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AN OASIS IN SAN DIMAS story by | Ande Richards photos by | Richard Martinez and Ande Richards
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A recently rescued alpaca is in distress. Severed from his longtime companion, he pines for a goat. His rescuers empathize with him because they too are in love. They go back to the alpaca’s original home to retrieve his friend. Now, Benjy the alpaca and his friend Buddy the goat live at Planet Rehab in the city of San Dimas. Just 25 miles east of Los Angeles, the cozy sanctuary sits on land that pushes up against the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains.
ARY MITCHELL and Carlo Rios run Planet Rehab. Gary already had his hand in conservation. As Director of Sustainability for Metro, he provided environmental education and implemented sustainability goals for Disney Channel, Google and Blue Shield among other major companies in Los Angeles. Now, the couple’s lives revolve around animals, which is fitting considering they met on the dating
site Plenty of Fish. Gary says the “Science Friday” radio show inspired him to start the organization.
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“I was actually driving my car and listening to NPR. This was back in 2002, it was ‘Science Friday’ and Ira Flatow was interviewing Michael Oppenheimer who happens to be a professor at Princeton University and one of the leading climatologists,” Gary says. Gary had been a loyal supporter of diﬀerent environmental organizations for quite a few years, but now he was seeing things in a new way. “Michael was talking about the eﬀects of global climate change,” Gary says. “He was talking about species that were disappearing, that were having to migrate away from the equator and it freaked me out. I had no idea that things were as bad as they were. So, I thought maybe I could do something a little better than just write a check. So, I started Planet Rehab.” Planet Rehab’s human inhabitants coexist seamlessly with more than 350 animals on a small lot of land. Dogs roam the compound indiﬀerent to the
tortoise crossing their path. A shiny black crow flies overhead and perches on a welcoming shoulder. Many of the animals at the sanctuary are rescues. Native birds and animals are rehabilitated and released back into their natural ecosystems when possible. A typical morning at the shelter begins with Gary bringing Carlo a cup of coﬀee. Carlo says they spend an hour connecting with each other before the real work begins. “We ask each other how we’re feeling, did we sleep well, what’s your schedule for the day?” Carlo says. “We religiously watch the ‘Today Show’ and afterward we throw the coﬀee grinds from our morning coﬀee into plants - we start oﬀ by reusing.” Soon they hear a knock at the door, and with that the volunteers begin to filter in according to their schedules. Carlo heads out to work and leaves Gary to connect with the helpers. HELP IS ON THE WAY Volunteers are vital to the sanctuary's success. They come from local schools and churches and occasionally from Volunteer Match, a website that pairs volunteers with organizations in need of assistance. “We work with local schools and teachers, especially the science teachers,” Carlo says. Gary assigns the kids duties – attend to hatching eggs, check on a sick animal, this animal needs to be fed, this one cleaned. Volunteers that have worked at Planet Rehab for a while are considered “seniors.” They have a schedule to follow and Gary does not micro manage them.
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“We create a space where there is a presentation of emotional experiences that will inspire people to make meaningful changes,” Carlo says. The volunteer’s interactions with the animals teach them about the greater environmental issues that plague planet earth. They become experts on several ecological topics by caring for the animals and their habitats. “The goal of Planet Rehab is to educate youth, and allow them to develop skills that volunteering can foster like integrity, passion, compassion, love and simple emotional connection,” Carlo says. We want them to be ambassadors and leaders in their communities and for the planet.” CATTLE KILLS THE RAINFOREST Autumn Slater attends high school and volunteers at Planet Rehab because of her interest in ecology. She says she has learned much about geography and the issues that aﬀect diﬀerent ecosystems from taking care of several species of birds at Rehab. She reaches into the aviary for a small bird and cradles it in her hand as she speaks.
“He was talking about species that were disappearing, that were having to migrate away from the equator and it freaked me out. I had no idea that things were as bad as they were. So, I thought maybe I could do something a little better than just write a check. so, I started Planet Rehab.” - Gary Mitchell “Kiki and Koko came from the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, and one thing I really love is how beautiful they are,” Autumn says. “The Amazon rainforest is a very diverse place. It’s really unfortunate because the cattle industry is cutting down around 56 million acres of the rainforest a year. They’re cutting down trees to make room for their cows to graze. The worst thing is the trees don’t grow back.” Carlo says Autumn used her experience at Planet Rehab as the subject of her college admis-
sion essay to Humboldt State University. “She presented to the committee in person and spoke with such knowledge and confidence – so of course she got in,” he says. MONARCHS, MILKWEED, MIGRATION Gary and Carlo placed rows of potted milkweed plants throughout sections of the compound to attract monarch butterflies.
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“The goal of Planet Rehab is to educate youth, And allow them to develop skills that volunteering can foster like integrity, passion, compassion, love and simple emotional connection.” - Carlo Rios
Drucker School of Management. She is an important resource for the sanctuary. Her good reputation and longevity in the community position her to help the organization recruit potential board members and funders. She is a surrogate mother to Gary, and gave him away at his wedding ceremony to Carlo. The wedding took place outdoors at Planet Rehab where Benjy, Buddy, Rocket, Niko, Russell Crow and Alan the tortoise witnessed the nuptials. JUST SAY NO TO PLASTIC Alyssa Jurkevics sports bright red hair, similar to the crown of the Phoenix chicken standing in the coop in front of her. She met Carlo and Gary four years ago when they visited International Polytechnic High School to speak to her ecology class. “When they started talking about environmental issues I was very intrigued and very concerned,” Alyssa says. During her time at the sanctuary, she’s learned about the havoc plastic creates in the ocean. “Plastic bags are especially harmful,” Alyssa says. “Plastic gathered up can attack the phytoplankton, which gives us oxygen. It is estimated 56 percent of our oxygen comes from phytoplankton.” OCEAN MATTERS
It is estimated that 96.5 percent of the North American monarch population has disappeared. Milkweed is the only plant a monarch will lay eggs on, and the only plant their caterpillars can eat. Looming extinction of the iconic orange and black monarch butterfly is one of the reasons college student Hannah New volunteers at the sanctuary during school breaks. “We’re trying to save the monarch population because they’re currently endangered,” Hannah says. “There are certain companies that grow [genetically modified organisms] and GMOs have the capability to grow in certain pesticides, but the milkweed plant is unable to survive in that environment. This is an issue because milkweed plants are the only thing the monarch will eat.” President Barack Obama shares Planet Rehab’s concern for the endangered butterflies. In 2015, he committed $3.2 million and unveiled plans to create a 1,500-mile monarch corridor. It will mimic their migration path from Mexico to Canada. It will be lined with milkweed to provide refuge and food. VEGANS USE LESS WATER Planet Rehab’s resident raccoons Rocket and Niko play and frolic behind the wire mesh of their wooden shed. Nearby, an attractive man with shoulder-length blond hair cleans up after the shelter’s dogs.
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Austin Rapp has known Carlo since he was six years old. When he made the decision to move to Los Angeles for his acting career, Carlo and Gary gladly welcomed him into their home. Austin has been a vegan since before he came to Planet Rehab. He says that a vegan diet is not only healthy, but it allows him to feel good about his connection to animals and the planet. “Being vegan is a health choice,” Austin says. “It encourages a healthier plant-based diet, but the environmental factor is even more important. It takes 2,000 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef, but it only takes 200 gallons of water to produce a pound of vegetables.” THE ELDER STATESWOMAN “My favorite thing here is the variety,” says Sally Aiken. “The energy of everyone, Gary’s patience with the volunteers - his creativity is phenomenal. I admire him greatly.” Planet Rehab's “oldest kid” was an elementary school teacher in Ohio before moving to Los Angeles in the late ‘70s. Cutbacks triggered by Prop 13 prevented her from a teaching career in L.A., so she worked part time at Claremont Graduate School as a receptionist. Then she became secretary of admissions, then head of admissions, and finally registrar at the
“Hands Across the Sand” is an international ocean protection movement. Planet Rehab was the first group in California to participate in the event. Volunteers take an annual trip to the beach and enlist sponsors to oﬀset transportation and meal expenses. Funds are also used to buy metal Planet Rehab water bottles and T-shirts. Anything left over is used to maintain the animal sanctuary. “Hands Across the Sand” breaks down into two parts: the protest and the cleanup. First, all participants stand on the beach with their arms linked in solidarity. This is how they stage a non-violent protest against oﬀshore oil drilling. Then they start the cleanup. Volunteers separate trash into two piles: trash that gets thrown out and trash that gets recycled. Common items discarded on the beach are Styrofoam cups, plastic spoons and plastic bags. JUNGLE FEVER Gary and Carlo want to increase their outreach and expand geographically. Ultimately, the couple would like to build an eco-habitat in Costa Rica. Costa Rica is home to a protected rainforest and is the ideal place for Carlo and Gary to advance environmental actions. According to a recent United Nations Environmental Program report, 150 to 200 species are becoming extinct every day. Gary and Carlo's plan is to protect rainforest territory on the Caribbean coast. They want to breed species at risk of extinction, and then release the oﬀspring into the protected rainforest. Gary says they have more than 40 years of experience breeding exotic species. They want to move soon. They say they plan to make their Costa Rica haven an eco-educational facility. The couple says they are limited in San Dimas to how much they can aﬀect the bigger ecological equation. For now, however, their focus remains on education. ¶