You can tell a lot about people by how animals react around them. You can tell so much more by how wary, cautious wild animals react around them. For those of us who were close to him, we have seen a wild cougar lick his bearded face, a lynx sit in his lap, and bear cubs fall asleep in his arms. He also handled hundreds of other animals, including squirrels, opossums, flying squirrels, raccoons, ferrets, fox, deer, groundhogs, skunks, snakes, turtles, and birds of prey. All of them seemed to see him as part of their world, not ours. They approached him without fear, and many with affection for this burly man of the north Georgia mountains.
For more than 40 years, Craig "Grizzly" Cylke rescued, nurtured and released injured or orphaned wild animals. When they could not be released, he built permanent habitats for them to live out the balance of their natural lives. And in his exemplary care, as attested to by professional vets that examined the animals, most outlived their years.
Sadly, Grizzly did not. On December 17, 2009, the beloved Wildlife and Program Director of The Wildlife Sanctuary in Ellijay, Georgia suddenly passed away. He was 51, about 20 or 30 years short of what we all expected out of a heart and soul and smile as big as his.
Grizzly shared his wildlife experiences with over a half million people, and well more than half of those were schoolchildren. He hauled his displayable live animals across the state, and even across the country, to opportunities where he could tell people about the importance of our wildlife. He appeared at hundreds of schools, as well as churches, corporate offices, retail shops, commercial high rises, and the north George Apple Festival for each of the last 20 years. He also conducted countless workshops, tours, educational programs and camping events at the sanctuary, where children met the animals up close and personal. At night, campers would sleep in bunkhouses, tents and even teepees, and often heard the night sounds of the wild animals nearby.
Grizzly was rarely on time for anything, except the care of wild animals. He ran on what those who worked closely with him knew as "Grizzly time." And invariably, he was late because an animal needed help. Sometimes he was late because he was trying to catch a little sleep, of which he got about 4 hours a night. It would not be unusual for him to bolt out the door about the time others would normally go to bed, to rescue an injured animal, and then stay up half the night until he could get it the necessary veterinary care and a safe place to begin its rehab. A few hours later, he would begin his normal day. No one felt slighted by his tardiness, because his warm greeting and humble apology always melted away any tension built up during the wait.
Your mother would say, "Remember to say, 'Thank you'". Charlotte and Ed, his beloved parents, must have taught him well. Grizzly always expressed his thanks, appreciation, and often his admiration for anything anyone did for the benefit of the sanctuary. He plowed every dollar that came into his hands into food, wire, lumber, medicine, supplies and anything else that the sanctuary needed to care for the animals. In fact, for the last four years, as the sanctuary struggled through financial hard times, Grizzly didn't even take a paycheck. He and his wife Debbie grew vegetables, sold some of their land, and scrapped together whatever they could to get by.
If you saw Grizzly work, you saw one thing - a man who only knew how to work hard. He didn't work an 8-hour day in his life; most of them were 12 hours or more, and often 7 days a week. The only vacations he took were a weekend or two a year. That is what he called a vacation. Otherwise, he and Debbie worked everyday, whether it was a holiday, or what we call a 3-day weekend.
If he could, he took off Saturdays, his Sabbath as a Seventh-Day Adventist. A great many people heard about Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, from Grizzly. A few even accepted Christ because they saw Christ in Craig. It was hard to miss. He wasn't preachy but he loved the Lord and the Lord's creations so much that his love and belief surrounded him like a huge aura. If you just shook his hand, you could feel that aura envelop you, and you instantly understood why a wary, injured and scared wild animal would feel so safe and comfortable in the big paws of a Grizzly.
We will miss him until we rejoin him. May he Rest in Peace.
As always, Grizzly would appreciate any donation you, the reader, feel moved to make to The Wildlife Sanctuary, a 501(c)(3) non-profit. You may do so by mailing it to 435 Cougar Lane, Ellijay, GA 30540, or online at www.thewildlifesanctuary.com.