Wild, exotic creatures all in the family.
Illinois couple devote life to educating others about their scaly, furry family members
ANTIOCH, Ill. — Humans love pigs and goats, but opossums may have a bit of an image problem.
Animal Quest founders Jessica Reedy and her husband, Steve, say they are on a mission to change that.
When Antioch-based Animal Quest takes Opal, the opossum, to one of many educational programs it gives throughout Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana, humans learn the good side of these marsupials.
“They eat ticks,” Jessica says. Within an hour after showing Opal at libraries, museums and other venues, “people are up touching her and saying we’ve changed their minds about opossums. She’s super friendly,” Jessica says.
Animal Quest’s mission extends far beyond getting some respect for a skinny-tailed mammal. The Reedys and their part-time employees work to teach young and old to respect and appreciate wild animals as well as understand that most exotic animals do not make good pets.
In fact, Jessica says, nearly all of the animals they keep and take to educational programs are neglected and/or abandoned exotic creatures bought as pets.
Jessica talked about Animal Quest’s mission in her backyard while petting Zoey, a Scottish terrier, one of three dogs the couple owns.
Behind her in a large enclosure, several goats and sheep, a pig and one large attention-craving goat named Bart meandered. Next to the enclosure, a couple of African sulcata tortoises caught some rays near the couple’s 4-year-old-daughter Ava’s sunny playground. A rooster crowed even though it was noon.
While Jessica petted Bart the goat’s nose, he closed his eyes. If she walks around the fence, he follows her and asks for more pets. Sometimes, he’ll try to take a bite of her sleeve, she says.
Before they took charge of Bart, he was kept in a crate and was neglected, she says. “Steve made this whole yard for him — and we ended up getting more goats.”
Since they started Animal Quest in 2011, they’ve moved from an apartment in Schaumburg, Ill., (where for two weeks they kept a baby pot-bellied pig, Norman) to a oneacre property in Ingleside, Ill., and now five acres in Antioch. Norman is now a 7-year-old, 200-pound pig who patrols the part of their land where a raccoon, fox, rabbits and ducks are kept. The raccoon and fox are unable to be returned to the wild, Jessica says.
“Norman is kind of a sassy guy,” she says. He seems to only like her and her husband, she says. He’ll be with them for a while — he can live to be 20.
Both grew up loving animals — Jessica in British Columbia, where her parents allowed her to keep chinchillas as pets as long as she provided what they needed and took good care of them, and Steve in Crystal Lake.
“Steve, however, wasn’t allowed to have any pets,” Jessica says. “He’s got his fill of them now.”
The couple met while attending America’s Teaching Zoo in Moorpark, Calif., where they learned hands-on animal husbandry, education, conservation and veterinary work. They worked with capuchin monkeys, hyenas, lizards, snakes and hawks, including a golden eagle, among many other exotic animals, as well as those native to North America, Steve says.
They married just before graduation, then moved to Illinois to take summer jobs caring for animals. Within a year, they started Animal Quest, which is licensed by the USDA, Jessica says.
The couple started with 15 animals, mostly reptiles, Steve says, and now, Jessica says, “We have about 100. I have to count them again.” These include the albino Burmese python, Kenyan sand boa, Flemish giant
rabbits, rose-haired tarantula, African pygmy hedgehogs, bearded dragon and Madagascar hissing cockroaches, among others.
TIME FOR BED AND MEDS
That’s a lot of critters to tuck in every night — and the Reedys need to be home at dusk every day to get the animals ready for bed. Some of their charges also require medication morning and evening. Cleaning up after the animals is done daily as well.
Taking care of so many animals is time consuming and sometimes unpredictable. Once a goat ate an important contract, Jessica says.
Twitch, the coatimundi “always gets a little crazy during the dinner hour so we have to make sure we bring his dinner with us if we are at a show during this time,” Steve says. His wife does not recommend keeping coatimundis as pets — they’re related to raccoons and can tear up your house, she says.
One of the rabbits has a problem with his hips and needs medication twice a day. The rabbit’s father, Monroe, had similar problems and recently had to be euthanized.
“Even though we have so many animals, when we lose one, we’re heartbroken,” Jessica says. “Monroe was one of my all-time favorites. He was so laid back. He was with us almost from the start. My day started and ended with him when I gave him his meds. At bedtime, I made sure that he was on his pillow.”
Mary Ann Gawlik, a parttime employee, says she admires the couple’s commitment to their animals. “I’ve seen how loving they are. They have taken a hamster for massages and for chiropractic work,” Gawlik says.
The hamster — actually a guinea pig, Jessica says — had an ear infection and strained its neck — the veterinarian suggested they take it to a chiropractic veterinarian.
“We don’t spare any expenses for our animals,” she says.
KEEN ON REPTILES
Gawlik, of Libertyville, Ill., says she has always loved animals and has served as a foster caretaker for unwanted pets, but before coming to Animal Quest, she says she “wasn’t really keen on reptiles. But that’s past tense.”
Now she holds, with ease, Jig, the 8-foot Burmese python.
“It’s really cool. I describe it to kids saying it’s like carrying a hug … I just went from there to a monitor lizard, which is 3 feet long — and I even held their tarantula,” she says.
Gawlik has learned to slowly approach people who might be afraid of snakes and guide their hand to touch one if they want.
Jessica says she believes Animal Quest is making a difference.
“We tell people the truth,” she says. “We educate them. People have run up and banged on a tortoise. I tell them a tortoise is not a rock. It feels it when you bang on it.”
They rotate the animals to give them a rest, and after reptiles have been fed they get a day off to digest.
The family eats meat that’s raised humanely and organically, she says. In addition, they grow vegetables, including corn on the cob, which some of their animals eat raw.
Recently, Jessica saved a painted turtle that was crossing a road and almost got hit by a car. “I swooped it up and ran through the tall grasses and put it in a pond,” she says. Last week, she took in a domesticated duck that was found hobbling down a street in Waukegan, Ill.
Ava says she enjoys being around the animals. “I like petting them.”
“Ava has a special bond with both Nuna [a chicken] and Waldo [a Patagonian cavy, a large rodent native to Argentina],” Steve says. “Both let her touch them as much as she wants but they don’t like others touching them.”
“We love to be around animals,” Jessica says. “It’s calming. It’s what makes us happy. We don’t go on vacation. I take Ava to Canada to be with my family once a year, but Steve stays here to take care of the animals. We’re happy here.”
Jessica Reedy, co-founder of Animal Quest with her husband, Steve, pets Bart, a goat who lives on the couple’s five-acre property in Antioch, Ill.
Jessica Reedy, who co-founded Animal Quest with her husband, Steve, admires an African pygmy hedgehog, one of several they keep at their property in Antioch, Ill.
Bart the goat was rescued from an inhumane living situation by Jessica and Steve Reedy, co-founders of Animal Quest.