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Big Chuck

March 14, 2011

I Was Just Thinking: Schoharie 'savior' is area's own Dr. Dolittle

They called sharpshooter Tim Murphy the "Savior of Schoharie."

Well, I'd like to submit the name Wes Laraway for the modern-day version of that title.

Savior, maybe. But don't call Wes a saint.

"No, no, no," he chided me. "I am no saint. Just a guy with a mission."

And what a mission it is! Wes heads up the New York Wildlife Rescue Center in Middleburgh.

"We do it all with volunteers," he told me. "High school students and SUNY Cobleskill kids, family and friends. We all pitch in to make it work. We're really one big family here."

Wes recently made national news when he rescued 100 llamas from a farm in Montana that went bust. "These animals were hurting, and I had to act."

Wes organized, arranged and financed the migration of this large number of exotic animals from one side of the country to the other. They were trucked to Schoharie County, where they were integrated into Wes' wildlife refuge.

"We take all kinds of animals up here at Red Maple Farm (his property). I get calls from all over to help animals in distress."

I visited Wes at his hilltop aerie with the million-dollar view of Vroman's Nose last week. Amid the squealing, squawking and braying din of the barnyard, Wes' calm demeanor seemed to put it all into a peaceful perspective.

Like I said (and he denies), this guy is a saint.

Our afternoon tour around the farm was like visiting the set of the movie "Dr. Doolittle." I met some shy pot belly pigs from Ballston Spa, an emu from Unadilla, a Brown Swiss dairy cow that looked like it had just strolled down from the Alps, some skittish falcons and a couple of fully plumed peacocks that were found meandering around downtown Schenectady.

I met a sheep with four horns (even the Catskill Game Farm didn't have one of those!), horses, donkeys, a one-eyed barn owl from Richmondville and a bobcat from Florida with a brand new $5,000 hip.

"The students from Cornell University come here regularly. This old bobcat had been hit by a car and needed a new hip. Guess what? They gave him one!"

I asked Wes if he ever had to refuse to take in an animal. He scratched his head for a minute. "Generally speaking, we don't take cats and dogs, because we would just be overrun. But have I ever turned an animal away? Yes. There was a circus elephant once." And he wasn't kidding. "I simply didn't have the room for the poor thing."

"Wanna see the llamas?" he asked me. I couldn't say yes fast enough.

I'll tell you, I was not prepared for what I saw. One hundred of the most intriguing-looking animals God ever put on Earth. Wide-bodied, tall-as-me woolen-coated Disney characters with the most beautiful human-looking eyes you've ever seen. Wes and I walked right into the middle of the crowd.

I think I was as much of a curiosity to them as they were to me. They slowly circled around me, sometimes venturing up close enough so that we were literally nose-to-nose. These gentle beasts looked none the worse for wear for the overland passage from the heartland of America to Central New York.

"Right now, they're the stars of the show. I've had many inquiries about their adoption and care and feeding of them (an amount that exceeds tens of thousands of dollars monthly). We have no paid staff and we exist only on the kindness of others. From food to hay to materials to medical care, people have been wonderful," Wes told me.

"But we almost never have enough," he sighed.

I asked him how he got started on his road to the Wild Kingdom.

"I was always the kid with the frog in my pocket at school," he said with a laugh. "My first animal rescue was a baby robin when I was a little boy. And I've never stopped."

Laraway's farm sits high atop a hill behind the Middleburgh Cemetery (on Llama Lane!). The llama pen is near the grave site monument of Revolutionary War hero Tim Murphy.

"Yes, they called Tim a savior. But I'm neither that nor am I a saint. Although, if it ever rains hard enough up here, I may be another Noah," he chuckled.

Either way, there is a special place in heaven for people like Wes Laraway.

To find out more about his organization (and see photos of each of the 100 llamas), visit www.redmaplefarm.net.

I'll catch you in two ...

'Big Chuck' D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.

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