When you picture a small, family business, your mind probably conjures up images of the local convenience store or the cozy restaurant down the street. But Tom and Stephanie Gaines — and their two children, ages 5 and 8 — are anything but an ordinary family. This group specializes not in culinary classics or time-honored customer service. They specialize in exotic animals.
Tom and Stephanie began Northwest Animal Adventures, an animal outreach company, in 2011. The business is a nonprofit organization dedicated to conservation efforts and animal awareness. In their home/animal sanctuary in the Kent/Covington area, the couple houses and cares for approximately 40 unique creatures.
The family conducts outreach efforts to educate the public on these animal ambassadors. They gather up a few furry friends and take them to schools, offices, and retirement homes so that individuals can, hopefully, be inspired to take steps toward conservation in their own lives.
At South Sound magazine, we recently got the opportunity to have a visit from Northwest Animal Encounters and meet them for ourselves. Tom and Stephanie arrived with arms full of animal carriers, and set up a space in our conference room while our staff waited with anticipation. These are the stories of the animals we got to meet:
Ruby the red tail boa
When draped over your shoulders, the sheer weight of Ruby surprises you. She is easily the length of your arm span, and weaves her way around your outstretched arms. This massive snake is 35 pounds and 7.5 feet long.
She came to the Gaines family in a surprising turn of events. One day, the Gaines family received a call that someone had abandoned their snake in an apartment. They had moved out and left the reptile to fend for herself. When Tom and Stephanie went to the apartment to investigate, they found the red tail boa — then 5 feet long — in need of a home.
They gladly took Ruby in, and the happy lady has since grown 2.5 feet and put on some extra poundage. She loves coming with the Gaines on outreach excursions to meet new people and show off her strong body. Ruby has never showed any signs of aggression, so she’s a great snake to help people get used to the idea of slithering serpentine.
Pebbles the three banded armadillo
When Pebbles first makes his appearance, you could easily mistake the little armadillo as a ripe cantaloupe. His round shell was tightly closed since — he’s almost always mid-nap. The three banded armadillo usually sleeps somewhere between 16 and 19 hours each day, and Pebbles is no exception.
Stephanie places the little creature upright in an effort to get him to wake up. Slowly, but surely, he starts to transform into the four-legged-being. After a slow stretch, Pebbles is up and moving. Tom compared Pebbles to a human toddler — he’s either fast asleep or never stops wiggling.
Pebbles is originally from New York. He was re-homed from an organization similar to Northwest Animal Adventures that needed to downsize after the owners had their first child. A couple of animals made their way to the Pacific Northwest from this nonprofit. He’s only been with the Gaines since February, but the little guy has quickly made quite the impression. People love his awkward little walk on his tip toes and his slightly furry belly.
Melvin the box turtle
Melvin was an instant favorite. He is only a few inches in diameter and is much bolder than you would expect of a turtle. This tiny turtle is around four or five years old, and will live to be about 30. His lifespan was nearly much shorter, though.
When Melvin was a baby, a young woman ordered him online to have him as a pet. She treated him more like a toy than a living thing — painting his shell with nail polish and things of that nature. When she went off to college, she left Melvin with a family member that didn’t know how to take care of him. They didn’t even know if he was a turtle or a tortoise.
By the time the Gaines intervened, Melvin was so unhealthy that they were uncertain he would make it to his new home. He was very low-energy and barely moved around his new tank. They got Melvin on an appropriate diet and gave him the environment he needed to recover. Now, although his small stature indicates stunted growth and there are still remnants of the nail polish on his shell, he is a happy, healthy turtle.
R.J. the black and white tegu
When R.J. first emerged from his kennel, we thought for certain that the Gaines had somehow resurrected a dinosaur. But the tegu, an Argentinean species of lizard ranging in size from 3 to 5 feet long, is basically the puppy of the lizard world. It is one of the most intelligent lizard species — about as intelligent as a dog (which is pretty impressive for a lizard).
The most dog-like quality of R.J. is in the way he responds to pets. This animal loves cuddles and when you scratch his head just right, his eyes half-close in enjoyment. If he started wagging his scaly tail, we wouldn’t be surprised.
R.J. came to the Gaines, again, from an owner who couldn’t take care of him. They had not anticipated his size and adequate care began to be too much work. Details of his previous life are uncertain, but we know he for sure lost the end of his tail in a door jam before coming to Northwest Animal Adventures.
The Gaines have now had R.J. for seven years, and Tom said he is constantly fascinated by the creature. R.J. is the favorite of their five-year-old son, who often pretends to have his own Steve Irwin style show with the lizard.
Tinkerbell the fennec fox
Tinkerbell is a sassy, old broad. This fennec fox is 9 years old — well into her golden years. She is aptly named, as she contains all the sass of the fictional fairy and her ears are the size of wings.
Fennec foxes have the largest ear-to-body ratio of any mammal. You can hold the small fox in your hand like a football and, when you do this, she starts to purr. You can feel the soft vibrations of her purr against her fur, and she’s all the more endearing. Don’t let the slightly snarled lip fool you, she’s loving the attention.
Tinkerbell came from the same nonprofit organization in New York where Pebbles came from. She only gets to come on excursions when the crowd is smaller, because she can get overwhelmed. She also isn’t allowed on outreach trips when the Gaines bring their massive Eurasian eagle owl, since the fennec fox is its natural pray.
In fact, Northwest Animal Adventures has a myriad of other animals back at their farm — geckos, pythons, stick bugs, scorpions, alpacas, frogs, goats, and more. People will never get to meet some of the animals; the ones that the Gaines bring to encounters are those that are happy and comfortable doing so.
Their house may seem like a pet-lovers dream, but Tom is quick to correct the misconception. “When people ask me how many pets I have, I tell them two dogs and two cats. Everything else is an ambassador for their species,” he said.
He reminds us that many of the animals under their care came to them because they weren’t properly understood or maintained. The goal is to educate people about these creatures — and adopting them isn’t the way to help them. The Gaines hope that by exposing individuals to these animals, they will inspire, educate, and bring awareness to the idea that, as human beings, we have a lasting impact on our environment. And, hopefully, that impact can be positive.