Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

All creatures great and small

In Springfield, they love their animals, and each other

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NEAR OAKBANK -- If Bob Malone's new mare -- which wasn't supposed to be pregnant when he bought her -- gave birth to a mule, he might just shoot the foal, he was saying one day.

He was kidding but it's not a joke you make around Karin Schlaikjar. She went home, fretted, wondered, tossed and turned. When the time came and the mare did give birth to a mule, Schlaikjar came barrelling down Malone's driveway ready to adopt.

Monty the mule now takes up residence in Schlaikjar's backyard.

It's one example why Schlaikjar rates as one of Springfield's most unforgettable characters, in the spirit of the genre created by Reader's Digest. She's also an example of people who move to the country for a reason that never seems to show up on surveys: they love animals.

For example, husband Richard Hurst, landscape architect with Manitoba Conservation, had reached an agreement to sell an old 1969 Chevy, parked in their yard for years, to a man who had driven down from Hecla. Suddenly, a family of rabbits scurried out from underneath the car.

Sale cancelled. She couldn't sell the rabbits' house. Everyone thought she was kidding. She wasn't. The Chevy is still in the yard, now sunken up to its undercarriage in the soft ground, and is used for storage. Christmas ornaments are stored in the trunk.

It's hard to garner a reputation as protectorate of wildlife in Springfield, where there are so many animal lovers -- particularly horse lovers such as Schlaikjar. The late Dan (Commodore) Ritchie used to have a sanctuary for nearly a 100 cats and dogs. Springfield is also the home of racetrack greyhound rescuer Marion Zerrenthin.

But Schlaikjar has earned her spurs. While out riding one day, she came across a crow with a broken beak and one eye out, apparently left for dead by an owl. Schlaikjar nursed the crow back to health and it was a pet for three years. It used to cuddle with one of her dogs, a Brittany -- a bird-hunting dog.

"Karin is probably the most interesting person we know in the community," said Carolyn Lintott, a friend who also lives in Springfield. "She just does her own thing."

Which is an apt description of where she lives. Northwest Springfield, near Birds Hill, is a unique community in Manitoba, if not Canada, with its five- to 20-acre rural residential lots -- the larger lots are required due to a high water table -- and all the horse fencing along its gravel roads.

The community spirit is remarkable, too. When a barn burned down and insurance didn't cover the loss, people here threw a social. When a woman was widowed and left with large debts to pay, people threw a social. "If someone has a health issue, the community rallies," Schlaikjar said.

Originally from Denmark, where she grew up in a 300-year-old home, Schlaikjar arrived with her husband in her early 20s to try Canada for a year. The marriage didn't last but Karin fell in love with the country.

In 1982, she moved to this undeveloped rural municipality so she could keep horses. A neighbour told her she'd overpaid for the home and its 13-acre lot. It has almost quintupled in value since.

She gets so many birds in her yard that people can barely hear themselves talk. There are believed to be four timber wolves in the area. Coyotes howl at night, and the animals took down a deer one night right under the bedroom window.

In springtime, she can be spotted walking through the ditches picking up litter. She doesn't own a computer. She has no washer, dryer or dishwasher. She's always organizing car pools so people arrive at an event in one vehicle instead of three. "She's not the same as everyone else but it's in a very uplifting, positive, gregarious way," said Lintott.

She owns horses and four dogs, including three Cairn terriers. She exercises some people's horses, drives horse-drawn carts, and used to partake in the community's fox hunts. Instead of foxes, they used sheepskin soaked in fox urine that someone dragged with an ATV. They would start with a glass of sherry and be back for lunch.

"Every day is so amazing here," said Schlaikjar. "You wake up every morning with the deer, birds, squirrels ..."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 30, 2012 A15

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