Remembering Danny Nowlan

Where to begin? I feel like a hungry bear entering a huge grocery store and looking at rows and tables heaped with all kinds of amazing "grub." I first heard of Nowlan when I started my zoo career in Calgary more than 40 years ago. Four Dall's sheep lamb

Where to begin? I feel like a hungry bear entering a huge grocery store and looking at rows and tables heaped with all kinds of amazing “grub.”

I first heard of Nowlan when I started my zoo career in Calgary more than 40 years ago. Four Dall’s sheep lambs had arrived from the Yukon Game Farm.

The lambs arrived by air accompanied by Erika Nowlan, who made sure they travelled safely, but also to be there when they were uncrated and to instruct zoo staff precisely how to bottle feed them with milk replacer and how to give them their proper care.

Such commitment to ensure the welfare of animals acquired by the zoo was only assigned to elephants, rhinos giraffes and animals too large to be shipped by air.

Bill McKay, the zoo director at the time, had worked with Danny on capturing wild animals and spoke of him with great admiration.

Bill told us he had not met anyone who understood the way of wild animals better than Danny, and that he could catch absolutely anything alive. I surely gained the same impression later and am convinced that if there was a Sasquatch out there he could come up with one.

Various animals arrived from the Yukon Game Farm, from muskox to mountain goats, to caribou, to wolverine and lynx. They always arrived in good condition, healthy and expertly shipped.

Stories about Danny and the Yukon Game Farm travelled south with the animals.

I learned Danny, an experienced smoke jumper, had flown over the terrain of the “farm,” now called the Yukon Wildlife Preserve, and instantly decided this land would be the perfect place for a game preserve.

When I saw the place for the first time in the late ‘70s, I stood in awe of Danny’s amazing understanding of the land, wild animal habitats and animal behaviour by selecting the 75-acre of wilderness to make it a sanctuary for native wildlife.

A director of a wildlife sanctuary myself, from 1974 to 1994, during an era when zoos dramatically changed from menageries to wildlife conservation/education centres and years after working with leading zoo design consultants in many countries, it struck me again and again on my return visits on how intuitively Danny conceived this idea, how he read the land and how he could see into the future.

The farm is like a mini national park with several habitats and ecosystems neatly fitted into a compact space. Zoos all over the world expend billions to create these “wild” environments and here they existed as perfectly as one could dream them up or create them. Danny saw this.

I suggest designing and operating a zoo/sanctuary for wildlife for education is an art form.

The metaphor of a theatre play is reminiscent of it, where a story is conceived and written, a stage is built to play out the story with the purpose to leave the audience with a sense of immersion and emotional embrace of what is presented.

This is the stuff of the sophisticate biodiversity conservation strategy. The farm served this lucid goal from its beginning.

I know this firsthand by observing and talking to farm visitors in 2002, who watched animals play out their life story in settings that rival cover photos of the National Geographic magazines. But it was also nature itself, and the animals acted out their natural behaviour and reproduction. This is the ultimate test of accomplishment. The visitors left with a deep appreciation and a new gained sense of kinship Ð stewardship and reverence for wildlife, which is the very foundation for adjusting values in society to coexist with and preserve wild animal species.

Danny was the Carl Hagenbeck of the Canadian North.

One hundred and twenty years ago, Carl Hagenbeck had been on many expeditions in Africa that inspired him to bring holistic wilderness experiences home to Germany to share them with the zoo visitors at the Tierpark Hagenbeck near Hamburg.

He created spacious “Panorama exhibits” around 1900 by building backdrops in concrete, much like a theatre, to present the animals in a natural setting. All of which was met with great scepticism by the zoo community at the time, but five decades later it became the standard for animal habitat exhibits.

Hagenbeck promoted behaviour-based animal husbandry, vastly different from housing wild creatures in 19th-century cages.

Danny’s aim was not to have a traditional zoo.

I remember him telling me about a tourist driving through the farm to view animals. The tourist pulled up to him and said, “Where are the animals? We don’t see your moose.”

Re-enacting the scenario, he stepped right up to me, 12 inches away from my face, pulled his lower eyelid down and barked, “Use your damn eyes Ð he is looking at you from the clump of poplars.”

Oh yes, he was utterly unforgiving with ignorance flavoured with arrogance. No wonder the farm did not become a vibrant people place at the time.

Danny was, unacknowledged by him, a visionary in the zoo art field, and surely not everyone saw this behind his rough exterior.

The story I have, is that he was a mixture of Irish and Cree. Evidently, a powerful concoction of explosive traits on one side and sensitive nature-connected ones on the other.

I listened to him explain how he tried to get inside the mind and body of wild creatures to understand their needs, how he became subservient to them, trying to read their wishes from their body language. He explained how important it was not to stare at animals he and Uli wanted to breed, how to give them privacy, how to nurture their self-esteem and how not to intimidate them and how to provide them with their comfort zone.

That is how he allowed the falcons to mate, nest and rear their young in the most improbable man-made environment. Not just once, but time after time.

This was the very soft and kind side of Danny. I can see this, because I breed wild birds for the sixth generation, a species only bred sporadically in captivity.

Danny had this delicate, special gift to connect to, and communicate with wild animals. But you would never realize it if you heard him start a sentence by bellowing out, “Jeeezus Christ É” and going on from there.

I do not think he was religious. He once told us about releasing a skunk, or similar animal in the church to upstage the wailing and lamenting of the congregation and, after being evicted form the services, stuffing wet hay down the stovepipe and smoking out the folks inside.

I think he even barricaded the church doors.

There are countless stories of his “fist fights” with the authorities and his frustration with rules and regulations, which made no sense to him, and fiercely defending his space and freedom.

All this at a cost holding up his chin.

Somewhere I heard he even punched an RCMP officer. This conjured up a lot of “wildman images.”

That, combined with his enormous physical strength and endurance, made him a rough, tough guy in the eyes of many.

I remember, one day I arrived and saw him nearly hidden by a huge pile of split firewood, swinging the axe furiously without looking up.

When he did, he said: “I do this when I am pissed off.” I did not ask if he had a hydraulic splitter, which he most likely did.

This was at the time when Danny and Uli tried to sell the farm in the hope it would carry on to be a home for wild animals of the North, but this seemed hopeless.

There must have been more than 10 cords of freshly split wood in that pile.

I know of the pain and anxiety the two were dealing with and, fortunately, we were able to turn things around in 2003 when the community and the government got behind the idea to turn it into a wildlife conservation/education centre owned by the public and managed by a highly spirited volunteer society.

I had a little to do with it and cherish it as one of my life’s most rewarding accomplishments.

Danny is legendary to me. Imagine starting with practically nothing, taking a bulldozer and creating a network of roads, pounding hundreds of fence posts in the ground, drilling rock for fenceposts in precarious places on 80-metre-high, steep cliffs, stretching miles of game fence, building corrals, a home and complex falcon breeding facilities, capturing hoofed animals in the wildest places, protecting the farm animals from predators, such as coyotes, wolves and bears, being tied down to care for the operation day in and out.

In the early ‘80s, he married and teamed up with Uli to make a winning combination of wildlife preserve managers.

Uli provided the meticulous management of animal husbandry data and administrative work generally to complement Danny’s ideas of creating and building the infrastructure.

The division of tasks was not that crisp, and I remember there were tense debates on how to manage the animals, since both had gained considerable expert knowledge.

These may have been livelier at times than what I witnessed, but the same cups and saucers sat on their cupboards on our visits over time.

Remarkably, the common quest to protect the welfare of the animals and to ensure the survival of the farm made this team work so well together.

I wanted the world to see what I saw in our good friend, Danny.

We embrace our friend Uli, who sat by his bedside during the last weeks of his life and wish her courage to continue her journey.

We also send our condolence to Perry and Sabrina for now having to carry on without him, but they have good genes to do so. After all, Perry, was named after the courageous peregrine falcon and Sabrina might have been called Goshawk.

Good wishes to you all.

I have no doubt he is sitting in a circle of angels all glued to his lips listening to his stories, and they never heard anything like it.

Watch out, Danny. We will show up some day and ask the angels if all was heavenly correct.


Peter and Margrit Karsten

Denman Island, BC