BY JOHN JOHNSTON | ENQUIRER STAFF WRITER
Last Updated: 5:35 am | Monday, October 9, 2006
On a drizzly, overcast morning, an all-terrain vehicle rumbles through the flood plain of a once-forgotten farm in Ohio County, Indiana.
The driver, a gray-bearded 55-year-old clad in a camouflage jacket, occasionally takes note of deer peering cautiously from nearby hillsides and wild turkeys skittering along the edge of a young prairie; of red-tail hawks flying from treetop perches and dozens of black vultures circling overhead.
“We want to make this a unique opportunity for people in the Tristate to come and see wild animals,” Paul Strasser says of the 3-mile stretch of land that one day will be home to the new and improved Red Wolf Sanctuary.
He began building the original sanctuary more than 30 years ago on 21 hilly acres near Dillsboro in Dearborn County. The nonprofit nature preserve is still there, along with more than four dozen animals that include gray wolves, coyotes, foxes, raptors and black bears, some of which were pets until their owners didn’t want them anymore.
Strasser will relocate the animals to these 452 acres just outside Rising Sun as soon as the pens are ready and approval is granted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture – perhaps by the end of next summer. Then tours can begin on the property, which is an hour west of Cincinnati.
Although the sanctuary’s location will change, Strasser and his wife of 19 years, Jane, say their mission won’t. The focus has always been on educating people – especially children – about wild animals.
“If we don’t have kids smarter than we are, we’re doomed,” he says, decrying the loss of habitat suitable for wildlife. “Kids need to be exposed to what’s here, while it’s here.”
Strasser, though, never expected to be here, in Rising Sun. He never figured on selling the original sanctuary property, to which he devoted nearly all his adult life. But events forced his hand.
In February 2004, 10 of his wolves escaped from their pens. Indiana conservation officers investigated, and the sanctuary was forced to halt its tours, which drew about 2,000 schoolchildren a year.
“Everything that mattered was on the line,” Jane Strasser says.
Tours could not resume until the sanctuary met U.S.D.A. standards. That would have required major changes – such as getting access to city water – that weren’t possible at that location, Paul Strasser says.
So, with money he inherited after his mother’s death four years ago, he bought the new property in November 2004. He hadn’t planned to piggyback onto an existing tourist attraction, but it worked out that way. Rising Sun is home to Grand Victoria Casino & Hotel.
After clearing zoning hurdles, Strasser in July began working in earnest on the property, which hadn’t been actively farmed for years and was overgrown with hedgeapples and briar bushes.
“The cockleburs are my enemy,” he says, occasionally stopping the four-wheeler to pull one of the pesky plants.
Bulldozers have opened up areas for pasture and have pushed brush into piles that will make good habitat for animals. And as he motors about in the four-wheeler, Strasser describes much more ambitious plans:
A 100-acre wild animal park. It will house North American animals in large, natural enclosures for public viewing. Some pens have been erected.
An environmental education center, with a two-story aquarium, classrooms and meeting space. He’ll name it after his mother, Jean Martha Hennegan, whom he calls the sanctuary’s first and most passionate supporter.
A raptor center in the shape of the phoenix, the mythical firebird. Flight cages will radiate from the body to form wings and tail.
A “commissary” to process food donations; state and county workers drop off hundreds of dead deer each year. This is the only building now under construction.
A studio where artists and photographers could have up-close access to wild animals.
The studio – and group tours of the grounds – “could help generate some income, because obviously these animals don’t write checks, and I’ve pretty much spent every cent we’ve got,” Strasser says.
Last year the sanctuary received about $1.4 million in donations, which included a $1 million anonymous, private gift. The Strassers don’t expect anything close to that this year. But it might take $3 million to $4 million to build the new sanctuary that they envision, Paul says.
Both he and Jane do fundraising, with most of the paperwork falling to Jane, who has a doctorate in molecular genetics. She is a researcher focused on vaccine development in the infectious diseases division of Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center.
Paul, who has degrees in wildlife biology and education, has for years devoted himself full time to the sanctuary, working for no salary.
Both are passionate about wildlife preservation.
“I don’t have children of my own,” Jane says. “This is my legacy. This is what I’m leaving the world. It matters to me, and I’m going to do it right.”
They couldn’t do it without help from people such as David Goodwin, owner of Goodwin Landscaping, which has a nursery near the original sanctuary. He has donated considerable labor and materials – “I don’t even keep track anymore,” he says – in an ongoing effort to beautify the new place. He does it, he says, because he says he sees educational value in what Strassers are doing.
“Paul’s a smart man,” Goodwin says. “His wife’s a (Ph.D.). They’re intelligent people. He could make damn good money going out and getting a job. But instead, everything he gets he puts back into the animals.”
David Jackson, an Indiana conservation officer assigned to Ohio County, says that when calls come in about an injured animal such as a hawk or owl, he can always count on Strasser to care for it.
“If he can save them, he will. And he doesn’t raise them to be pets. He’s got the facility to take care of them, then turn them back to the wild.”
For Strasser, it’s all part of a lifetime devotion to animals that began when he was growing up in Hyde Park, roaming Ault Park, and bringing turtles home to his mother’s wash tub.
These days, he has others caring for the sanctuary’s animals while he readies their new home.
The Strassers soon will need a new home, too. The sale of the original sanctuary included their A-frame house.
Says Paul Strasser: “The animals obviously come first.”
More information about Red Wolf Sanctuary is at www.redwolf.org.