In a farmhouse yard on the central Texas prairie, a fawn-colored Frenchie playfully faces off with an East African grey-crowned crane, and a curious three-year-old girl keeps company with a dama gazelle and a fallow deer—all under the watchful gaze of a serene Golden Retriever named Riley.
We learned about Riley and his exotic “playmates” from Rebecca Ross, a wildlife biologist/zoologist/rehabilitator, who lives on and manages a privately owned sanctuary in Austin, Tex., with Camryn (daughter), Tank (a young Frenchie), Riley and various wild creatures from across the globe.
Rebecca entered Riley in Bark’s cover dog contest, and wrote that he’s a “one-in-a-million dog.” She backed up her claim with photos and video of her dog chillin’ with zebra; blackbuck, sitatunga and blesbok antelopes; a parrot; a Patagonian cavy (a very large cousin of the guinea pig); a feral piglet; and a red fox. So we asked her to tell us more.
Rebecca got her 10-week-old “almost pure white, fluffiest ball of joy you’ve ever seen” in Johannesburg, South Africa, six years ago, while she was working toward her master’s degree in zoology. “Riley was one of those more mature, serious puppies from the very beginning,” she says. “He never had an accident in the house. He never chewed anything. He just never did any of those typical puppy things.”
When Riley was six months old, Rebecca started training him for therapy work, and he was certified by the time he was a year old. They visited homes for the elderly, where he was a particular favorite because he’s so calm. In addition to therapy work, Riley proved a dedicated companion in the field. When Rebecca turned to wildlife rehabilitation, nursing injured or abandoned deer and antelope babies, she discovered that her sidekick had even more talents.
“Riley gets kind of excited [when I bring a baby home]. He’s usually very eager to lick them all over. I always encourage that; that’s what their moms would do. Sometimes it helps me bridge that gap because Riley’s a little more antelope-like than I am. A lot of times, they’ll try to nurse from him and I’ll slip a bottle down his side. He helps me out in situations where they are more comfortable with him.”
A few years ago, Rebecca and her husband, a South African who also works with wildlife, decided to move to the U.S. Rebecca came first, taking a temporary job tracking desert bighorn sheep at White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, where Riley was, once again, her mainstay. Soon after the couple moved to Texas, their daughter Camryn was born. For Riley, “she was just another baby to be careful around. He’s one of those dogs she can lay all over and pull his ears.”
Photography by Matthew Mahon