Story by Kathleen Braden
Photos by
Jerry Gay

Answering the
"Distress Call"
of the Wild

SPU Grads Save Abandoned Exotic Animals

Right now, Fred and Michele Moormeier are caring for a South American raccoon, a flying squirrel, some porcupines, two alligators, three crocodiles, several bobcats, one monitor lizard and sundry snapping turtles.

They've taken in unwanted exotic animals and critters from animal control shelters for years, but now they've decided to make this effort their calling. Next spring, the Moormeiers hope to open a nonprofit center in Everett, Washington, called Pacific Big Cat and Exotic Animal Rescue, a place where unwanted creatures can find refuge.

Not that the Moormeiers consider themselves animal rights activists. They don't. Indeed, Fred Moormeier '91 supports hunting because he thinks it balances the predator/prey ratio in the wilderness. However, they both believe that God expects people to be good stewards of his creation, including the animals that inhabit it.

"Animals are totally innocent," says Michele Eddy Moormeier '92. "I prefer to save them rather than destroy them, and I think that's what God's plan is."

Apparently not enough people concur because there's no shortage of work for the Moormeiers and others involved in rescue efforts. "People buy an exotic animal, but when it grows and becomes too much trouble, or too expensive, they want the animal gone, one way or another," says Fred.

"These animals have only three possible futures," he says. "They can stay in a bad situation and be neglected. They can go to Œhunting farms,' where domestic exotics are released and killed for sport. Or they can go to a rescue."

The Moormeiers didn't plan to go into this kind of work. After SPU, Fred worked in a bank, often caring for animals on the side. "We started with reptiles, snakes and spiders, keeping them in the basement," he explains, an arrangement unappreciated by Michele.

"I prefer furry things," she smiles.

Eventually, the couple expanded to acreage in Bellingham and now they can take a few bigger cats. Of course, this costs money, sometimes $1,500 a month just to feed the animals.

To finance the venture -- which will someday include a full-service rescue and education center on 600 acres -- Fred writes grants, seeks patrons and investigates other sources of income. Michele works outside the home and will do so until the rescue is established.

As they deal with the animals' survival, the Moormeiers struggle with their own future. With one child and another on the way, "daddy" routinely locks himself up in cages with cougars and alligators. "I worry about him," Michele admits. "He's been bitten by a bobcat."

Still, they both feel the work is essential. "God called us to this work," says Fred, "and I believe God will protect us."

Alumni Michele and Fred Moormeier handle an abandoned big cat with care, knowing that "cute" doesn't mean "tame."

"S everal years ago, in the woods of the Lazovskiy Reserve along the Russian Pacific coast, I hiked with Russian wildlife biologist Evgeniy Koshkarev (now my husband). One day, after 12 hours of walking and with nightfall rapidly approaching, we decided to make camp in the middle of a clearing. It was too hot to pitch a tent, so we just crawled into our sleeping bags, falling asleep almost immediately.

In the dead of this very dark night, where even stars were hidden by a canopy of trees, I was awakened by Evgeniy's urgent whistle. "Something is out there," he whispered. He wanted the flashlight, which I quickly gave him. In its narrow beam, the light caught the muscular bulk of a 500-pound Siberian tiger only 25 feet away from us. For five seconds, this incredibly rare sight moved past us, then the tiger rumbled off into the dark.

With no firearms and no shelter, sitting in total darkness, I confess to feeling more vulnerable than at any time in my life. Although I trembled in my sleeping bag, Evgeniy's emotional reaction was just the opposite. "The tiger," he said, "is a blessing from God."

That encounter became a moment of intense change for me, and in the months that followed, I began to sense a new study plan coalescing in my mind. Yes, the tiger had been a sign from God to me, helping me re-think years of research about human relations with the earth.

I became a geographer because I love this earth that God created, and I love my neighbors both at home and far away. From my master's thesis on oil resources, to my doctoral dissertation on forests and forest products, I studied the way natural resources were exploited by a centrally planned economy, the USSR.

After completing my doctorate, I turned to another type of resource our government calls "non-strategic": wildlife and land preserves. I focused my research on the economic geography principles of wilderness conservation in Russian and Central Asian societies. In 1982, I became one of the founders of the International Snow Leopard Trust in Seattle when Woodland Park Zoo received a breeding pair of the endangered species from Russia.

The relations between human beings and the earth is a major theme in the discipline of geography, and my training primarily equipped me to do economic analysis of this issue. Yet, in the back of my mind, through many trips to Russia, endless conferences, papers, scientific articles, and observations of people and their attitudes toward wildlife, a question nagged at me: Why do some people seem to value wildlife and wilderness so highly while others, though good and moral people, seem indifferent? I tucked the question away each time it came to me because I felt I was leaving geography and treading into the realm of psychology, philosophy and ethics.

Then, in 1991, the USSR went out of business. Seemingly overnight, the object of research that I had pursued my entire adult life vanished from the world map. Economic theory which I believed in suggested that the demise of central planning would be good news for resources in the former Soviet Union, but when I returned for many research trips after 1991, the situation for wildlife seemed worse each time. How could I equate what I was witnessing with ideas on economic structures? Maybe I needed better theories. Maybe I was asking the wrong questions.

Professor of Geography Kathleen Braden (left) teaches students that "love thy neighbor" includes people who live far away in very different cultures.

The tiger did have a message for me, and it was that all economic and social systems begin with people's values. Wildlife was disappearing rapidly in the newly independent states of the former USSR because their well-being was insufficiently valuable to people struggling to rebuild torn economies and rediscover national identities. Distance from wildlife is also an issue. Most of us are urban dwellers and rarely encounter a tiger or snow leopard in nature. What, then, determines people's values for the wild things of this earth?

I now believe that many social institutions contribute to human values, but the one I decided to investigate was the one I placed above all else -- religious convictions. A rather simple question occurred to me: What can my faith in the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ tell me about my own values for the earth, wildlife and wild lands?

Thanks to this question, and my encounter with the tiger, I have been able to embark on an intellectual and spiritual journey a thousand times more intriguing, challenging and satisfying than any of my previous work. It has taken me into a new realm of literature sometimes called "ecotheology," and I am finding that my geographer's heart is quite taken with this approach to exploring our relations with the earth.

Much of the debate in Christian circles has centered on questions about our intended role with respect to nature. As laid out in Genesis, does God intend for us to have dominion over nature? To be its wise stewards? Perhaps both?

I am wrestling with many other concerns as well. For example, what is the meaning of "wild" in biblical terms? Are places good because they are little touched by humans, or is it possible that human beings can contribute to the beauty of this earth in God's eyes even as we modify his work so intensely? Is the tiger in the forest inherently more valuable than the one in the zoo? As people manipulate species and genes, how might these creations take their place in the ecology of the earth as God has fashioned it? Do we have an obligation to leave some wilderness lands relatively intact, even for the sake of our own souls?

But, most importantly, I am pondering the redemption of all creation through Jesus Christ. We are told in Colossians 1:20 that God "made peace through the blood of his cross, by him to reconcile all things unto himself," and we know from Romans 8:22 that all of creation has been groaning, waiting for the Lord. As a believer in his word, I wonder if, on the day the tomb was found empty, the ecology of the whole world changed forever.

I have few answers to these questions, but as my bookshelves fill up with insights from scholars far better than me, my old theory texts are being pushed to the back. I do not disparage secular, economic scholarship on the question of our relation with the earth, but I want something deeper, and to begin with first principles.

The tiger brought me a great gift. I discovered a way to study how my faith informs my view of ecology and wildlife. Now I know that my husband was right: The tiger helped me learn about my relationship with God and was indeed a blessing.

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