Alex Randall is a young man with many dreams. You could also say he has made many dreams come true for a great many precious souls. He is the reason why more than 1,200 exotic pets have been rescued by the Critter Camp animal sanctuary in German Valley, Illinois, since 2004.
Alex’s story is one of tragedy to triumph. The 22-year-old has a rare disorder called Landau Kleffner Syndrome Variant. It is a puzzling neurological disorder in which a baby develops normally, but later there is a sudden onset of continual seizure activity during the night that leads to sudden regression and aggression. The child, for all intents and purposes, is autistic with epilepsy. The silent seizures are like a constant electrostatic noise going on in the brain. Alex Randall’s condition has been quite a challenge for his mother and the sanctuary operator, Beth Randall, as well as for his family.
Beth remembers when they literally woke up to a new Alex. “He was 18 months; he first lost his language and regressed to basically a wild animal stage. Growling, pointing, grunting and attacking people, needed to line toys and items, etc. Very autistic behavior, but he also stopped sleeping at night — literally. He woke every 20 minutes and was up for another 20. For three years!”
Fortunately, there is treatment for the disorder. Medications brought improvement. However, that all came to an end when he was 9 years old and suffered significant trauma at school. The challenges only grew for Alex as he regressed more and more. So much so, that the family was told he should be institutionalized. Meanwhile his sisters were being bullied horribly at school with no end in sight. Her oldest son was away at college. There seemed to be only one other option. That was for Beth to quit her jobs and homeschool all of them.
While Alex and his siblings were being homeschooled they asked for a pet. Beth integrated this into their curriculum. They had to completely research their choices before they were allowed to get any. The children wanted something unusual and chose two ferrets, who they named Ferrie and Anastasia. Alex started improving with the new pets, and then the tutoring and therapy began to pay off.
And then something unexpected happened. Because the ferrets were unusual and Beth and Alex were available at home most of the time, people began showing up at their door with forlorn animals that no one would take in. Alex had already connected with the ferrets but he also began connecting with the unique animals that came through the doors. The entire family enjoyed caring for them and finding them homes. However, things soon grew out of hand when the number of old, sick and aggressive unadoptable animals rose to 20. Meanwhile, Alex was progressing by leaps and bounds! That is when Beth decided to create an official rescue that caters to the truly neediest of all pets — exotics.
She describes the residents of Critter Camp and what it does, “Many were in shelters slated for euthanasia. The unadoptable and the unusual ones that shelters cannot or do not want to care for. It is the only 501(c)(3), USDA-licensed, all-volunteer operated pet sanctuary that only accepts unadoptable and unusual small pets other than cats and dogs, no wildlife or farm animals either. Critter Camp was officially founded in 2004. It’s our 10th anniversary! We currently care for over 350 pets of 30 different species.”
Alex is the reason that Critter Camp came into existence. “If he hadn’t needed to be homeschooled for his safety and recovery, we never would have been in a position to fill this unique niche,” Beth said. The relationship between Alex and the beautiful animals he lives with is symbiotic. A great many lives are saved and given loving homes because of Alex and Critter Camp, and Alex flourishes because of the animals. He benefited from the experiences at the sanctuary so much so that he recovered from his trauma. His skills and function returned and grew.
“[The animals] gave him a focus outside of himself and a responsibility to other creatures whose lives depended on his care,” Beth said. “It also taught him that things come when you wait. He eventually was able to care for a fennec fox years after he asked for one. We took in a macaw years after he wanted one as a pet too. He also learned to be careful what you wish for, that the care and needs of these animals is much harder than it looks and they aren’t as easy full time as they seem in small doses on TV or online.”
Therapeutic effects from animals are nothing new, and there are a great many. One is that they can help build a sense of confidence. Alex learned all he could accomplish with a lot of hard work and determination. The animals also aid him with interacting with people. This is crucial because his language and social skills are so impaired. The animals gave him hope.
Today, Alex is integral to the sanctuary. He is a hardworking volunteer who devotes several hours a day there. His duties include feeding and watering 100 free-range rabbits and guinea pigs located in a barn. He also maintains the water bottles of the 100 cages in the house. Beth said that his obsessive nature actually helps in that he never lets a water bottle get empty! Other duties include sweeping, picking up, taking out the trash and yard work.
“It’s hard work, but somebody has to do it. And it makes me feel like a hero to save these,” Alex said. When asked what he loves best about living in a rescue he replied, “Helping the animals get love and care and treated.” Feeling like this is more precious to Alex than anyone can imagine, because one of his biggest dreams of all is to be a superhero.
If you visit Critter Camp, Alex can be found in the midst of wall-to-wall cages housing a wide range of pets. He sleeps, eats and works with them. The loss of housing space is a sacrifice the family is willing to make for all of their sakes.
When not doing his volunteer work for the sanctuary, you might find Alex doing any number of things. He maintains his own website. “I made my website to gain more attention and make friends, help and so people can learn about me.” He is also writing his next book. He already published his first, Rhyming Book, on Lulu.com. You may also find him drawing, or huddled over his computer looking up information on the Internet about animals, cartoon characters, superheroes or the Muppets, especially the Muppets. And while doing these things, he often has to fend off various resident species wanting to “help” him. He doesn’t mind because they are all his friends … his family.
You might wonder how Alex can focus on projects that require so much concentration while living in the middle of a menagerie with his disorder. “Animals calm Alex and he calms animals,” Beth said. “Except he can be annoyed when the tortoise, Rambo who is 50 pounds, goes potty under his desk. ”
Alex dreams of a future for himself and the sanctuary that is currently at its fullest capacity. He wants to secure a future for the camp and to help more animals with a stand-alone facility. His mother, Beth, has worked night and day to keep the rescue running as well as it has and to try to build that future for Alex and his critter friends. Critter Camp is supported by donations from generous individuals and small grants. Alex’s dream is on its way to being realized, as one of those grants allowed them to buy 3 acres of land and get all of the permits in order so it’s ready to build on. He’s been patiently waiting to roll up his sleeves to break ground ever since. But he and his mother need help to reach this goal. He doesn’t realize it, but he has already accomplished his biggest dream by becoming a superhero — but even superheroes need help.