Owen and Sharon Brown work for the beavers through Beavers: Wetlands & Wildlife, 146 Van Dyke Road, Dolgeville, NY 13329, (518) 568-2077. Website: www.beaversww.org.
Meeting Hope Sawyer Buyukmihci was like taking a deep breath of fresh air. Who else would awaken her guests at daylight to show them a big black snake in the living room?
"Come see, hurry!", she called. We emerged from the bedroom half-asleep, but woke up fast upon seeing Hope holding a two-foot-long black snake in her bare hands. She'd just rescued the reptile from her cat who'd given it a playful swipe. Hope carried the snake to the kitchen, where she held it under the faucet to wash the superficial wound. Once the snake calmed down, she released it by the pond in front of her house.
This eye-opening incident set the stage for a tour of Unexpected's exotic (to us New Yorkers) trails, complete with greenbriers and singing tufted titmice. But the best was yet to come...
We'd first heard about Hope Buyukmihci from New York's "Beaver Woman" Dorothy Richards. Her 1977 book Beaversprite, My Years Building an Animal Sanctuary was co-authored by Hope, whose last name of Buyukmihci roused our curiosity. Dorothy told us about this wonderful woman, who had married an engineering student from Turkey, and how they created a sanctuary in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey called Unexpected Wildlife Refuge. What an intriguing name!
As with Dorothy, it was an interest in birds that led Hope on to develop her interest in beavers. Both became intrigued by beavers' responsiveness and reasoning ability. But Hope, who was 19 years younger, had a better understanding of their environmental benefits. She once quoted William Butler, who said, "Doubtless God could have made a better berry than a strawberry, but doubtless God never did." And she added, "That's how I feel about beavers."
Both women were middle-aged before they came to know beavers, and both then abandoned frivolous activities to focus on enlarging their sanctuaries and educating others. Dorothy once tried to convince Hope to come to New York to take over her Beaversprite Sanctuary, but was unsuccessful.
Not until Dorothy Richards died in 1985, did we begin communicating directly with Hope. We shared the goal of preserving Richards' legacy that was being threatened by the local sanctuary manager. When Mrs. Richards' friends, family and professional colleagues formed Friends of Beaversprite (the name was later changed to Beavers: Wetlands & Wildlife), Hope became a founding member of the Advisory Board. Having weathered serious problems during Unexpected's formative years, she understood the cultural resistance to coexisting with wildlife and was a great ally during an arduous six-year campaign. She knew about Dorothy's troubles with the hostile sanctuary manager too. By the time that he and the Philadelphia-based management company were ousted, we had become good friends.
Although we knew Hope for fifteen years, we were only able to visit her a few times. During our first trip to Unexpected Wildlife Refuge in the summer of 1994, we were following her directions and were surprised to read "take a right turn off Unexpected Rd.(!) to the sanctuary road." So much for our thoughts of how clever of the Buyukmihcis were to choose this name. Then we met Hope and instantly fell in love. Here was a vegan woman extraordinaire who never uttered a negative word.
That day we enjoyed a supper with her tasty baked beans/onion dish and then retired to the living room to talk. When the dishes began rattling in the sink, she said, "Oh that's just the rats cleaning off the plates". To this day we don't know whether she was kidding or not. Probably she was serious, because some wood rats were living beneath the floor of her old house, and Nedim, her veterinary son, later found a humane way to evict them. She had such compassion for all living beings as was shown by her response to that other wild intruder, the snake in the living room.
Despite having a cold, 81-year-old Hope showed us around her lovely refuge, including Bluebird Field with bird houses designed by her brother for the azure beauties. She had once seen a buck polishing his antlers there, while a fawn gamboled nearby.
Best of all though, was seeing Hope commune with the beavers in the late afternoon. Our walk to the streamside site was interrupted by a few stops to admire rows of poplars planted for the beavers and to sample red raspberries. Hope warned us to stay on the trail to avoid chiggers.
Once Hope called from her low seat near the shoreline, beavers of all sizes streamed in. A huge snapping turtle swam shoulder to shoulder with the paddle-tails and some beavers actually touched noses with the turtle as all feasted on apples. As Hope handed out treats to beavers, all were dappled with shade from the lush vegetation overhead, such as a big branch loaded with ripening blueberries.
We returned in June of 1997 to do some maintenance on a beaver flow device that Brian and Sharon Graff, old friends of Hope's who were now members of our nonprofit's Board, had installed, and to install another device elsewhere on the refuge. This time we slept in our conversion van as we had brought along our white German Shepherd puppy. Next morning, Hope said that she'd looked out earlier and had seen Owen in his white pajamas with the white dog on a leash, resembling ghosts in the mist.
At 6:30 am a Canada goose family walked by our van just as Hope emerged to scatter corn; she had already been out patrolling the refuge for poachers. By then, Hope was 84 and writing The Beaver Defenders newsletter had become a burden. She decided to merge the readership of that publication with our Beaversprite newsletter, where she continued to contribute a lively column called "Unexpected Happenings" for several more years. She was incredibly humble about her great achievements as an author, activist and artist, while encouraging others' efforts. Always positive, she often said, "You'll accomplish more than I have," and "Carry on."
She phoned us shortly before her demise in 2001, but said nothing about her plans to pass on, wisely knowing we'd try to discourage this. We know she left content with her choice of the new Unexpected manager, Sarah Summerville and would be especially proud of how much Sarah has enlarged the refuge.
On Hope's living room wall hung this framed quote from Theodore Roosevelt: "It is not the critic who counts... The credit belongs to the man who... spends himself in a worthy cause." All the new revelations about how beaverworks alleviate today's major environmental problems surely confirm that Hope spent herself in a worthy cause. We, and many others, continue to be inspired by her shining example.