By Megan Jones
Mary-Ann Nova (front right) steps into her miniature jungle cat’s cage the same way as always: holding a dog dish filled with a fat-laced slab of chicken. Her 40-pound caracal Sassi—a lynx-like cat that fells small prey with a swift five-metre leap and a bite to the neck—is perched, hissing, on a platform above.
Pressed against the cage, about 25 children stare, their fingers intertwined with the structure’s chain-link fence, trying to get as close as possible. To one side, miniature pigs squeal and crash into their pen’s walls. To the other, a young woman clutches a three-foot bearded dragon to her chest like an over-sized, amphibious infant. Still, all eyes remain fastened to Mary-Ann and Sassi.
Mary-Ann ignores the hissing. She lays the dish down, steps back and absentmindedly twists her tangerine-orange hair into a bun. Sassi descends and circles the food before eating. After she tears the last piece of meat, Mary-Ann makes contact and Sassi melts into a seated position while her owner strokes her back.
“Some people are just like Sassi,” the 57-year-old explains to her audience. “They’re very anxious at first, so you need to learn how to approach them carefully, at their own pace.”
Not one word is ignored. Mary-Ann’s voice doesn’t just calm, it mesmerizes. Some children in her audience have disabilities and are accompanied by volunteer mentors. Others are typically developing. But they’re all absorbing the same inclusionary lesson in Mary-Ann’s backyard through a program called Nova’s Ark. Mary-Ann’s been a bit of a misfit her whole life, but here, she’s found her calling.
Nova’s Ark is a day camp designed for children and adults with special needs. On any given day in the summer, there are about 15 to 20 children and young adults visiting Mary-Ann’s property.
The camp caters to children with a range of disabilities. Over the past 10 years, Mary-Ann has collected more than 60 different animals from rabbits and turtles to hawks and kangaroos. She builds her programming around the animals, using the critters to bring campers together. “Some children may have trouble socializing or relating, but when they see these animals, it starts a conversation,” she explains. "The animals are something everyone can relate to.”
It isn’t what Mary-Ann intended to create. In 1998, she left her Whitby, Ont. subdivision and moved about 10 km north with her husband, Geoff, and son, Kyle. They settled on a 10-acre property in Brooklin, Ont.
Mary-Ann, then principal at Sir Samuel Steele Public School and former special-needs consultant for the Durham District School Board, bought two horses and some house pets. She wanted to use them to provide alternative summer programs for a few children with severe developmental and physical disabilities who were friends of the family.
Mary-Ann was discouraged by the existing school education available to kids with special needs. She felt students were unfairly subjected to one-size-fits-all standards of success. If kids didn’t fit the model, Mary-Ann says, they were given up on.
She was familiar with the feeling: Mary-Ann has a learning disability that makes it difficult for her to understand written information. Growing up in Selkirk, Manitoba—about 20 km north-east of Winnipeg—she struggled academically. In elementary school she was called unintelligent by teachers. As a teenager, Mary-Ann says she was told she’d amount to nothing “except maybe get married and have some kids.”
Mary-Ann was a farm girl, and found barnyard animals like pigs and horses comforting. As an adult, she started believing they could be used to teach empathy. She saw animals as catalysts for bonding between humans.
Mary-Ann started small: about five kids each summer and on weekends. She gathered volunteers—mostly teenagers from unstable family backgrounds or those who were struggling academically. She wanted to give them chances to thrive. At the same time, she collected increasingly exotic animals, working up from guinea pigs and goats to a python and zebras. Many came cheap: they’d been abandoned at birth or abused by breeders.
In 2004, Nova’s Ark became a registered charity. Soon, Mary-Ann had amassed an army of over 60 part-time volunteers. In 2011, she left the school board—abandoning a six-figure salary and nearly her full pension—to build Nova’s Ark full-time.
Mary-Ann admits that growing the program was challenging. She and her family share everything with Nova’s Ark—their time, labour, even their living space. “There’s always something in the house,” she says. “We’ve had a play pen in our bedroom with a baby wallaby. We’ve had a capybara that spent evenings on the couch watching television with us. In the winter we open up the deck-room door and the lemurs come in and sit in front of the fireplace or on our shoulders.”
Geoff, who’s “not an animal guy,” sometimes gets frustrated, particularly when she makes decisions without consulting him. Once, the former General Motors executive went away on business and returned to a five-foot tall baby camel on his couch. Another time, Mary-Ann sold the dining-room set while he was gone, and began converting the space into a parrot room. Still, she says, “When he sees our children with special needs or hears from the parents and sees how happy they are, he understands.” They have been married 35 years.
The Novas also faced financial stress. In the three years before Mary-Ann quit her job as school principal, they contributed about $100,000 of their own funds annually to the program. When Mary-Ann no longer collected a salary, they used their savings. Nova’s Ark can’t secure government funding because the program doesn’t fit squarely into existing application categories. But corporate and private sponsors—like Home Depot, FreshCo and Autism Ontario—have come through. This April, after 15 years, the Nova family was able to stop contributing, relying solely on sponsors for funding.
Mary-Ann only accepts campers with disabilities into the program, a choice she plans to stick to.“The campers who come to see me are always being told to wait, always being pushed to the back of the line,” she explains. “There are lots of opportunities for [other] children. I wanted to create a space for children who need this most.”
Sometimes Mary-Ann lets other day camps—mostly made up of typically developing kids—visit her property for the day (for example, aToronto day camp is in attendance during Mary-Ann’s lesson about Sassi). When other camps come, the visiting children are encouraged to interact with Mary-Ann’s campers. This way, she says, both groups learn from each other.
Once Mary-Ann finishes feeding Sassi, her audience disperses. She moves to her porch and watches children choose their activities. This part of the day is deliberately unstructured: Mary-Ann believes that kids with disabilities shouldn’t be bound to rigid learning schedules. Instead, she gives campers charts with activity options—trampoline time, spa activities, crafts, discovering animals—and allows them to decide their own schedules at their own pace with the help of volunteer mentors.
It could be chaotic, but under Mary-Ann’s ringmaster-like watch, it’s calm. “Over there are Connor and Sierra,” she says, pointing to a boy with autism and a girl with cerebral palsy. “Some people may say that I’m very crazy and that I’m very eccentric, and they can say that, but just look at this.” Connor and Sierra, along with their mentors, lead two donkeys across the lawn. “And look,” she says, “here comes our bearded dragon.” This time it’s led on a leash. Close by, some children swing from a tire attached to a tree. Others use oversized wands to make large, clumsy bubbles.