Little Ponderosa rises from the ashes

Clinton animal rescue rebuilds after deadly fire

Friday, July 20, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 29
By Al Lesar

At least a dozen times since the devastation in December, James Cox has made up his mind to walk away from his passion.

The world always looks better the next day.

Frustration and despair are melted away by love and responsibility.

In 1995, the 58-year-old lifelong resident of Clinton turned his back on a calling as a licensed funeral director and followed his heart into the animal rescue business.

“I’ve always loved animals,” Cox says. “I’m the guy who would stop when he saw a puppy walking along the side of a road.”

Cox’s childhood hero was Dan Haggerty, who played the title role in the TV series “The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.” Come to think of it, Cox looks a little the star of the show that ran for just two seasons (1977-78).

The show portrayed a woodsman who saves an orphaned grizzly bear and names it Ben. Adams goes through weekly adventures with an uncanny ability to gain the trust of the wildlife.

“That’s a case where a TV series really mattered,” explains Cox, who met his hero in October of 2016, a few months before Haggerty died. “That show really made an impression on me.”

With the seed planted, Cox became friends with Bill Butler, a veterinarian in Karns. The relationship was instrumental in Cox following his dream to establish The Little Ponderosa Zoo and Animal Rescue.

“My plan was to have the zoo pay for the rescue,” Cox says “I had a lot of friends who were lawyers. They all thought I was crazy.”

The folly came to fruition with a lot of work along the way. “We started with nothing,” Cox adds. “I know where bottom is. Nobody knew about us. We had nothing. We started with a barn and did our best.”

That best was pretty darn good. The facility north of Clinton, off Granite Road, became popular. Folks from near and far embraced the small, low-key atmosphere that set The Little Ponderosa apart from any other animal compound of its kind.

Then, Dec. 4 happened.

An electrical fire raged through the barn. The structure was consumed. Staff members were glad Cox was away that morning, taking someone to the airport, or he may not have allowed himself to leave animals behind in the burning building. His son, Cade, had the building crash down on him, but was able to escape.

In all, 45 of the facility’s 900 animals perished in the blaze.

It’s been a long process

Insurance was minimal compared to the losses. The Little Ponderosa has relied on contributions from friends and compassionate strangers to rebuild the dream.

“I knew people liked us, but I had no clue how much,” Cox says. “It started an hour after the fire, when word got out. People were coming by asking us what we would need.”

It was a long and, at times, frustrating winter for Cox and his staff of six. A huge tent was donated so that the displaced animals that survived could be kept warm through January and February. Starting over, while making sure the needs of the animals were being met, has been a significant challenge.

“I’ve probably quit a dozen times since December,” Cox adds. “Then, I think of the children that are looking forward to coming back out here. What would happen to the animals? That makes me get up early the next morning and come back out here. I just love it.”

It took Mary Lou Redmond, facility manager for the past 15 years, just a couple days to appreciate the need for The Little Ponderosa.

“I’ll never forget this,” she recalls. “The fire happened on a Monday. On Wednesday, a car pulled in and dropped off a box. I went over thinking it was probably blankets. People had been bringing everything to us. I went to get the box and inside was a half-starved guinea pig.

“I said, ‘That’s why we’re here. We need to keep going.’ He’s still here, happy and chubby. My faith in people really came together.”

Today, the large metal shell of what will be a state-of-the-art structure stands in place of the old barn. It will be 5,600 square feet on the ground floor, then have a mezzanine. Cox notes once the exterior work is finished soon, interior work will be handled by volunteers and staff. Sometime in July is a target date for completion.

In the meantime, the primates and other future inhabitants are being housed in a remote area of the location.

Easy to get attached

Take a stroll around the small but active grounds of The Little Ponderosa and you’ll never be alone. Several kids – baby goats, that is – will slip through the holes of their pens and tag along. It’s easy to feel somewhere between a rock star and the pied piper.

One of Cox’s original rules to himself back in ’95 was to not get attached to the animal clientele. He just laughs at that edict now. Each of the 900 animals has a name.

That’s why the fire hurt so much. Those weren’t just 45 animals that died. That was family.

It’s taken several months, but Cox can now smile at the memory of Mikey the monkey.

“Mikey was 24 years old,” Cox remembers. “He was like our kid. Yeah, we got attached.

“Mikey was the kind of guy who liked to go to bed at 7 p.m. He was older. He loved being an early-morning guy.”

Redmond, whose job is as the primary caregiver to all of the animals, still holds onto a decision she made that gave great joy to the primates the day before the fire.

“I happened to be working by myself (the day before the fire),” explains Redmond, who was a school teacher in another lifetime. “I made all the monkeys their favorite peanut butter treats. That was their new toy. They were having such a good time that day.

“I’m so glad I had that memory.”

What’s next?

Five ducks showed up the other day for which an elderly lady was no longer able to care. Check the Little Ponderosa’s website and there’s a question concerning its ability to take in a pet turkey.

Obviously, there’s a significant need for such a facility. Redmond says animals are dropped off almost daily.

While taking a breather from her exhausting duties and catching a glimpse of the metal frame of the new structure, she sees more than just beams and insulation waiting to be encased.

“That building is hope,” Redmond says. “It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. When you talk with people who have lost their homes or their businesses to fire, there’s a helplessness that you feel, especially when you’ve had it for a long time.

“We had just gotten to the point (before the fire) when we were in good shape. Things were paid off. Now, in a way, you feel that you’re starting over. It is going to be an awesome facility. The new building will have specific rescue space. We like to think of ourselves as more rescue than zoo.”

The public’s response with money and materials left Cox flabbergasted at times.

Whenever the need arose, word went out and the challenge was met. That’s what has allowed this phoenix to rise from the ashes.

“There have been so many positives to come out of this,” Cox acknowledges. “We’ve got a great support team from all walks of life. I’ve seen those positives and have appreciated everything.

“I still love the animals, or I wouldn’t be doing what I’ve been doing.”

“There have been times where you want to just sit down and cry,” Redmond says. “Then you realize the animals need you. There’s so much ahead of us. We just have to keep moving forward.

“It was difficult when you realize you have to replace just about everything. We’ve learned to take everything one day at a time. The material contributions were great, but now it’s the money for (the internal work). It can be overwhelming.

“I tend to be a very emotional person. I get very attached to the animals (Redmond named the cattle as pets on her farm growing up). I’ve tried to be strong for everybody else. I’ve learned that no matter what you do, you can’t save everything.

“There were days after the fire when I could not sleep at night. After talking to a lot of people, and having time to think about it, we can honestly say we did the very best we could, and we did the best by those animals.

“There were just some we couldn’t save.”

A thought that could fuel the frustration and despair.

But certainly, nothing worth quitting over.

“I tend to be a very emotional person. I get very attached to the animals (Redmond named the cattle as pets on her farm growing up). I’ve tried to be strong for everybody else. I’ve learned that no matter what you do, you can’t save everything.”

A thought that could fuel the frustration and despair.

But certainly, nothing worth quitting over.