To Touch the Untouchable Dream

by Toni and Ed Eames

Toni and Ed Eames are active members of the National Federation of the Blind and long-time leaders in our special interest division for guide dog users. They are recognized experts in the whole area of assistance dogs for the disabled and write a regular column for Dog World. Recently their lifelong interest in animals took them on a very special expedition to the African bush.

Here is their story:

As we crashed through the bush in an open Land Rover, we could hear ranger John's radio receiver crackling the news that a pride of lions had been sighted fairly close to our position. Slowing the vehicle to a crawl, John warned us to be quiet. Suddenly we heard a shared exclamation from the other members of our party—the lions had been spotted, and we came to a halt.

The dreamlike quality of this encounter with wild animals in the African bush was reinforced as members of our delegation described the scene in barely audible whispers. Everyone seemed to hold his/her breath as an adult female lion sauntered alongside our vehicle and crossed the road in front of us. At one point she was no more than eight feet away.

This encounter with lions was just one of many memorable experiences we had during our two-day visit at Exeter Game Lodge in South Africa. While crashing through the bush, "bundu bashing" as the locals call it, we came almost in touching distance of leopards, zebras, giraffes, elephants, and hundreds of impala (small deer on the bottom of the feeding chain).

What gave these adventures a dreamlike quality was the inability to touch or hear these animals. Except for the time when Ed climbed down from the Land Rover to feel the footprint left by a lion who had recently strolled by, the reality of the situation was filtered through the descriptions of our sighted friends.

Fortunately, we were able to obtain a tactile impression of many of these animals. The rangers working for Exeter, a wild game lodge on the outskirts of Kreuger National Park, the largest reserve in South Africa, had collected the skulls of many of the animals inhabiting the area. Examining the skulls, jaw bones, horns, and antlers of the many varieties of deer who roamed the open unfenced area around Exeter, neighboring game reserves, and Kreuger, helped turn our dreamlike Land Rover trips into a more realistic image of what these animals were like. On display in the lounge area was a taxidermed lion pouncing on an impala, which showed us what raw and savage nature was all about.

Both of us grew up in New York City where animals such as those roaming the South African bush were only found in zoos. Love of animals was a central theme in Toni's childhood. As a young blind child, her mother took her on frequent outings to the Bronx Zoo but could not adequately describe the variety of animals on display. Always anxious to encourage her blind daughter to explore the world around her, Toni's mother encouraged touching objects in the environment. Since lions, tigers and bears were not accessible to touch, she began purchasing realistic ceramic, wood, glass, plastic, and brass miniatures to teach Toni about the structural differences among various animal species.

Over the years this collection has grown and expanded, and Toni has become expert at identifying animal statuary by touch. On the other hand, Ed, who was sighted until his early 40s, visited zoos and received his animal information through visual images.

One of the attractions of Fresno, California, the city to which we moved after our marriage ten years ago, was the presence of a wonderful zoo with an understanding director. Dr. Paul Chaffee was fascinated with the idea of transforming Toni's knowledge of animals through statuary into knowledge from real-life experience. He invited us to visit behind the scenes to get "in touch" with many of the animals in the zoo.

Over the years we have been able to touch elephants, Galapagos tortoises, spider monkeys, a skunk, an oryx, a ferret, and a variety of birds. Some of these animals were part of the zoo mobile, some were being cared for in the nursery, and some were on display. Being able to feed apples to Chauncey and Nosey in the elephant holding area was a thrill, although Ed was a bit apprehensive one day when Chauncey wrapped her trunk around him with the message that it wasn't time for Ed to leave! Paul relished our obvious pleasure and excitement at these encounters with his exhibit animals.

Realizing that our passion for animal interaction went far beyond what was available in Fresno, Paul arranged with directors at zoos located in San Diego, the Bronx, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C. for us to come and get "in touch" with animals in their collections. Among our acquaintances from these visits were a sea lion, an emu, a clouded leopard, a chinchilla, a kinkajou, an octopus, an armadillo, snakes, lizards, and some insects.

At our National Federation of the Blind conventions, we have explored the horns and skins of taxidermed animals presented by the Safari Club. This has been supplemented by exploring a stuffed buffalo on display in a South Dakota museum and a lion on display at the Theodore Roosevelt museum in New York. In all these cases, the animals were touchable and full size.

The hunt for touchable animals is enhanced by our careers as writers and lecturers. As columnists for Dog World magazine, lecturers at veterinary schools, and writers about disability and animal-related subjects, we travel extensively. During our travels, we take every opportunity to visit zoos and museums with touchable animal exhibits.

When we received an invitation to be part of the cultural exchange delegation sponsored by People to People International, Citizen Ambassador Program to South Africa, we jumped at the opportunity. Not only would it give us the chance to enhance our careers as writers, educators, and lecturers, but would also take us to Exeter, a charming and luxurious private game preserve.

After months of planning, our South African odyssey became a reality. Our two-day stay at elegant and lavish Exeter, a haven for animal lovers, exceeded all our expectations. Even after returning to the lodge following the Land Rover expeditions, the presence of untamed and free-roaming animals was an ever-present reality. Monkeys inhabited trees near the veranda during the morning hours hoping to swoop down on some unprotected food.

At dawn and dusk a hippopotamus drank at the river skirting the compound. While sitting at the edge of the pool, a member of our group was startled when a snake slithered up his body and onto his back. It was apparent that just outside Exeter Lodge was a world as far removed from our childhood homes in New York City as one could imagine.

When we share photographs of this dreamlike trip with friends back home in Fresno, they ask where Escort and Echo were during our adventure. We explain that although our guide dogs have accompanied us to many American zoos, their presence in the African bush was quite another story. While we were having our untouchable dream, they were quietly awaiting our return at the lodge. Although the wild animals in the preserve are used to Land Rovers filled with people, they are not exposed to dogs, and we agreed with our host at Exeter, Leon, that it would be a good idea to let them relax back in our room.

The sighted members of the delegation have photographs and videos to keep their memories alive. To make our memory of this untouchable dream tactile, we brought home many new wild animal miniatures. The next time we visit the elephants in our Fresno zoo, we can tell them we saw their relatives in South Africa!