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Love Among the Ruminants

By Rita Goldman

What would you do to save the woman of your dreams? Sylvan Schwab built a refuge for hundreds of injured and orphaned animals.

As you step around the goats lounging on the stairs, or peek in at a deer nibbling romaine on the living-room recliner, you might not guess that what you're witnessing is a love story. It is.

For 25 years, Sylvan and Suzie Schwab have cared for every injured, orphaned and ailing animal brought to their abode, known officially as the East Maui Animal Refuge, unofficially as "the Boo Boo Zoo."

Located in the Ha`iku countryside on Maui's north shore, the Schwabs' two-acre property is home to about 500 animals, from week-old nutmeg manikin chicks that would fit, half a dozen, in the palm of your hand, to Louise, a majestically languorous domestic pig the size of a small sofa. Cages and aviaries provide sanctuary for some of the residents, restraint for others. But most of the animals wander the property freely. They are a model of peaceful coexistence that puts many human societies to shame.

The day we've arranged our interview, Suzie is too ill to join us. Sylvan tells me to come anyway, and greets me at the gate, a smiling fellow in zookeeper's uniform, his hair and beard flecked with gray.

Our first stop is an aviary beneath the Schwabs' second-story home. Doves and parrots fly from perch to perch; a barn owl with a surgical pin in its wing blinks at us with scholarly detachment. In one cage sit two pueo, Hawaiian owls, each with an amputated wing. Schwab introduces me to a pair of macaws named Scarlet and Huelo, and says the bird I don't recognize is a black-crowned night heron.

"And this is my best friend, Oh So," he adds, stroking the velvety ears of the full-grown axis deer who likes the relative seclusion of the aviary. "The name is short for `Oh So Precious.'"

Oh So is an exquisite creature with soft brown fur and a spotted white back. Axis deer keep their spots into adulthood, and because Oh So has been neutered, his antlers won't develop. (Most of the animals here are neutered, both to keep the population down, and because sexually mature animals are more aggressive.) As Oh So nibbles my notepad, I notice that his pupils are milky white. Oh So is blind.

"Almost all our deer arrive orphaned by hunting," Schwab says. "Oh So was in the womb when his mother was shot. The hunter saw movement, cut him out and took him home. He's blind because he didn't have his mother's milk."

Come again?

"Mammals' stomach lining is porous for a few days after birth. The colostrum in their mother's milk has antibodies that protect the infant from infection until the lining closes and bacteria can't penetrate. Without its mother's colostrum, a deer almost never survives. Oh So was lucky: he only got cataracts and glaucoma."

Outdoors, as we thread our way among an assortment of furred and feathered creatures, Schwab admits that he and his wife didn't start out to be a modern-day Mr. and Mrs. Noah. He was working in a photo lab in Lahaina when they met.

"Suzie was living on the Mainland, and was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She didn't want her family to know, so she opened an atlas, closed her eyes and pointed. Her finger landed on Maui. I lived in the condo next door. The first time I said, `I love you,' she ran out the door, crying. When I caught up with her and asked what was wrong, she said, `I'm dying.'"

Schwab took her to Jon Young, a doctor of Chinese medicine in Honolulu. "He put her on Chinese herbs, megavitamins and a juice diet of raw red potatoes and beets. She lived on that for a year and a half. It tasted terrible, but it cured her."

Dr. Young had said that Suzie would need a strong will to live. "She'd go to the pet store every week and spend time with the baby animals," Schwab recalls. "When I saw how important they were to her, I started asking for animals that needed care. I apprenticed under the Department of Land and Natural Resources on how to care for them. We became the `Boo Boo Zoo.' Suzie still has medical problems, but the cancer disappeared."

We pause beside a reinforced metal cage, where Schwab introduces me to Louise, a pig of formidable size. "Louise came here as a baby. She walked out of a cane field right up to someone's feet. She's not locked up because she's mean, but because she doesn't know her own strength, and breaks things. She can bend steel pipe."

In the open-air tool shed, we're greeted by Henry, a sheep with misshapen hooves, and a goat who leaps down from the workbench and nudges Schwab for attention. "This is Hillary Clinton," he grins. "A woman named Hillary brought her in, and the rest just seemed appropriate. Hillary's job is to knock down my tools every morning and poop on the workbench."

Wheelchairs for the four-legged hang from the rafters. "We take any animal, in any condition, unless I can't take proper care of it," says Schwab. "We try not to duplicate the work of other organizations. Maui has two groups that look out for feral cats. Most unwanted dogs and domestic cats go to the Humane Society, but that facility isn't set up to care for wild or injured animals 24/7."

Some animals really need that level of care. Schwab opens a cage to retrieve Shiro, a cockatoo whose name means "white" in Japanese. When I ask whether she'll perch on my arm, Schwab says to cuddle her. I do, and the bird cuddles back, tucking her head into my chest and muttering-I swear-"I love you."

"For seven years, she and the woman who raised her were always together. Then the owner took a job that kept her away ten hours a day, and Shiro started pecking herself. Cockatoos, parrots, and other intelligent birds do that when they're lonely or bored. For her own protection, the owner brought her here."

Another expense for the Boo Boo Zoo. The East Maui Animal Refuge spends around $5,000 a month on feed, including 500 frozen mice that are shipped in from Texas for owls and other birds of prey. Another $5,000 goes for utilities. Five refrigerators and five sets of washers and dryers are in constant use. In a large bathroom-turned-veterinary-clinic, Schwab shows me why. Piles of laundry are heaped on countertops and shelves: clean towels, cotton throw rugs and cloth diapers in sizes from small dog to deer, not to mention the uniforms that will end each day looking like a Jackson Pollack painting done in mud, feed and bird poop.

"Most of our money comes from people who visit and see what we do," says Schwab, "but I never ask. We don't charge for anything, we don't sell anything, and we don't adopt out any animal you can eat."

Critters at the East Maui Animal Refuge already have a home for life, so the Schwabs adopt out very few animals. Instead, they encourage prospective pet owners to adopt from organizations like the Humane Society. "We'd rather send you there and save a life," says Sylvan.

In the living room, a fawn on a La-Z-Boy calmly munches lettuce. "That's Yes Deer. She has crippled legs. During the day, she stays in the recliner. At night she sleeps in our bed."

Schwab explains that sensitive animals who are subjected to severe stress can go into shock, and if left untreated will die. The hunter who bagged Yes Deer's mother had tied the fawn nearby while he butchered the doe, not realizing he was traumatizing the baby.

Schwab meets my indignation with a philosophical shrug. Hawai`i permits year-round hunting, because feral deer, goats and pigs threaten native flora and fauna. And if not for that hunter, this gentle creature wouldn't be in Sylvan's life.

It's a remarkable attitude, especially when you consider how completely the Schwabs have devoted their lives to the creatures they care for. The East Maui Animal Refuge is an all-volunteer, 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that is primarily funded by private contributions. Expenses typically total $12,000 to $15,000 a month. One year, Suzie's recurring medical problems left the Schwabs with a hospital bill of $200,000.

"We were advised to file for bankruptcy,'" he says. "Then my mom died. With the money she left me, we paid off our back taxes, evened out our credit, and gave the refuge an interest-free loan for the mortgage."

Does he ever get discouraged?

"I take it one day at a time. Suzie always says not to worry, that things will take care of themselves. We've been on the TV show Hawaiian Moving Company three times, and each time, people have responded with donations.

"Wai Ulu Farms Feed Store carried us for two years; we owed them $16,000. Dr. Ronald Moyer, of Upcountry Veterinary Services, has donated about $20,000 worth of services-exams, surgeries, medications-each year for the past 15 years. We couldn't do what we do without him."

About 15 volunteers work at the refuge every week, and Suzie takes on whatever chores she can manage. Nevertheless, Sylvan has the lion's share of responsibilities, working from 3:30 in the morning to 7 at night, 365 days a year.

What does he do for himself? Schwab throws his arms wide in a gesture that encompasses the whole sanctuary. "This. I love what I do. When people tell me there'll be a place for me in heaven, my answer is, `I'm already there.'"

I told you this is a love story.

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East Maui Animal Refuge - 25 Maluaina Place - Haiku, Hawaii 96708 - (808)-572-8308