Ladies and gents: The tarantula will not be making an appearance today, due to a previously scheduled photo op for a children's book. But this wacky, wonderful show must go on and it does, nearly 90 times a year across the Twin Cities.
Jil Ocel and Marthe Herbert are founders of Animal Ambassadors, which introduces exotic animals to clients at senior centers and group homes. Meet Fingers, the "wild man" raccoon, who yanks off the leopard-print blanket covering his cage and dreams of his next fix of McDonald's fries. Norm the Parrot whistles, cries like a baby, blows his nose, busts a move and mimics an owl. The show's a hoot, absolutely, but it has a deeper purpose.
For 20 years, Jil and Marthe have teamed up to rescue small, injured and unwanted animals that couldn't survive on their own. They sometimes travel 100 miles in a day, and have grown skilled at unloading and loading cages in a matter of minutes. They've racked up exorbitant vet and pet-food bills, acquired all the necessary permits (they are USDA-licensed and -insured) and cleaned up poop in various sizes, never losing their sense of wonder and enthusiasm.
"Hi, Julius!" Jil says, reaching for her next animal star as she approaches clients at New Options, a care center in Shakopee for people with disabilities. "He's one of the nicest snakes you will ever meet." While a few clients back off, the visits are nothing short of miraculous for many. "Nonverbal clients will make sounds because they're so excited," says Paula Neisen, New Options' program coordinator. "The difference these animals make in their lives is just unbelievable, although I can do without the snake."
Marthe and Jil met in 1992 when both were participating in a live animal show at the Mall of America. Animal Ambassadors is funded by Larry Hassler, an animal lover and former co-owner of the Pearson's Candy Co. Marthe, of Ramsey, has a theater background, and has helped Jil with what Jil says was "huge performance anxiety."
Jil, who lives on 10 acres south of the cities, "is really good at one-on-one interactions," Marthe says. "I've learned from her how to connect on a deeper level. I am doubly blessed because not only do I get to work with animals and see the difference they make in people's lives, but I get to do it with my best friend."