Pursuit of Happiness

by Hope Sawyer Buyukmihci

My happiness has always been linked with animals. As a child, time spent with animals gave me my greatest pleasure. Pleasure, however, was always mixed with pain as I saw what animals suffered at the hands of man.

Toward the end of World War II, I met Cavit, a Turkish student who had come to the United States to study engineering. We were married, and when he returned to Turkey I went with him. I looked forward to a new life amid exotic surroundings.

For the first few days, I was entranced with the kaleidoscope of new impressions, but soon came to deplore Turkish customs. I balked at the oft-quoted proverb, “Heaven for a woman is under her husband's foot.”

The put-down of women, however, hurt me less than the general attitude toward animals. I saw horses beaten, donkeys carrying heavy loads, lambs sold for religious sacrifice.

It was the incident of the donkey that finally swayed my husband to join me in my determination to return to America. I was staying with Cavit’s relatives in Istanbul while he was away on a field assignment. As usual, I sat looking out the window from behind lace curtains that shielded me from view. A donkey, heavily laden with household goods, came around the corner, feet slipping on the cobbles. Behind him strode his owner, periodically striking his rump with a gnarled stick. Just as the donkey came opposite my window his load shifted, pulling him off his feet. He fell with a crash. As he lay on his side with his load scattered around him, his driver began to beat him unmercifully. I saw red, and only interference by my husband’s uncle kept me from running out to attack the donkey’s driver.

When I told my husband, he did not say much, but not long thereafter, he announced his decision to return to America. “You’ll never be happy here,” he said. “And neither will I. In America we can be ourselves.”

After five years in Turkey, we came back and with our three young children, settled in southern New Jersey, where we bought land and dedicated it as a wildlife refuge. It was here, when I was approaching 50, that my real life began. It was here that I met beavers for the first time.

Although brought up in the foothills of the Adirondacks, where a million beavers once lived, I had never seen a wild beaver. At the refuge I heard the slap of tails and saw sections of peeled sticks floating, certain signs of beavers’ presence.

I began to put poplar (aspen) branches on a dam which looked worked-on. Each morning those branches were either gone or denuded of bark.

It was not until August of our second year at the refuge, however, that my dream of seeing a beaver came true. Seated on a cedar root next to the dam, I saw a broad black nose poke out of the water six feet away, complete with pollen-coated whiskers. Up rose the head of a big beaver, who climbed the dam four feet from me, chose a stick of leafy poplar, and settled down to eat. I named her Whiskers.

Holding the stick in an overhand fashion, she moved it past her teeth, twirling it with slender black fingers while her teeth worked like a lathe to take the bark off neatly. When the long stick was bare, she ran it rapidly back through her fingers. Discarding it, she selected another. Jubilant, I entered an intensive beaver-watching phase.

One evening in September, while Whiskers sat beside me eating, a second beaver approached from downstream. He hesitated for a long time under the shelter of a fallen cedar, then circled uncertainly in the pool near the dam. I named him Greenbrier. Before long, he too came close to eat poplar. Until ice covered the stream, I fed these two beavers every evening.

In March, when I arrived with poplar at the dam, Whiskers was waiting for me in a pool still rimmed with ice. As I came near, she poised her tail, ready to splash, but when I spoke she lowered it and swam toward me. Before long we were back on our old footing. Often she would climb up beside me to comb her fur, or daintily nibble sticks. I could observe her closely, and it was not long before I realized that she was pregnant.

The first week of June Whiskers did not come, and I assumed she must have given birth. If so, where were the kittens? She came one evening and when she left, I followed her downstream to a huge pile of sticks chinked with fresh mud.

As Whiskers dived to enter the lodge, I could hear the mewing of beaver kittens inside. Soon, with a swirl of water, two baby beavers popped out. They swam awkwardly, tipping from side to side. After making a few hesitant circles they went back into the lodge. I heard mewing, which gradually subsided as the kittens settled down to nurse.

That was the start of more than 30 years’ association with beavers. When I learned that they were still being trapped, I founded the Beaver Defenders, with our motto: “They shall never be trapped anymore.” We prepared literature that told about the vital role of beavers in soil conservation, flood and drought control, and appealed to people’s sense of fair play and compassion.

The effort to save beavers from persecution met with opposition, and the general public still looks on these lovable mammals as a nuisance, (“They cut trees, don’t they?”) or as pelts (soft, luxuriant fur). But things are changing. Devices are being used to solve beaver-human conflicts, and animal fur is going out of fashion. People are learning about the good that beavers do. The beaver is coming back and finding a welcome as never before.

Recently a reporter visited me to do an article about the refuge. After reviewing my years of struggle to save animals from suffering, he asked, “Are you happy?” I wondered how I could be happy while aware of on-going animal suffering.

As the reporter sat with me beside the stream, a beaver kitten swam toward us, clambered up the bank, and hurried to my feet. I handed him a slice of apple. Other beavers crowded close, their eyes unafraid, their hands resting confidently on my knee. A wave of joy engulfed me at their zest for life, as they ate one piece after another, while juice ran down their chins.

As I fondled their velvety ears and living fur, I turned to the reporter, “You asked me if I was happy,” I said, “Yes, I’m happy now.”