January 23, 1973, I became a vegetarian. Someone said, "You love animals. Why kill to eat?" I had never thought about it before, but that question changed my life. In addition to ending my days as a carnivore, I realized that there were many other things that I had to change. I stopped wearing leather and I began to buy products that weren't tested on animals. Everything I had taken for granted suddenly came into question. I had turned into an animal advocate.
Within a few weeks, I was seeking venues where I could protest hunting, fur, factory farming, vivisection, zoos, circuses, and all the other ways our society exploits and abuses animals. I found new friends who felt the same way, and I met Cavit Buyukmihci.
Cavit was working to end the use of the leg hold trap in New Jersey. He invited me to visit his home, Unexpected Wildlife Refuge, where he and his wife Hope Sawyer Buyukmihci lived in harmony with the environment and the animals. I was enthralled.
They were true pioneers, creating an oasis where animals could be safe in the middle of South Jersey's hunting community. They wanted a place where they could raise their children in harmony with nature.
The refuge was only about 80 acres at the time. Hope and Cavit lived in a small cabin with a wood stove for warmth and a hole in the living room floor where beavers could pop in for a visit. Of course Hope and Cavit were vegetarians, and their lives were completely in tune with their surroundings. Hope wrote stories, poems, essays and books about her beloved beavers and the other animals who shared her woods birds, snakes, deer, opossums, and all the rest. She was a talented artist, and illustrated her books with pictures of her animal neighbors.
Meanwhile, Cavit worked diligently to get the law passed that would prohibit the use of the steel jawed leg hold trap in the state. He joined with many other activists and I was proud to be a part of that struggle. Eventually he succeeded, ensuring that no more animals would be maimed by those barbaric devices.
Living on a wildlife refuge brought the constant danger of poachers hunting and fishing were obviously not allowed at Unexpected, but that didn't stop the so-called "sportsmen" from trying. The first week of shotgun season, there were always a group of volunteers invited to the refuge to patrol and prevent the killing. Some walked the perimeter of the refuge, wearing orange vests and equipped with walkie-talkies to report any trespassers, tree stands or breaches in the fence. Others stayed at a station across the dike where Hope knew that hunters would hold "drives" making lots of noise to herd the deer toward other hunters waiting to ambush them. There were a few confrontations, but the hunters always backed down, knowing they were breaking the law and that the feisty little old lady wouldn't hesitate to prosecute.
Hope always provided a meal, including Loma Linda Linkettes and other vegetarian goodies. I started bringing chocolate tofu pie for dessert, which delighted Hope. She giggled when I told her about my fur protests, where I wore a donated raccoon collar that I painted with red paint, decorated with two large anti-fur buttons, and walked through shopping malls and grocery stores. She rarely left the refuge, but she was always happy to hear about efforts to help animals. She used cruelty free products, and because of the hard water at the cabin, she found a dishwashing liquid called "Heavenly Horsehair" that made plenty of suds. It was hard to find, and Hope was as excited as a little girl when I brought her a bottle I had found at a health food store.
Sadly, Cavit developed cancer from his job and he passed away. Hope carried on without him, but she was never the same. She often said that she should have been the one to go first, and that Cavit was the true hero. But all who knew her knew that Hope was a true hero as well.
As time went on, Hope realized that her health was failing, so she made plans to ensure that Unexpected Wildlife Refuge would continue long after she was gone. She sought the right person to carry on and found Sarah Summerville, the perfect choice. Hope mentored Sarah and showed her how things worked. When Hope died, Sarah seamlessly continued to run the refuge. Sarah reached out to even more volunteers to patrol, maintain the trails, protect the plants and animals, and expand by purchasing more land.
As I got older, fatter, and less able to navigate the narrow boardwalks and dikes throughout the refuge, I took on the job of cooking for the annual clean up and December patrol. While the other volunteers walked through the woods, I prepared vegan meals. Sarah added some modern touches to the kitchen, including a new stove and refrigerator, making it a lot easier than the old days.
I'm so grateful for the early years with Cavit and Hope, and I'm even more thankful to know that their legacy will be carried on by Sarah. She's totally dedicated and passionate about protecting the refuge and teaching others the importance of respecting the other species who share our planet. Her plans for the future, including the new building and educational center, will inspire others and continue the mission that Hope and Cavit began.