Subscribe

Rohnert Park residents convert sunroom into exotic animal haven

Sonoma Sloth House welcomes visitors

For Information about The Sloth House:

Visit Safariencounters.org or call 405-543-7351

When the coronavirus pandemic took hold in March, Brandi Blue and Daniel Moore, like many small business owners, were faced with a desperate dilemma. No longer able to make a living, they considered moving out of high-priced California. And yet, even if they cashed in their modest savings, they wouldn’t have enough to move their animals.

The pair share their home and grounds with more than 60 special-needs creatures. With animals from their veritable zoo, which has everything from alligators and armadillos to lemurs and sloths, they visit schools, expos and other venues with their educational outreach program, Safari Encounters.

Now, no longer able to make those visits, Blue and Moore have come up with an enterprising plan to feed their menagerie and save their business during the pandemic.

Working nonstop for four months, they turned a sunroom in their rural Rohnert Park home into a steamy Sloth House where small groups can visit with the slow-moving creatures native to South America while learning about their mysterious ways. Their three sloths, Chewy, Sid and Willow, share the space with a matamata turtle named Groot, a baby crocodile and a petite three-banded armadillo named Roomba.

The Sonoma Sloth House opened in late September. At $500 for up to five people, it’s a special treat for those who can afford it. While it’s pricey, it’s not so out of range when measured against a multitude of other custom Wine Country experiences. A typical encounter is 45 minutes to an hour, with time to pet the sloths and take photos. Out of respect for the animals, who are not pets, no one is allowed to hold them. Blue, who has done education work in zoos, gives a fast-running commentary with interesting facts about each animal.

The sloths may be lured from their favorite perch near the ceiling by the promise of a blueberry treat. But the sweet snacks are carefully controlled because the animals have delicate digestive systems.

“Sloths are weird mammals,” Blue said. “They have multichambered stomachs like cows and take almost a week to digest their food.”

The long-haired creatures each consume about a pound of produce a day, including collard greens, zucchini and carrots, but they poop only once a week. When they do eliminate it’s epic — about a third of their body weight.

The temperature inside the “house” is a humid 86 degrees. Much cooler, Blue said, and there is risk of killing essential bacteria in their gut, the loss of which would endanger their lives.

As long as they can stand the heat however, people are welcome to linger as long as they like, even if it’s simply to sit and de-stress with some of the most laid-back creatures on the planet.

Overhead, Chewy, Willow and Sid take turns meeting visitors in the house and inch about like they’re in a slow-motion video, moving on a series of branches and papasan chairs suspended from the ceiling. Their favorite posture is upside down.

Safari Encounters is licensed to maintain wild animals through the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. They take in animals from zoos that can no longer keep them or animals that have been held as illegal pets and seized by Fish and Wildlife. Sometimes people call directly to relinquish pets they can’t care for. Safari Encounters is a last-chance sanctuary for animals that have nowhere else to go and may otherwise be euthanized, Blue said.

In the last several years Blue has rescued a 7-foot alligator released into a creek in Petaluma and picked up an underweight alligator named Gatorade, found lumbering along a busy road in Santa Rosa. They joined Darth Gator, a former illegal pet left on Blue’s doorstep in a box.

The pair have what is known as a “restricted species permit,” for which they must demonstrate they have the proper environment for the animals they keep and experience working with them, said Mark Lucero, who works with the restricted species unit for the state Fish and Wildlife department.

“Brandi is very diligent with her paperwork and communicates well with us, and she has actually assisted us in placing animals,” he said of Blue, who is one of about 220 people or organizations in the state with such permits.

Blue and Moore try to maintain as many animals as comfortably possible on their 4-acre rental property between Rohnert Park and Penngrove, which was offered to them by one of their supporters. Animals they can’t keep, they foster until they can find them a new home with a zoo or sanctuary.

Blue said they strive to exceed the minimal requirements for their licensure to ensure their animals are as happy and comfortable as they can be, given that they can’t be released into the wild, either because they’ve never lived on their own, are too used to humans or are nonnative species.

Sonoma Sloth House welcomes visitors

For Information about The Sloth House:

Visit Safariencounters.org or call 405-543-7351

In addition to crocodiles, alligators and sloths, their family of critters includes ring-tailed lemurs, porcupines, a lynx, a wallaby, a small clawed Asian otter, nonnative opossums and fennec foxes, which are petite foxes with tall ears native to the Sahara.

“We never thought we were going to open this to the public. But we had to adapt or go under during COVID,” said Blue, who is 29. “This is the only form of income we get. We don’t get any government funding. Nothing.”

The animals receive veterinary care from Dr. Dan Famini, a Santa Rosa vet who works for groups with wild and exotic animals. Last week Blue and Moore had to pack up Samantha, a 7-foot-long alligator suffering from bone density problems and facial deformities that made it impossible to open her mouth. Blue said Samantha had been kept in an inside enclosure all her life and deprived of sunlight, which compromised her health.

Their produce bill for the menagerie is $400 a week, with another $250 for frozen meat such as rats, chicken and fish. Their energy bill runs about $1,000 a month.

The pair, who work seven days a week caring for their creatures, have turned over part of the house to their animals, but they don’t let them run wild.

“We love them and we think of them as family and form personal bonds with them. But we still know they’re wild animals and have wild animal instinct and need to be treated with respect,” Blue said. It’s a message they emphasize to all visitors — the animals are cool to learn about but they’re not appropriate as pets.

Poignant first visitor

For Kerri Schillinger, the first visitor to the Sloth House, it was a poignant reunion. Last year, Brandi brought Chewy to visit Schillinger’s mother, who was dying of pancreatic cancer.

Schillinger wanted to do something special for her mom, who loved sloths. Through a Facebook posting from a friend, she learned about Safari Encounters and reached out to Blue, who drove to Schillinger’s house. Shillinger said her mom happened to be clutching a stuffed sloth when Blue showed up with a real one.

“As soon as Brandi pulled the cloth off the cage, (my mom’s) eyes got wide and she was just so excited,” Schillinger said. Chewy, named for his resemblance to Chewbacca, the hairy Wookie from “Star Wars” movies, moved toward the older woman and eventually nestled into her lap. Schillinger’s mom died eight days later.

So when Blue opened up the Sloth House, Schillinger wanted to see Chewy again. She brought her husband, a friend and her two children.

“The kids were so ecstatic,” she said. “They were a little nervous, but Brandi does such a great job of explaining everything about the animals. She’ll bring one of the sloths down and kneel down with them at the kids’ height so they can pet them and be more comfortable with them. It was such a great experience.”

Career change

Both Blue and Moore have a lot of experience around exotic and wild animals. The Oklahoma-bred Blue, who began working in zoos when she was 16, has degrees in biology, zoology and engineering. She was working in an office when she realized she needed a job more in line with her interests.

“I was sitting in my cubicle one day and said, ‘I’m miserable. I shouldn’t be this miserable at 24.’ ” At the encouragement of her father she went back to doing what she really enjoys — working with animals. She’s now earning her master’s degree in conservation studies and does consulting work regarding exotic animals when she’s not on the road with Safari Encounters.

Moore has a degree in zoo science and did his practicum in a large zoo, where he worked with a wide variety of animals. Reptiles and creating healthy environments for animals in captivity are his areas of expertise. With Blue’s help, he built the jungly Sloth House in the sunroom, with banana trees, elephant ears plants and bromeliads and walls lined with a lightweight material that resembles rock.

“We put a lot of thought into our enclosures, definitely mimicking their natural environment,” Moore said.

Beneath the sloths is a shallow pond that is home to Groot, a South American matamata turtle which came from a zoo that was forced to close as a result of the pandemic. Groot is an unusual-looking turtle, with a rough and knobby shell and a flat head with a wide mouth and long snout that vacuums up minnows. He eats only once a month. His pond is fashioned to look like a natural pool in a shallow river, similar to his native environment in the Amazon. It’s kept warm with sand for him to dust up. Skin fringes hanging off his shell alert him to nearby food.

Visitors also get to meet Roomba, a small roly-poly, three-banded armadillo that is related to the sloth and can be found in the same habitat.

“Whenever he wakes up at night he moves around like a Roomba vacuum, a couple steps in one direction and back,” Blue said. “He’s scavenging for food.

“He’ll eat pretty much whatever he can find. But he does prefer bugs and he can smell bugs hiding under the ground up to a few inches. He has big front claws just like a sloth and he uses those to dig them up.”

Their other roommate is Nichelle, a Morelet’s crocodile native to freshwater habitats in Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Only a baby, she will eventually grow to 7 feet and will need a new enclosure elsewhere on the property.

For an additional fee, visitors may spend time with other animals, like a ring-tailed lemur, an endangered primate with a long raccoon-like tail from Madagascar.

Blue and Moore said they have received a lot of help and support from friends and neighbors. One helped build a new fence to completely enclose the courtyard, where guests can wait before they enter the Sloth House. All of the proceeds from the visits go to the animals’ care.

Next year they’re hoping to add another attraction, an enclosure for porcupines in the courtyard so visitors can visit another animal before their sloth encounter.

In the meantime, the couple is hoping enough visitors will stop by so they can make it through the slow cold season ahead with all their critters warm and fed.

“We did all the work ourselves. We didn’t hire a construction crew,” Blue said. “But we took the chance that people would enjoy it as much as we do. And it’s been a nice way to further our mission about conservation, and sloths are such a popular animal.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at 707-521-5204 or meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com. OnTwitter @megmcconahey.

UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Emerald Report
Sonoma County Gazette