Napa Valley Marketplace Magazine “Community Interest” March 2008.
Raised by Lyons
NVC Teen Brings Animals & People Together
By Louisa Hufstader
When Lynette Lyon was born 19 years ago, her parents had to make some unusual changes to accommodate their firstborn child:
“There were animals in her room,” recalls mom Robin Wolfe Lyon. “We had to move the animals out so that she could have a crib and a room to herself.”
Robin and her husband Rob own Sonoma’s Lyon Ranch, a private refuge for rescued creatures both domestic and wild. The most famous is Kazzy, a Bactrian (two-humped) camel the couple adopted when she was three days old and trained as a therapy animal, visiting nursing homes and hospitals in Napa and around the Bay Area.
Though Kazzy, now 8, stands more than seven feet at the shoulder, she’ll always be Lynette’s “little sister.” But the charismatic camel is far from the only large animal the Napa Valley College student has helped to rear.
“I have raised a baby buffalo named Tatonka, Tonka for short, and he is just the sweetest thing in the world,” says Lynette.
“When he sees me – well, when he was little, it was like getting hit by a motorcycle,” she laughs. “Now, it’s like being hit by a taxi.”
Her mother tells the rest of the story: “He was going to go to the meat factory, because buffalo is the ‘new meat,’ and Lynette somehow pleaded with the owner to give her the opportunity to work with it.”
American bison are no pushovers, Robin Wolfe Lyon continues: “They’re not easy to train. They have a very wild instinct and they’re strong. She slept in a sleeping bag with two bales of hay between them.”
Tonka took to his training so well that Lynette was able to walk him on a lead line, sit on his back, and even give him a shampoo and blow-dry.
In the end, the lucky buffalo went back to his ranch – not as meat, but as a mascot.
Lynette is currently raising a baby donkey, caring for a retired guide dog and helping to socialize a young serval, one of several African wildcats the family has taken in from zoo breeders who can’t sell them because of various handicaps.
Then there’s Norman, a Watusi bull from Safari West, where his mother spurned him at birth. Lynette wrapped the shivering calf in blankets and slept with him in the warm ranch kitchen, hand-feeding him until he was strong enough to survive.
“He was our baby, he followed us around, he would come when he was called, he had his own dog bed,” Lynette says. One of the Lyons housecats used to wash Norman’s face, she adds.
The full-grown Watusi now greets the public at a well-run petting zoo in Missouri, she says, but there are plenty of animals still to care for at Lyon Ranch: The family has more than 80 mouths and beaks to feed, including three dozen parrots, various dogs and cats and farm animals galore.
That’s one reason Lynette, a graduate of Sonoma Valley High School, decided to start her higher education at Napa Valley College while continuing to live at home.
Not only is she able to keep helping with the animals, she can continue taking Kazzy and other qualified pets to nursing homes around the North Bay.
“It’s really rewarding to be able to do that,” says Lynette, who has been visiting care homes and hospitals since she was 10.
On her own, she’s visited middle-school students with birds, snakes and a baby donkey.
“I love public speaking so much, and I love talking to people about animals,” says Lynette, who recalls sharing her excitement with her late grandfather, Bill Wolfe of Wolfe Ranch on Napa’s Fourth Avenue.
“He was quite good with animals and loved seeing animals,” she says, “possibly because I was so interested in showing him.”
Lynette hopes to develop her lifelong enthusiasm for, and understanding of, animals into a career, possibly in education: Though she delights in her Napa Valley College drama class with Jennifer King and has discovered an unexpected love of art history at NVC, her sights are set on Moorpark College in Southern California.
“Moorpark is a college that teaches people how to train exotic animals, wild animals and domestic animals,” she explains. It’s the only college in the U.S. with its own teaching zoo.
With a degree from the school’s Exotic Animal Training and Management program, “you can basically apply to any zoo that you want, to any theme park, any wildlife preserve – this is where they recruit.”
With the San Francisco Zoo tiger tragedy a recent memory, Lynette agrees that the zoo’s “incredible shrinking fence” contributed to the attack that left a teenager dead amid unconfirmed reports that his friends had been teasing the big cats.
But, she adds, the problem “probably starts before the zoo;” continuing, “I think it’s really important that we start at an early age to teach people to respect.
“When animals attack people, humans want to see it as the animals’ fault, because the human race wants to believe it’s flawless and we are not,” Lynette explains.
“That’s why animals are so important: because they can teach us so much about ourselves.”