In a post-Christian landscape, school chaplain nurtures young faith
BRISBANE, Australia — The well-being team at Redlands College paused while…
The smooth concrete floor chilled my bare feet. Needle-like claws pierced the front of my striped pajama shirt. Another set of paws tangled my then-blond hair.
My mom reached over and plucked one of the creatures off my head to feed it Esbilac, an artificial milk replacement, from an eyedropper.
The year was 2001. I was 3 years old, and we were raising a brood of orphaned fox squirrels in our Little Rock, Ark., home.
Another box nearby held a nest of sleeping juvenile cottontail rabbits she had already fed.
Hosting unconventional animals in our home wasn’t uncommon — my mom, Carol Jackson, has been a licensed wildlife rehabilitator with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission for 24 years.
Despite the wildlife label, that job is tame compared to her prior experience.
She volunteered at the Little Rock Zoo before I was born. Starting as a docent in 1990, she led educational tours, fed animals and cleaned enclosures. Five years later, she applied and received a Federal Rehabilitator Migratory Bird and Raptor Permit.
Then, when I was a year old, she applied to be a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
One has to wonder what she was thinking when she chose to add the care of orphaned wildlife to the mix with a child under 1. I’ve always just assumed I was wild enough that she simply thought, “What are a few more animals?”
She certainly passed along her passion. My seasonal “pets” — usually captured in spring and released in fall — ranged from the common snapping turtle to a Texas brown tarantula.
On Easter my mom swapped the usual candy contents of plastic eggs with caterpillars, frogs, pill bugs and millipedes she’d found around the garden.
Because of her, nearly all of my favorite childhood memories are connected to nature.
By the time I was 8, I’d read every biology textbook we owned, memorized most sections of the “Field Guide to North American Birds” by the National Geographic Society and could identify every species of snake native to Arkansas.
Stacks of VHS tapes held recordings of informative TV shows — most notably “Zoboomafoo,” a PBS show led by a ring-tailed lemur, and “The Crocodile Hunter,” an educational (and entertaining) show on Animal Planet hosted by Steve Irwin.
As young as I was, the latter also happened to be my first introduction to Australia.
At nearly 9,000 miles away, Australia seemed like a mythical land of animals and laid-back people (both of which are true, by the way). Visiting seemed unattainable.
But then as an adult I began working for The Christian Chronicle. Our interests aligned.
It seems that my boss, Bobby Ross Jr., enjoys sending me away to far-flung nations just as much as I like traveling. Yet, as my coworkers at the Chronicle can testify, any animal — regardless of where — can command my attention.
On safari in South Africa I was chided by my cohorts for being equally as entertained by a stray cat at dinner as I had been with a bull elephant mere feet from our vehicle hours before.
So, naturally, when I had a day off while on a recent reporting trip in Brisbane, Australia, I had only one goal: visit the Australia Zoo.
Founded by Irwin’s family, the zoo started as a wildlife sanctuary for rehabilitated and non-releasable wildlife until it eventually grew to become one of the most notable zoos in Australia, largely due to Irwin’s international reputation as a contagious TV persona.
It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience — I got to check petting a kangaroo off my bucket list — rooted in something deeply familiar.
Irwin and I share what I consider a determining factor in our love for wildlife: our moms.
Neither of us grew up in fear of wildlife simply because it was never presented as an option. Irwin’s mother, Lyn, raised him beside orphaned joeys in her care, much like my mom raised me.
Having the opportunity to experience such a variety of God’s creation at the Australia Zoo felt like the actualization of dreams — both mine and my mom’s — that started so many years ago in a far more humble location.
I like to believe we occasionally get insight into what a perfect world might have been.
If a glimpse into the Garden of Eden ever did exist, I’m convinced it was there that one chilly morning in my family’s basement.
AUDREY JACKSON is Associate Editor of The Christian Chronicle. Reach her at [email protected].
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