by Dan Smith
Each year during the holiday season, I am reminded that some of you must also try to celebrate a birthday in the midst of Christmas and Hanukkah. I am reminded because my wife Lana's birthday is Dec. 29.
Having a birthday at this time is a quirk of fate that is difficult to deal with. Musician Jimmy Buffet who was born on Christmas Day talks about his misfortune as a kid when his relatives only gave him one gift for both occasions. Lana still endures the same.
Through all of our nearly 40 years together, I have never been able to throw her a respectable birthday party at this time of year. No one is interested in another party, especially one that requires a gift.
Actually the only decent birthday she has ever had was in 2008. That year, several months in advance, I asked her what she would like to do if there was no limits. Now, I knew that was a dangerous question when I asked it. I also was pretty sure I knew what her answer would be.
"I would love to go to see the gorillas in the wild," she said right on cue. You see Lana is an extraordinary animal lover and has always had a special fascination for the big hairy gorillas. Okay, go ahead and have your laugh and yes, I realize I am standing in for a silver back.
When I told her that going to Zaire or Zimbabwe would be too expensive and dangerous she resignedly agreed. Still, I wanted to do something nice for her and I began to search the Internet for some sort of substitute. I knew that a zoo would not suffice for we had been to some great ones like Brookfield in Chicago and to Disney's Animal Kingdom. Gorillas in such confined spaces just made her sad. As I searched the web, I found lots of places advertising lesser primates like chimps and orangutans, but I knew that would not work.
Finally, I came across something named Gorilla Haven.
That is a place in the mountains of northern Georgia that serves as a rescue facility for gorillas that are unwanted or abused. I was thrilled to find such a place and in such close proximity. As it turns out there are precious few gorillas in the U.S. and this place could have been in Oregon as easily as neighboring Georgia.
Gorilla Haven is run by The Dewar Wildlife Trust and when I excitedly contacted the founder Jane Dewar, she told me to forget it. Only scientists and doctors are able to get up close and personal with her gorillas. She did tell me the facility is on 200 acres and the Gorillas roam a 50-acre enclosure. While that was not perfect, I knew it was the best I could find in the states.
With that, I began a war of attrition. Each day I would call or send an e-mail begging and pleading with Jane to allow my wife time with the animals. With no other recourse, I began to offer money in the form of a donation to the Dewar Foundation. You must understand that I am not a wealthy man, but when I weighed a trip to Georgia against the expense of one to Africa I knew I had a little room to play. Finally, I wore her down and she agreed to have Lana visit on her birthday. The day after Christmas, I told Lana to begin packing. She could not believe it.
When we arrived at Gorilla Haven it was an eerie sight indeed. High up in the mountains, and with a fog hanging low, the place had to remind us of Jurassic Park.
A 15-foot high electric fence with no signs or any evidence of what was inside greeted us. Jane told us she was afraid to let the locals know she had gorillas there for they might try to harm them.
The facility was first class with a modern hospital complete with cardiac unit to care for the apes. Lana was allowed to work in the kitchen to make lunch for Joe our adopted gorilla son. Dressed in scrubs and mask, she made a meal of green beans, nuts, melon and carrots to feed Joe. The whole experience was perfect. These days I am still having a hard time with her birthday, but I am always able to rest on my laurels of 2008 and our visit to Gorilla Haven. If you are interested in going, there are more tours now than there were back then. Search The Dewar Wildlife Foundation and see the great photos. It was a trip of a lifetime.
Dan Smith is on the board of directors for the Ormond Beach Historical Society and The Motor Racing Heritage Association and is the author of two books, "The World's Greatest Beach" and "I Swear the Snook Drowned."