Even an animal, if you show genuine affection, gradually trust develops.” — The Dalai Lama
One of the most rewarding aspects of living overseas is the people who cross your path. Dr. Diana, animal rescuer and, thankfully, also our vet, is one of them.
To start on a personal note, she makes house calls. Having just moved to Honduras and without a car, I was worried about how we were going to get our dog, who had developed a nasty rash, to the vet. Dr. Diana must have picked up the nervousness in my voice over the phone and offered to make a house call the following morning before she opened her clinic. Not only did she come over and treat our pets with the utmost tenderness, but she stayed for a while and chatted over coffee. Although I would have paid just about anything for her services that day, the bill was a fraction of what we pay in the United States.
It was at that initial meeting that I learned that Dr. Diana is not just an ordinary vet for domestic animals. She is also the vet for the Rosy Walther Metropolitan Zoo in Tegucigalpa, which is actually a rescue center for wild and exotic animals that have been purchased illegally, confiscated and, most often, also mistreated. So not only does Dr. Diana take care of our pets, she also takes care of monkeys, sloths, tapirs, crocodiles, macaws and jaguars, to name a few.
During her 17 years serving as the zoo veterinarian, Dr. Diana has taken home almost every kind of animal as part of its rehabilitation. The zoo facility doesn’t have overnight zookeepers, so she found it easier to care for the animals in her home after hours. She lives with her mom, who accepts that her home doubles as a halfway house for wild animals on the mend. But even her very tolerant mother draws the line at snakes. One of Dr. Diana favorite animals to work with is the anteater. She claims that during the first hour of their interaction they’re frightened, and think that she’s going to eat then. But soon after, they relax and warm up, and even cuddle with her on the couch as she watches TV.
Dr. Diana claims that every animal she has ever worked with has a distinct personality, and she seems to have the innate ability to understand them. And they seem to bond with her as well. Case in point: The lion at the zoo thinks that Dr. Diana is his mother. It kind of make sense, as she’s been his vet since he was a 4-month-old cub. Once, when he injured himself and his tail was broken and bleeding, the only person he would let nurse his wounds was her — and that was without being tranquilized. She claims that the lion, like any playful child, enjoys playing hide and seek with her. This woman’s connection with animals was completely fascinating to me, and I begged her for the chance to see her in action at the zoo, which seems to be her natural habitat.
As my family and I waited for Dr. Diana at the lion’s cage, I was struck by the animal’s majestic aura and breathtaking beauty. When the lion heard Dr. Diana’s voice, his ears perked up and he scanned the area to locate her. When she approached his cage, he immediately headed in her direction and then started rubbing his head against the bar, begging to be pet. She put her hands through the bars to scratch his ears. As she walked around his cage, the king of the jungle followed her around like a playful puppy. But what was truly amazing was lion’s gaze — one of complete admiration and trust as he looked at Dr. Diana.
As Dr. Diana lead us on a tour of the zoo, I felt like we were walking with a real-life Honduran Dr. Dolittle, as many of the animals came out to greet her, some of them reaching through the cage to hold her hand, get a pat or just to hear her tell them how beautiful they are, which she did repeatedly to every animal — excluding the snakes. Even this animal lover admitted that she’s relieved that the snakes rarely need her medical services.
When the ostrich saw Dr. Diana, she started flapping her wings excitedly. The jaguar rolled on his back and went belly-up, possibly wanting a belly rub. The raccoon reached his paw through the bars to hold Dr. Diana’s hand. I commented that I thought raccoons were usually pretty nasty and she concurred that they are usually pretty mean, but not this guy. This particular critter was put in the cage with pizotes, and usually they do not get along. But in this case, they not only get along, the raccoon has been seen licking and holding the head of an epileptic pizote during its seizures. One pizote even pushed his entire face through the bars, almost getting stuck, just to get Dr. Diana’s attention. And we got to see her in action with one of her beloved anteaters. Their name in Spanish translates directly to “ant-eating bear,” and they are indeed as adorable as teddy bears, but with razor sharp claws. According to Dr. Diana, they are also highly intelligent. The anteater also craved her attention and wanted a good pet. Even the normally elusive and anxious coyote followed Dr. Diana’s movements and seemed to want to say hello, but was standoffish, probably due to our presence.
As we walked the zoo, Dr. Diana explained that for budgetary and health reasons, the animals, almost all of whom are indigenous to Honduras, are fed all local food, most of which they would normally eat in nature. She attributes their natural diet to the extremely low percentage of animal illness at the zoo. Although the zoo struggles to maintain its funding and the cages currently used are a bit tired, the animals are well-kept, healthy and happy. And, the zoo is undergoing a huge renovation that includes spacious enclosures that all have a Honduran theme. So not only is the zoo rescuing animals, it is proudly highlighting the unique Honduran culture.
What I most admire about Dr. Diana is her unabashed devotion and outright love for each and every animal. She respects these creatures and understands her boundaries, knowing instinctively how close she can get to each animal and what they will tolerate. When she talks to the animals, they listen. By contrast, my daughter ran around the zoo and completely ignored me.
They say that children and animals are the best judges of character. If that is true, by what I witnessed, Dr. Diana is a truly good soul. When departing, I asked if I could take her picture for the article I would write about her and she seemed hesitant, as if she couldn’t understand why I would want her picture. I don’t think that she understands that one day, she might beat out St. Francis as patron saint of the animals — at least the Honduran ones.
Rhonda J. Bent is an Auburn native who lived in Madagascar and worked at the U.S. Embassy in Antananarivo before her current assignment in Honduras. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. government.