By Diana Martinez and Alejandro JSM Chavez
San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol
Anher Flores was only 17 years old when he found his calling — caring for animals at the Wildlife Waystation refuge in Sylmar.
As a teen, while touring with a soccer team from his native country of Guatemala, he stayed with a local family who also played in the same tournaments. They also introduced him to the Waystation.
It was there he met renowned animal activist Martine Colette, the founder of the Sylmar sanctuary, and he immediately felt a connection — to her, the animals and the Waystation’s surroundings tucked in the Angeles National Forest.
After a number of visits — the young Flores was offered a job — and it wasn’t too much later that the decision was sealed for him to stay here in the San Fernando Valley for good.
Even though he was still a teen, he showed so much enthusiasm and was so responsible, that he was actually made a foreman after only three months and was responsible for an animal section.
Colette and others there had a sense for people and could see those who “talked the talk and those who walked the walk,” and she saw much in Flores.
“I remember when Martine gave me the keys and said you’re going to be in charge of the animal compound.”
He immediately found himself responsible for the monkeys, lions, tigers and primates. He took care of their daily feeding, cleaning and security, making sure they were transferred from one section to another. A lot of safety was involved.
“When we were open to the public, we had tours every day and I had to make sure that everything was very clean and in top condition ready for visitors.”
His work with animals became his “dream job.” Back home in Guatemala, he had grown up on a farm but had not worked with exotic animals. The Sylmar Waystation was one of the first sanctuaries of its kind to take in exotic animals that had been abused, abandoned, orphaned or injured. Animals were rescued from all kinds of circumstances including from the entertainment industry.
While he very much enjoyed caring for all the animals, he had a special affinity for the chimpanzees.
“I loved the primates from the very beginning — when I saw the very first chimps that we had, I was so impressed to see their intelligence and how close they are to humans,” said Flores. “At the same time, it’s hard to explain because every one of them is different like a human, so you have a different connection.”
“I was in heaven when about 67 chimps came in from a New York lab. They were no longer allowed to experiment on chimpanzees, and we received them,” said Flores. “We received the first generation of a new group of chimps that were in this lab in 1995, when it became illegal to use them for testing, so the lab had no use for them.”
“It was really nice being able to see them from a very young age, over the years, grow into these powerful creatures. The closeness of being here with them every day and spending so much time with them is so special.”
Flores has 32 years of stories to tell. “I never felt like that was work for me, so I haven’t had a job for 32 years,” he chuckles. He enjoys telling the story about their male chimps having vasectomies but one who to their surprise became a father, which they promptly named “Magic.” Magic he said is now 19 years old.
The Waystation Is Closed But The Transition Continues
Now he is nearing the end of his time at the Wildlife Waystation — a day that has been coming for some time.
Over so many years, he has been steadfast in his support as he watched Colette fight hard to keep the Waystation open through great financial hardship, political turmoil, extreme weather including floods and a devastating fire in 2017. Of course, he said they had some disagreements, but he told her she had “a heart of a lioness,” as he watched her continue to do battle for the animals well into her 70s, saving animals from cruelty, going against the toughest foes while taking in abused and abandoned animals from all around the world.
But, after so many battles, with no more reserves or viable solutions, in 2019 the 160-acre Wildlife Waystation was forced to close.
Many of the animals had already been transferred, although chimpanzees still remain at the sanctuary under the care of Flores and a handful of other workers.
Colette died last December at the age of 79 and Flores has stayed to care for the remaining chimps.
So far this year, two groups have been transported to other sanctuaries, but it’s a costly venture. Because they are so intelligent and figure out how to escape, special habitats need to be built for them which are expensive.
“They require a lot of space,” said Flores, “and they are very destructive because whatever you build, you better do it very well because they are so intelligent they know how to take it apart. Close to 800,000 dollars is needed to move the final group.
“The worst thing you can do is separate chimps who have a connection. They are like humans and solitary life for them is horrible because they are social animals. That was one of the rules we had for the groups of chimps that no matter where they went … we would never separate them,” said Flores.
Donations are Being Accepted to Help Re-Home Remaining Chimps
Flores said he is continuing to take care of what are now 10 remaining chimpanzees.
When he talks about the chimpanzees, it doesn’t sound like he’s talking about animals – he refers to them in the same way one would talk about a human.
He shared how meaningful time is with them each morning.
“Over the years, I’ve always been the first person to walk in to make sure that everyone is alive and no one has escaped. I’ve had the privilege to have the first ‘good morning’ with them. They run to their doors and they are so happy to see me, knowing that their day is starting.”
He said the chimpanzees have taught him much – even becoming a better poker player.
“When you play poker it’s silent. I already have that connection with the chimps – so it was easy for me when I started playing poker.”
Flores said there’s a way to read your opponent by concentrating and being a step ahead of them to read what their intentions are.
“Chimps are quiet, and you can almost see the wheels turning around in their heads and the look on their faces — in their eyes mainly — they tell you much without saying anything. … Their eyes tell you so much,” he said.
He has been witness to so many magical moments over the years with each of the chimpanzees, he said it’s difficult to explain.
“Every one of them [the chimps] is different like a human, so you have a different connection.”
The experiences at the Waystation have given him a unique life.
“At the Waystation, there’s a big empty space. I was talking to one of the guys and there was a herd of deer that came through – two adults and three youngsters – and they just stopped right in front of us. We were in awe. We know it’s so special, and later we won’t have that.
“With the animals it’s unconditional – it’s meant, they offer their friendship. I know wild animals and I understand what they are, and they can be very unpredictable but when you create that connection with them, it’s very special … not like humans … what animals offer to you – they don’t take it back.”
“Now, it’s hard to let them [all] go. I don’t have kids, but it’s probably what it feels like to send them to college, and they are going to a better place to have a better life, and they are going to have something bigger and a more grand area. They’re not going to zoos … they are going to other animal sanctuaries. They are going to have something bigger and grander to live in. There won’t be as much concrete and this type of fencing.”
“I have no reason to leave while they still need me,” he said. “The Waystation has saved so many of their lives. When the chimps came from the lab, they had no place to go. We did our best to care for them and gave them a happy life with the best medical attention,” said Flores.
“When you see chimps from other places, they don’t look as healthy as ours. Martine never gave up even when money got tight. She was relentless, and she was a tough person and had to be that way.”
A Final Vow
He said he made a final “promise to Martine.”
“Right before she died, she said ‘I trust you with their lives, don’t leave them until the last one is gone.’ I made her that promise and told her, ‘I will be the person to put the lock on the gate.’”
To donate to this effort go to: www.chimpsinneed.org.