chain link fencing. The poles we cemented into the ground but you could tell that time has taken its toll so they were loose and flimsy. There was an attempt to cover the enclosure with 4x4 handy panel. That too was in disrepair. In many cases the panels and gates were held together with laces, ribbon or thick string. At the long end of the enclosure was another enclosure about the same size. There was a rectangular man-made pool that was about 5’x20’ and 4 feet deep. This enclosure had 2 gates on each end. I could tell that Stephen was assessing the situation. He began to study the fencing and the various entrances to the enclosure for a place to do the extraction. The regular protocol in these cases is not to sedate the cat. This causes unnecessary stress, and, because we are not familiar with the cat’s medical history, we wouldn’t want to risk their life with the sedative. The goal is to get the cat to enter the roll cage on their own. It sounds easy enough—put some meat in the cage and let them walk in—no, it is more complicated mostly because tigers are very smart and very cautious. They are also very strong. You can’t make a tiger do something they don’t want to do. Stephen’s main job was to ensure the safety of all of the people involved first and then of the cats. The time spent preparing was quite literally to make sure no one was hurt or killed.

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Our first attempt was to put the roll cages side by side in the second enclosure. Each had whole chicken in the far end. (The chicken was from the grocery store in case you’re wondering). Mork was curious but was not about to get into one of these strange contraptions. He was also uncomfortable with all these strangers standing around trying to encourage him to go in. Over time, he became more agitated and his pacing was more frantic. He began to jump on the fence anytime a man stood close the fence. Mindy, on the other hand, wouldn’t even come out of the den. The next idea was to put the roll cages end to end and try to get Mindy to in first. We felt if could get her into the farthest roll cage, hopefully Mork would follow her in.

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The first part worked like a charm. The owners forced Mindy out of the den and blocked the entrance from the inside with a panel of fencing. We covered the roll cages with nylon tarps to mimic a den. Mindy darted right into the first cage and all the way into the second. We shut the first guillotine door and she was secure. Getting Mork in was another story. He paced and paced. He snarled at Stephen and Ken. He would look into the cage and then walk away. He marked it several times by spraying urine on the entrance. He stopped and laid down in the middle of the enclosure several times. The 2 ladies and the older woman’s granddaughter tried and tried to get Mork to go into the cage. Finally, after 2 hours of waiting, in one quick instant Ken used a bait stick to touch Mork’s front paws as he put them up on the entrance to the roll cage. He lunged at Ken who was laying outside and toward the back end of the cage. In that split second, Mak dropped the guillotine door and Mork was in. The hard part was done. There was still the business of paperwork, vaccinations and the loading of the cages onto the sprinter van. Nola, the bobcat was much easier. She loaded lickety-split and was already in the other van.

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In all of the excitement of finally getting Mork in the cage, we lost sight of the finality of it all. You see, the older woman had the tigers since they were 6 weeks old. Now they were 14. Keeping tigers is a huge commitment of time and money. It was obvious that she loved these cats and they loved her. It was also obvious that she could no longer care for them after her husband passed away. We heard that the local fish and wildlife warden had warned them that there were plans to confiscate the tigers and that they would possibly be euthanized. There was a concern that they could escape and cause some real threats to everyone around them. That was the reason for the rescue. That is the reality of private ownership of exotic big cats. That is also the reason our sanctuary exits.

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After about 30 minutes of goodbyes, we loaded the cages and headed back down the road. We were about 5 hours behind schedule, it was getting dark and it was beginning to rain. The sprinter van was now 800 pounds heavier so driving down the road, especially in bad weather, was going to be a challenge. It was my turn to drive. As we rumbled down the road I couldn’t help but think of the older lady. About the empty enclosure and den she would find in the morning. About the regret she would feel when calling for Mork and Mindy and they would no longer come. I thought about the internal conflict she was probably feeling. Giving up the tigers ensured their survival but she knew she may never see them again. Which is harder, to lose someone forever or to let them go and know they are alive and well somewhere else? Did she betray them by letting them go or did she betray them by having them in the first place? In a way, allowing a rescue would lead to the imprisonment of her heart.

RBTO

Giving thanks.

Image I didn't set out on a mission of benevolence when I agreed to go on the trip to rescue the 2 tigers and the bobcat. I guess there's a degree of satisfaction as you help animals in distress but this also seemed to be about the camaraderie and coming together of friends to accomplish a task. We set out with 6 people, 2 vans and 2,000 miles ahead of us--4 were unpaid volunteers. What started out to be a straightforward trip turned out to be about so much more.

It was about midnight and my driving shift was coming to an end. Along my 11 hour drive I kept thinking about my current personal situation. After 18 years of working for the same company it was over. My leaving seemed rather uneventful after such a long time of mutual loyalty. It didn't end the way I had though it would but over all I was really thankful for the opportunities they had given me. My focus shifted to what lay ahead both literally and figuratively.  We were just south if Casper, Wyoming and the winds were gusting around 40 mph. It doesn't seem like much, but in a van that sits high and doesn't have a low center of gravity, I could feel sudden jerks on the steering wheel every few seconds. At times it seemed as though the van would simply tip over. If I killed my friends they would be really pissed off at me. By the time I had arrived in Casper, my knuckles were as white as my legs during the winter, and my wrists were as tight as a size 10 foot in a size 8 shoe. It's was starting to rain and sleet. The forecast was calling for a 40% chance of snow the rest of the way. Snow? It was like 80 degrees last week in Dallas. Boy, I was so thankful my shift was over. As we pulled into the gas station the snow started coming down even faster. We made our respective trips into the store for a midnight snack and a potty break. We gassed up and headed out again. At this point I was riding shotgun. The snow was coming down harder and we were treated to a strange visual light show. As we were driving straight into the oncoming snow, our headlights lit up the flakes. They looked like thousands of strands of silly string being hurled right at us. Once they hit the windshield they melted or were swept up by the fast moving wipers.

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Eventually the snow stopped. That gave way to a brilliant full moon that lit up the rolling hills. The ground was covered with snow and the sky was mostly clear. You could see thousands of twinkling stars despite the bright moonlight. I was a bit worried about attempting a rescue in bad weather, but for now things were calm. We'd driven all day and most of the night and we still had a ways to go.

I fell asleep for a while and woke up to a stunning sunrise. The hills were covered in snow as we were leaving Wyoming and entering Montana. I wish we could stop for a moment and take it all in. But we were in a time crunch. We had been driving for 24 hours and we still had 6 more.

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As we came over a hill, in the distant morning light, we saw a snow covered mountain range through the haze. Hovering just above the mountains was the dimly lit remnants of the full moon. As we all noticed this breathtaking sight, Stephen radioed the van ahead to pull over as soon as possible. He knew this was a moment to capture. They let me get out to snap a couple of pictures. I thanked him as I crawled back into the van.

We drove ahead another hour and stopped in Billings, Montana, and had a proper sit-down breakfast. The energy drinks and coffee were wearing off. Everyone was showing signs of fatigue but we were still in high spirits. On we went. We drove though Bozeman, Butte and Mussoula. Just north of Mizzoula we went onto highway 93 and then to highway 200.

We were now in God's country! Now I know God doesn't play favorites but surely he comes to this little part of paradise when he wants to relax and take in the beauty of nature. We were 100 miles away from Noxon, Montana, our final destination. The highway ran parallel to a river and a set of railroad tracks. They occasionally cross-crossed each other as they adapted to the mountainous terrain. The scenery was breathtaking from here on in.

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Along the way we had to reduce speed as we passed through sleepy little towns. After traveling a constant 75 mph, it was a huge ordeal to slow way way down. Unfortunately we didn't slow down enough when we were going through Plains. The Montana Highway Patrol pulled us over for going, get this, 33 in a 25 mph zone. The trooper stated as much as he was looking at Mak's drivers license. He noticed the sign on the door and asked what we were doing. We explained our mission to rescue cats. His demeanor suddenly changed. We took the opportunity to blame our excessive speed on Ken, the driver of the other van. We told the officer we were only trying to keep up. The lead van stopped a ways ahead since we had been pulled over. The officer looked at the van ahead then said he would go talk to the other driver. As he got out of earshot we all busted out laughing. After a few minutes the trooper walked back to his cruiser and returned with a printed warming. He said to watch out for the upcoming towns that had similar posted speed limits. He thanked us for what we were doing. We thanked him for giving us a warning and went on our way.

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We followed the winding road another 70 miles. The mountains seemed higher and the trees taller. I was taking pictures but it was hard to decide where to point my camera. At this point we knew we were close. A nervous silence swept the van. We followed the lead van closely as it finally turned onto a driveway just off of the highway. After 1,950 miles we had finally arrived. Stepping out of the van was a huge relief. The drone and rattle of the van was suddenly replaced by a peaceful silence. In the distance you could hear a woodpecker pecking on a tree and the occasional bird chirping as they flew by. The calmness was only broken by the occasional truck that would come rolling by on the highway.

We were greeted by a woman who introduced herself to us. She walked us down the gravel driveway to another older woman who was sitting in a wheelchair. She said "This is my mom. She doesn't have a voice box so she can't speak loudly." We took turns introducing ourselves. The older woman had short silver hair and a gentle face. She greeted each of us.  She seemed a little bit nervous but generally relieved that we were there. She was trying to say something as several trucks were passing by on the highway. I bent over and listened closely. She whispered to me, "Thank God you made it. Thank you for doing this". I looked around at the beauty of the surroundings a felt like I should be thanking her.

RBTO

Living.

20140418-102352.jpg As I'm sitting here writing this I am in a hotel room, by myself. somewhere between Cheyenne and Casper, Wyoming. More on that in another entry.

In "Priorities"I told you about the problems we had with our van as we passed Amarillo. I thought the adventure would be over before it really began. We sputtered to a gas station with the engine misfiring and the strong smell of exhaust mixed with gasoline in the air. We checked everything but couldn't find any problems. The van had a quarter tank of gas so we filled up assuming the gauge was wrong. It started right up and proceeded down the road without any problems. It was also my turn to drive.

I took the wheel just north of Amarillo and drove through the Oklahoma panhandle, into Colorado, all the way to Casper, Wyoming. That's was about 11 hours, 700 miles and 4 states. It sounds like a long distance, and I guess it probably is, but to put in in perspective, from Houston to El Paso is 12 hours, 750 miles and you never even leave Texas.

On this trip we have 2 staff and 4 volunteers from the cat sanctuary. We are riding in a green 1996 Dodge conversion van (yes, the age of the van is relevant) and a 15 ft sprinter van with 2 empty big cat roll cages. We're taking turns driving as others get caught up on sleep.

The amazing thing about my drive is the vastness and sheer beauty of the wide open terrain as you go northward. It was simply breathtaking. Going through the Texas panhandle and into Oklahoma the land was flat and dry with golden grassy fields as far as the eye could see. Among the natural beauty was the occasional "nodding donkey" oil pump jack and those enormous wind turbine farms that seem to be popping up everywhere. You can also enjoy the small town humor in names like the It'll Do Motel or the Just Right Cafe. You also get a sense of the country-type of first world problems.

I was buying some snacks in a convenience store and the jaded cashier was ringing me up while talking to someone on the phone. "No ma'am!" He said "This is not Patsy's Salon! This is a gas station. The phone number changed TWO years ago." You could tell this happens often. He took my card and swiped it. As I typed my pin he continued with the caller. "No ma'am, she doesn't cut hair anymore. She works at the Sheriffs office now." He bagged my snacks, covered the mouthpiece of the phone and whispered "Thank you sir, you have a nice day" as he flashed me a smile. I gave him a thumbs up and as I turned to walk out I could hear him continue with the caller. "I can give you her phone number if you want but, no, this is not a salon...it's a gas station now...for two years".

Southern Colorado is filled with grassy undulating hills. Off in the far distance you can see ranch houses, grain silos and the occasional windmill. Oh, and you can smell dairy farms even if you can't see them. As we got closer to Denver I began to see the majestic snow capped Rocky Mountains off in the distance. Here is where the country lifestyle crashes suddenly with a modern metropolis. Our north west route suddenly veered north and we began to run parallel with the Rockies for a good while.

By this time it was golden hour. Golden hour is actually the last 30 minutes of sunlight where the true beauty of nature is revealed. The contrast between light and dark is more pronounced. Warm colors become richer. The sky becomes bluer and the clouds begin to take shape as they dance across the sky. I thought that this trip couldn't be any more incredible. I was wrong.

You know, I couldn't help but think that when I began this trip the foremost thing in my mind was about trying to figure out how I was going to make a living. As I was riding in the old rattling van with 3 sleeping friends, I was alone with my thoughts. This vast beauty was laid out before me to enjoy. The next few days were uncertain as we were only halfway to northern Montana to rescue the big cats. Rain and snow were in the forecast and we were on a drop dead timeline to get the tigers to Mississippi by Friday afternoon. I realized, at that moment, I was actually living.

Rbto

Priorities.

This is something that's really important to establish early on as you're preparing your to move back in to the job market. Which do you put before the other? The resume? The website? How about the LinkedIn profile or the emails and phone calls to headhunters and colleagues? So many things, but which is more important. While I was getting ready to finish out day one I got an unusual text that has turned my perceived all-important job hunting priorities upside down. It read "So you think you could get off work for 5 days starting tomorrow to pick up cats in Montana?" "Oh gees." I thought. Actually, it was another word but you get the point.

Let me give you some background. My wife and I volunteer at an exotic cat sanctuary in Wylie, Texas. That's right. We rescue big cats. Lions, tigers, cougars, leopards, cheetahs. Did you know that there are more tigers in captivity in the state of Texas than there are in the wild in India? It boggles the mind. Lion cubs are the cutest things ever, but when they grow up they weigh between 400 and 600 lbs and require 8 to 12 pounds of meat each day. They need enough room to move around and you can't just pop them into a crate and shuttle them down to the local vet when they get sick. It's labor intensive and very expensive. Most people have no idea what they're getting themselves into. Also, the laws on exotic cat ownership are convoluted and vary from state to state. That's a recipe for disaster. That's where our sanctuary comes in. We care for neglected, abused and abandoned exotic cats.

How did I get into this? Glad you asked. Well, I used to hate cats. A lot. My wife wanted to volunteer at the rescue. But me? Meh. Not so much. She gave me the sales pitch and cajoled me. Said it would be a great thing to do together (insert sarcastic finger quotes) but she basically voluntold me we were going. I agreed it was a great idea. We went a few times and then it turned into an every Saturday thing. We helped at special events and then feeding nights. We also helped take sick cats to get X-rays and MRI's in Irving and also down to A&M. So here we are 3 years later and I love it. Over that time, some things about cats came into focus for me. I realized that cats, both exotic and domestic, are complex, complicated creatures that live life on their own terms. Unlike a dog, a cat picks you. Force it and you'll piss them off. If you let the energy flow, the connection will happen. And if it doesn't, it doesn't. It's that simple.

Anyway, back to the text. A million things started racing through my head. The first part was funny. Not funny haha. More like funny in sadistically ironic way. "So you think you could get off work for 5 days starting tomorrow." Psh. No problem. I've got time. Plenty of time. But 5 days? I have so much to do. I need to make calls and post and make connections and get out there. Then I re-read the second part: "...to pick up cats in Montana". Then my thoughts went to "what kind of cats?" What's their situation?" "Who has exotic cats in Montana?" So having nothing but time (sort of) and being fascinated by large cats, I answered the text quickly and decisively, "I'm not sure, let me find out". I called my wife and guess what her answer was? Duh. "Yes, and I wish I could go. Plus I think it would do you good to get away for a few days. It will be good for your soul". It made me think a bit. I wanted an impartial opinion so I reached out to my favorite daughter (She's my only daughter by the way). I explained the conundrum and she said "you shouldn't miss being able to go on an adventure. You can clear your mind and it will feed your soul". Smart girl. Did I mention that she was my favorite daughter?

So, I have taken the advice of a cat lover and 20 year old eternal optimist. I have reevaluated my priorities and the job hunt will have to wait for now. I am now on an adventure to Montana to rescue 2 tigers and a bobcat with enough open road to cleanse my soul to a brilliant white. It will be a marathon 60 hour drive stopping only to eat, gas up and pick up the cats. I should probably be back by Friday afternoon. I say probably because we are currently in the middle of Nowhere, Texas and the check engine light just turned on in one of our vans.

The adventure has begun!

RBTO

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Day One.

Image Actually it’s day 3 or day 5 if you count the weekend.

Either way, it’s early on in my experience. The freaky experience of not having to wake up early, of not having to drive in to work, of not having my mind swirling about the upcoming business trip or client presentation, of not needing to call a vendor or build a Powerpoint. Even the simple task of not having to drive in to work—a trip I have taken everyday for the last 18 years. That 45 minute drive from the suburbs into town, again, with my mind swirling with the day’s upcoming activities. It is surreal in it’s apparent finality.

The house is quiet except for the tapping of my fingers on the keyboard and the distant sound of wind sweeping through the trees outside. What now? Tom Cruise’s scene in risky business comes to mind but, tempted as I may be, there are things I need to do. My mind swirls with excitement, fright, hope, despair, opportunity, insecurity and confidence all ebbing and flowing, up and down, inand out. It’s a scary time but an exciting one.

I have so much to do--build my resume, prepare my website, update my social media sites, reach out to friends and colleagues. But it’s hard to focus on which one to do first, to decide which is most important because, well, it’s all important. I guess I’ll take my own advice: Leaves in a pool. I learned that years ago from cleaning our swimming pool. Usually after a windstorm the pool would be filled with thousands of leaves. There would be so many that you could hardly see the bottom. Regardless of the challenge or my laziness, it had to be done. I would just start with one basketful and then another, and another. All the while I’d be thinking of my golf swing or maybe some photos I wanted to process or a stupid song that would get stuck in my head. Before too long I could see real progress. Little by little I would make a dent and before you now it, the pool was clean. I often give that advice to people when they are overwhelmed. “Leaves in a pool my friend, leaves in a pool.” Yes, I will take my own advice and start scooping out leaves. I’ll let you know when I can see the bottom of the pool again.

RBTO

1438 Sara Ct, Allen, TX 75002   l   (214) 402-5770  I  roberto@robertosaucedo.com