Beastly Behavior

Wildlife rehabilitator Vivian Steele got along fine with animals. It's people who gave her trouble.

The follow-up story was never done. The department didn't find Vivian Steele guilty of cruelty, but nonetheless, the heron rumor trails her to this day, along with another that she kills just about everything she can get her hands on.

Unbelievable, said Vivian. "It just doesn't even make any sense how they can take someone like me -- a morning person! a cheerful person! -- and turn me into this witch. I am not the Antichrist!"

She bubbles along on the surface of things because when she doesn't, she tends to get depressed, she said. Vivian's cheerfulness is a decision, a tool she acquired as a child to make it through the day.

"If I give you the impression that I hide behind a facade of being a birdbrain, I don't mean to," she apologized.

From about the age of six until she was 19, Vivian was molested by a relative, she said. She thought it was her fault and grew up believing she was indeed a bad person. No one corrected her. No one ever came to her aid. Vivian learned what it meant to be stranded, and it was as a child that she began taking little wild things into her care.

Her stepfather was in the Air Force, and the family frequently moved. Vivian's first ambition was to become a flight attendant, because the attendants were so nice to her, "and I wanted to be a nice person and help little children." Later, as a teenager, it was out of the same desire to help that she grew interested in becoming a mortician. She saw the job as the noble easing of grief, but her mother saw it as a life of death. To make that point, Vivian was taken to a mortuary and shown the finished product.

"He was absolutely beautiful!" she recalled. "It sounds so corny, but he was so peaceful looking, and I was absolutely sure this is what I wanted to do."

But her mother forbade it. The family was soon transferred to Libya, and instead of a mortician, Vivian became a Polynesian dancer working the parties. She put flowers in her long red hair and wrapped a sarong around her waist. One night in the audience, there was an Englishman named Ed Steele who worked for an oil company.

"He tells me he fell in love at first wiggle," said Vivian.
They married and moved to Houston not long afterward. He became her Shnooglebutz and she his little Sugar Booger. Three children were born before Ed discovered the secret of Vivian's childhood. The children didn't learn for years after that. Vivian was trying to protect their innocence and everything else. "I'm a rescuer," she said. "That's what I am." And, afraid that someone would steal them, she wouldn't let the children play in the front yard, wouldn't hire a baby sitter, wouldn't let them ride the bus. "You can safely assume that I smothered them," she said, and at some point, they began to rebel.

When they became involved in what she considered destructive behavior, Vivian didn't know what to do. She said she enjoyed her children as babies, but was confused by the anger of teens. People are complicated, she said. "That's why I like animals better. If you get bitten, you expect it. People are so unpredictable."

When you begin caring for wild animals, one rehabber explained, your view of the world is forever altered. You realize that Mother Nature is not always a nice lady, and in stormy weather, you might stand at the window, wondering how many little baby critters are shivering on the ground, and whether they will drown, and what the ants will do to them if they don't.

You feed the babies you have every half hour, all day long. If you travel, you take them with you. Maybe you buy a truck with four-wheel drive so you can get to the best release sites. With so much invested, you have to believe what you are doing is right, and you get into angry debates over whether a cage with a concrete floor is better than dirt, or whether the vet's disinfectant is any better than diluted Clorox. If you decide to feed your young squirrels formula, there's a chance you'll run into the woman who will call you a murderer for not using scalded milk.

As lovely as rehabbers are to animals, they are notoriously beastly to one another. There are about 400 permit holders in Texas, and hundreds more working in apprenticeship. If you take the name of any one of them and present it to any four others, said a Parks and Wildlife official, you're going to hear a lot of dirt.

Vivian wasn't expecting any of this when she joined TWRC in the late '80's. She was thinking only about the animals. "Who wouldn't want to snuggle bunnies?" she asked, and she soon began snuggling them all.

A TWRC recording directed people with wounded animals to the rehabber in their area, and the Steeles began living with phones that rang around the clock and strangers bearing assorted gifts. At the time, the only training was a seminar given once a year. New volunteers were each assigned a mentor, but often, everyone was so busy, it was simply learn as you go.

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