A tour through the Lyon menagerie.
Photos Steven Krause
It all started 16 years ago with a camel named Kazzy, a female Bactrian (two humps), born in Casper, Wyoming, and adopted by Rob and Robin Lyon when she was 3 days old and weighed 110 pounds. They nursed Kazzy round the clock with camel formula at their Diamond A Sonoma property, even let her sleep in their bed, and raised her into a fine young, quite-large creature with almost supernatural understanding of how to provide gentle affection to love-starved humans.
Kazzy became a media legend and a beloved visitor to nursing homes, hospitals, retirement communities, senior living centers and schools all over the Bay Area. When she delicately laid her massive head in the laps of awestruck invalids who gasped and then laughed and then choked back tears, you could see healing taking place. She was almost certainly the first therapy camel in California—perhaps anywhere.
Thus was Lyon Ranch born.
The Lyons—he a retired airline pilot, she a retired flight attendant—gradually found themselves at the center of a spinning vortex of rescued, cast-off and often exotic animals. They acquired the requisite expertise and government permits while they nurtured abandoned and abused animals back to health, and incorporated some in their therapy animal visits.
Along the way their daughter, Lynette, grew into an animal expert in her own right, acquired the education, training, professional credentials and licenses to own and raise a variety of exotic animals, and was soon giving school demonstrations while becoming the surrogate mother of choice for any zoo, wild animal park or overextended collector having young, exotic animals in need of raising.
Her access to animals, her knowledge and expertise and her confident, mediagenic personality began landing Lynette on regional and national TV shows, including appearances with Conan O’Brian, Jimmy Kimmel and Jay Leno, who stuffed her then-kitten serval, Kiara, inside his shirt. She is now a content producer for Waggle.com, a 24/7 streaming animal website.
Because the animal inventory is always changing, and because we heard there is now an African Bush Baby in the mix, we decided it was time for a refresher tour of the Lyon Ranch.
And this is what we saw.
Darwin, the Bush Baby
The formal species name is Galago, but the “Bush Baby” moniker comes from the childlike cries they make when communicating with their clan. Bush Babies are almost criminally cute, with enormous nocturnal eyes, fingers and toes that look human and fur so soft and thick you wonder why they haven’t all been slaughtered. Bush Babies have quite an international following, they are super fun to hold, and Darwin was smuggled through TSA as a cat.
Lynette got him at 7-to-8 weeks old and works with him “all day, every day.”
Galagos have great acrobatic agility, can leap 6 feet in the air and track insects, catching them in flight. Their large eyes give them good night vision, they have acute hearing, strong hind legs and long tails for balance. They eat insects, small reptiles, small birds, fruit, seeds, flowers and tree gum, and they’ll live up to 18 years in captivity.
Bush Babies are native to East Africa and to the woodlands and bush of sub-Saharan Africa, and their population is not threatened although their habitat is shrinking.
Want one for a pet? So would we, but they’re not legal in California without a license and Lynette says they require a lot of attention.
Chewie, the Fennec Fox
Small, nocturnal and native to the Sahara region of North Africa, fennec foxes have of late become the wildlife rage of North America. That is in part, of course, because they too are outrageously cute, with enormous bat-like ears and endearing eyes. The big ears help dissipate heat and are so sensitive to sound that a fennec fox can hear insects or rodents tunneling underground.
They are the smallest species of foxes in the world. Their coat, ears and kidneys are specially adapted to high-temperature, low-water desert environments, and they eat plants, insects, small mammals, reptiles, eggs and birds. They can go long periods without water and in captivity can live up to 14 years. Fennec fox families dig dens in sand that can cover up to 1,200 square feet. They can jump 2 feet straight up to snare insects and live in small packs of up to 10, marking their territory with urine.
Fennec foxes are very popular in zoos and wild animal collections, and they’re not threatened by extinction, but they are, alas, not legal pets in California without a wildlife license.
NaviGator, the American Alligator
NaviGator is a young American alligator, perhaps 3 years old and replaces Lynette’s last alligator, Interra (you get the theme here), who was shipped off to larger quarters. NaviGator was rescued by a Lake County CHP officer making a vehicular drug stop. Alligators, we are told, are popular with meth dealers. They can grow up to 15 feet long and 1,000 pounds, which is the major reason that pet alligators invariably become a problem. That, and the fact that their brains are smaller than a walnut.
They are also apex predators, and once they reach a reasonable adult size, they have no enemies but man. They eat fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, small mammals, turtles, snakes and the occasional pet dog or cat.
Alligator bites are dangerous not just because of the sheer downward force of their jaws, but because of the high risk of infection. Across the U.S., there have been at least 28 fatal alligator attacks since 1970.
Lynette says young alligators are fun pets at first because all they need is a tub with heated water, a haul-out space and some frozen mice. Young gators grow 3 to 8 inches a year.
You can buy them online, as evidenced by this website ad: “Spectacular captive-bred American alligators: There is something so primitive about these reptiles, and watching them attack prey in a watery fury is beyond entertaining. Hatchling: $149.99.”
There’s a woman in Florida with a 6-foot pet gator that eats at her table and sleeps in her bed. Authorities have told her it has passed the permissible size and insist she get rid of it. She says she loves her gator and won’t let it go. Its name is Rambo and she likes to kiss it on the lips. Or whatever the edge of an alligator’s mouth is called.
American alligators have rebounded nicely from the edge of extinction and were removed from the endangered list in 1987.
Can you have a pet alligator in California? Of course not. If you want an alligator, move to Oregon.
Arrow, the Coati
Sometimes called “coati mundi,” these charming creatures are raccoon cousins, right down to the facial mask. They can reach 18 pounds fully grown and, like American raccoons, have inquisitive personalities, manipulative fingers and larcenous souls. In South America (and sometimes in the U.S.), coati are frequently raised as pets. But if they’re not carefully and faithfully bottle-raised from a young age, and continually socialized, they can become very violent and dangerous. They have large, sharp canine teeth and long claws, which means they are not appropriate for the company of children. They are also very intelligent, curious, high-energy creatures that need a lot of space, which means a large and secure enclosure. Just as with raccoons, giving them household access can be disastrous.
They eat invertebrates, tarantulas, fruit, small vertebrate prey like lizards, rodents, small birds and eggs. They have an acute sense of smell and a nose that can be rotated 60 degrees in any direction. Their range extends from the southwestern U.S. down through northern Uruguay.
They are not uncommon as pets, but they, too, are illegal in California.
Nahndi, the Serval
Servals are among the most regal of all the wild cats, with a serene dignity, elegant presence and mellow personality that has captured human admiration far into antiquity. The ancient Egyptians worshipped servals for their grace and power and they remain, for better or worse, one of the most popular wild cat candidates for domesticating.
Male servals can grow up to 40 pounds or more, and typically grow as high as 24 inches at the shoulder. They are carnivores and prey on rodents, small birds, frogs, insects and reptiles. Their style of hunting is unique among cats. They use their enormous ears and acute sense of hearing to locate prey, then leap as much as 6 feet up in the air to land on their quarry, usually killing it with a bite to the neck.
Servals are considered the best hunters among all cats, with a kill ratio of 50 percent. They live up to 20 years in captivity, and Lyon Ranch has two of them, one with largely free run of one wing of the house. While servals can make exceptional pets, they—like all originally wild creatures—require a lot of attention and maintenance. They are not like house cats you can feed and forget.
And, of course, in California they’re not legal without a license.
Goddess, the Ocelot
Of all the cats at the Lyon Ranch, the ocelots may be the most mesmerizing because they are the most wild. They exhibit all the ferocity and defiance of a wild leopard, even though weigh no more than 35 pounds. That’s probably why they’re also known as the “dwarf leopard.” Distributed extensively through South America, Central America and southeastern Mexico, there is also a remnant population along the Rio Grande in south Texas..
Ocelots were once widely hunted for their fur, and in the 1980s more than 200,000 were killed each year for the fur industry, when an ocelot coat cost $40,000. It was listed in the U.S. as a vulnerable species until 1996 but now are rated as “least vulnerable” with their greatest threat being habitat loss.
Ocelots went through a period of pet popularity—Salvador Dali had an ocelot named “Babou”—but in most places it’s no longer legal and certainly unwise.
Can you have an ocelot pet in California? Absolutely not.
Galindo, the Geoffroys Cat
The smallest of the wild cats, the Geoffroys Cat is no larger than the average house cat, but a lot wilder. “They are angry all the time,” says Lynette. Native to southern and central South America, they weigh from 4 to 11 pounds and are common in Bolivia but threatened or endangered in southern Chile due to habitat loss. Among their endearing qualities, they are known to stand up on their hind legs to scan the landscape.
As pets, they can be a handful. They are much faster than domestic house cats, and one owner has described hers as “a two-year-old hyperactive child. Very playful, but they need to be socialized.”
Lynette Lyon would agree, having raised a number of Geoffroys Cats, including five saved from a Sebastopol home that were neglected after the owner died.
A good pet? Not unless you have time to give a lot of attention. A legal pet? Not unless you have a license.
To view more of the Lyon Ranch clan go to waggle.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.