The Dr. DoLittle of North Georgia

Hometown Heroes, People
on July 29, 2001

As Susan Littlejohn enters an outdoor, multiroom cage, the atmosphere erupts in a flurry of activity.

A black-and-white baby goat named Niko bleats for his bottle. Jasmine, a tiny Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, scurries away from the imposing hooves of Prince the llama. Three Indian runner ducks waddle together like a trio of Charlie Chaplins, while a Jacovan pigeon fans its white headdress and struts toward the children visiting it and the other critters.

Roughly 250 unwanted, injured, or neglected animalsfrom donkeys to emus to skunkslive peacefully at Aunt Susans Rescue Zoo on a sprawling 500-acre farm in Dawsonville, Ga. Littlejohn has done everything from spoon-feeding sickly buzzards to taking in aging dogs and Easter bunnies that have outgrown their cuteness.

If theres anything we can do (to help the animals), well do it, she says.

But this isnt just an animal halfway house where the creatures are patched up and sent on their way. These guys stick around and return the favor.

Tourists frequently drop by for a dose of unadulterated affection. Teachers bring students on field trips, where they get a lesson in unconditional love. And Littlejohns feathered and four-legged friends often visit nursing homes, childrens hospitals, and adult cancer camps to dispense their unique form of therapy.

A trial court judge wrote to give his wholehearted endorsement of the zoo as a community-service option for juvenile offenders. You wouldnt believe the changes in them. It gives them the unconditional love that they dont get elsewhere, Littlejohn says.

Like her dad, Littlejohn has always been a magnet for homeless dogs and catsbut it wasnt until about 15 years ago that she began sheltering large and exotic animals. Thats when she adopted Buck, a chocolate stallion who had been neglected. Then came Fella the llama, whose neck had been so injured that he couldnt graze or walk straight.

One night on her way home from church, Littlejohn noticed a boy cradling a strange-looking bundle by the side of the road. Without hesitation, she stopped the car and offered to help. The large bird, which she assumed had fallen out of a truck, was so battered it was hardly recognizable. Today, Feathers the peacock is still one of Littlejohns favorites.

Over the years, the Dr. Dolittle of North Georgia has found homes for thousands of animals, largely through carefully screened referrals.

Fortunately, folks have taken notice of her kind actions and lent her a handor more.

Last year, when her Calhoun, Ga., operation was busting at the seams, the owner of Oak Valley Farms in nearby Dawsonville (pop. 510) invited Littlejohn and her animals to live on his property for free. The zoo operates solely on donations and the help of volunteers, from carpenters to computer specialists to veterinarians.

Its easy to see how the animals benefit. But those who reap most from the rescues are often humans. Special education students and mentally challenged adults gain confidence in her therapeutic horseback riding program. Young cancer patients brighten as they mingle with newborn animals. And senior citizens forced to give up their own pets when they moved into nursing homes often get up out of their wheelchairs and follow Aunt Susans caravan down the hall. One 89-year-old woman, despite the protests of her therapists, rode Buck the horse at a picnic. Afterward she told Littlejohn, Honey, if I die tonight, it dont matter. I have relived my childhood today.

Its just awesome, Littlejohn says. It seems like they go soul-to-soul with each other in the way they connect.

Kees DeVente, spiritual coordinator at Hidden Lake Academy, a therapeutic boarding school in Dahlonega, Ga., often takes students to the farm, where they clean stalls and groom the animals. Were talking about teenagers that sometimes dont feel like they have a lot to smile about, DeVente says. You see them smile as they reach out to the various unusual or special animals Its a way to help them see that they can make a difference by helping other creatures in need.