Sarah's Ark, or Helping Animals in the Desert

Sarah Gorby gave unstinting care to wounded wildlife, and never thought of it as a burden
June 16, 1991

Sarah Gorby, The Arizona Game and Fish Department's first licensed animal caretaker, lived the last day of her life just like any other—orphaned and injured desert wildlife came first. Gorby was up well before sunrise on the morning of April 30, tending to her animals. Although she had recently "retired" from her volunteer work with G&F, she was still caring for four owls, three coyote pups, two young javelinas, one ferret, several ravens and five desert tortoises. She would die quietly in her sleep that night, a week shy of her 75th birthday.

But Gorby, who had a horror of being incapacitated, had run an extra errand that day. She paid a visit to a law office, signing documents that assured she would never be placed on life support.

Jim Scalero, a G&F wildlife manager and longtime family friend, had filled in for Gorby in the past when she was ill or was out of town, and he was well acquainted with her routine. "It starts around sunup," he says. "You're feeding certain kinds of animals with what you have on hand, but you have to go out and obtain feed for other kinds. Then you have to come back and feed the babies again. With baby animals, you're talking about feeding them five to seven times a day." After Gorby's death, Scalero and three volunteers put in long days taking care of her animals before they could be placed with local wildlife rehabilitators.

Gorby's death—which Scalero termed "the end of an era"—leaves Arizona G&F with a void. "We do have people that do what she did, but not in the way she did it," he says. "Wildlife rehabilitation in Tucson is a relatively new thing. We don't have anyone who has done it for so long on a large basis the way Sarah did.

"For most of the time she did this work, she did it without help from anyone but her daughter. When G&F started using her, we would give her some financial assistance when we could, but it was minimal...maybe a little veterinary assistance, but nothing from us for gas or feed. She did a lot of wheeling and dealing with veterinarians."

A few months ago two visitors had the opportunity to watch Gorby in action. Among her charges at the time were two eight-month-old coyote pups who spent their waking hours loping frantically back and forth in their four- by eight-foot pen. They cowered in the pen's furthermost reaches as the old woman stepped inside, then darted for the door. "Stay!" she commanded. The animals froze momentarily, then started for the door again. "Stay!" she repeated. The coyotes stood still, glaring. "Sit!" she ordered. They did.

"I can't even get my dogs to do that," said Rusty Ness, who was there to photograph two mountain lion cubs found beneath a mobile home and left with Gorby.

Later, Gorby and her visitors went into her house, a converted barn on five acres in northwest Tucson at the end of a thoroughfare she called "Tobacco Road." The lion cubs were just inside the door, in a large carrying cage used to transport pets. An identical cage stood a few feet away. Gorby put some raw chicken inside the empty one, then opened the door to the cubs' cage. Then, wearing elbow-length welder's gloves, she wrestled the snarling, clawing cubs one by one into the cage with the food and latched the door. Her chores completed for the time being, Sarah Gorby was ready for company.

Gorby was a Tucson institution. Tough-talking and blunt-speaking, she was a favorite of the local press. For almost 43 years she cared for orphaned and injured desert wildlife. She had grown up on a Pennsylvania farm. She worked in a sawmill at age 12 and claimed to be either the first or second woman in the nation to drive big trucks for a living, which she did in Philadelphia during World War II.

She moved to Tucson in 1947 to get married. Her husband, Dan, a World War II Marine Raider, "got smeared on Okinawa on April 17, 1945," Gorby said. He was shot in the side of the head, the bullet passing through both eyes. "He had no sense of taste or smell and two artificial eyes," said Gorby. "The medical folks said he should have been a vegetable or a manic, but he was the sweetest, gentlest man alive. He died 30 years to the day after he was shot. He was a terrific guy."

Catching herself sounding sentimental, Gorby quickly joked, "I married him for his money, and he married me for my looks. We both got stung so terribly that we only stayed together so the animals would have a home."

Gorby's first animal charges were orphaned skunks and javelinas. "Some goof reported me for having all this stuff," said Gorby. "A game warden came out to cite me, but when he saw what I was doing, he said, 'You don't need to be cited, you need to be licensed.' That's how I became the first licensed caretaker for Arizona Game & Fish."

In that capacity she tended to a Sarah's Ark of desert creatures—owls, hawks, bobcats, mountain lions, bears, deer and javelinas—brought to her by G&F personnel, the Pima County Animal Control Department and friends.

Gorby maintained a rigorous schedule 365 days a year. She rose at four every morning to walk her dogs, then went back to bed until 8:30, when she fed the birds and animals. At 10 she headed out to buy day-old bread, wilted produce and chicken thighs to feed her animals. She also bought mice at $1.10 a head and rats for $3.50 each, because her animals "need hair and guts" to supplement their diets. In recent years an annual fund-raising dinner and private donations helped defray her $500-a-month expenses.

Gorby started her "evening tour" at 4:30 p.m., following a three-hour rest period necessitated by the two heart attacks she had had. In addition, she had survived breast cancer, having undergone both radical and a simple mastectomy. "Everything I have is cut out, cut up or hemmed up," she joked.

Those medical problems came on top of the injuries she suffered from her work. "I've been bitten countless times but never mauled," she said. Once she was bitten so severely by the razor-sharp teeth of a javelina that she had to seek medical attention. The doctor, who had administered many of her tetanus shots, asked what bit her. "Just put down that I got drunk and fell in some barbed wire," said Gorby, a teetotaler. "If I told him a wild animal bit me, the law requires him to report it to Rabies Control. They'd cut off the javelina's head and send it to California for tests. The javelina didn't bite me to be mean, he just ran by, snapped at me and kept going."

But Gorby knew where to draw the line when circumstances dictated. When she decided that an owl with a mangled wing was beyond saving, she dispatched it with a hammer blow. "I could have taken it to a vet, had the wing amputated and kept it in a cage for 30 years." she said. "But then you're cluttering up your cages with maimed birds. Veterinarians euthanize—horses are 'put down,' dogs are 'put to sleep'—I kill 'em. You're supposed to save every dog, tick and scorpion in the country, but it doesn't work out that way."

Although Gorby usually worked alone, volunteers would sometimes be allowed to help. The late Lee Marvin hosted several fund-raisers for Gorby and helped out in other ways. Once, she returned home to find Marvin, who was on his way to the dump, loading her trash into his pickup truck. "I've certainly got a better class of garbage man these days," she told the Academy Award-winning actor. She added that Marvin, referring to the small animals that were frequently underfoot at Gorby's house, often told her, "You have the only house I've ever been in where you wipe your feet when you leave."

In her four decades of caretaking, Gorby remembered two black bear cubs as providing her with her most daunting challenge. In 1989, javelina hunters had stumbled upon the mother bear and the cubs in their den outside Bowie, Ariz. The sow chased the two hunters, who had no alternative but to shoot her. The hunters turned themselves in, and Arizona G&F sent the cubs to Gorby.

The cubs refused to take nourishment from a baby bottle—"They'd scream like mashed cats," said Gorby—so she fed them with a medicine dropper. To get two ounces of formula into the cubs took two hours per cub. That went on around the clock for more than a week.

Every few days Gorby offered the bottle. "They finally took it, and it was all downhill from there," she recalled. "When they were done feeding from the bottle, I'd stimulate their bowels and bladder to empty them, and they'd sleep for 14-15 hours at a stretch."

But Gorby also had her limits. She recalled that one volunteer's devotion to animals was so great that the woman chewed dry dog food, then tried to feed it to a deer that had been refusing to eat. The amused Gorby pointed out to her, "Those animals have a set of Spam grinders that you wouldn't believe. He's just spooked, that's why he's not eating. You eat that mess—he won't."

Although she occasionally took some of her smaller creatures to nursing homes and schools, Gorby maintained that she was not a people person. "The more I see of people, the better I like my pigs," she said. Her telephone number was unlisted, and she got her mail at a rural post office so people wouldn't learn her address.

She picked up road kills to feed to her animals. "That was so comical," she recalled. "People would see me scraping something off the road and think, That poor old thing. She must be supplementing her Social Security. She's probably making a stew out of that."

Gerry Perry, the G&F's supervisor for southeastern Arizona, says, "Sarah did an excellent job with the critters we brought her. She was a real neat lady, a little bit crotchety but very perceptive, very sharp. She was super people. She said what was on her mind, didn't mince any words. If she didn't like you, she'd tell you. She didn't have any hidden agendas."

Gorby had planned to keep doing her work "until I assume room temperature or they fire me."

Despite her stated wishes that her ashes be "flushed down the toilet," Gorby's cremated remains were scattered on Mount Lemmon, 23 miles northeast of Tucson, overlooking the valley she served for more than four decades.

PHOTOMICHAEL SCULLYA quail with a damaged beak became one of Gorby's charges. PHOTOMICHAEL SCULLYA pair of young javelinas received Gorby's and Perry's attention.

Mark Stewart is sports editor of the Arizona Daily Star, in Tucson.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
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Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)