Rohnert Park residents convert sunroom into exotic animal haven
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.