PITTSBURGH – Meeting Jaxx for the first time can be an intimidating experience.
His four horns curve in big swoops. The top ones arch back toward his neck. The two lower horns hook forward like pinchers, reaching below his chin. He resembles a creature you might find in a fantasy novel, not in someone’s backyard. When he bleats, his voice sounds like the deep belch of someone finishing a heavy, satisfying meal.
“You’re the best boy, huh, Jaxx?” Karen Osler called to him, her four-horn Jacob ram, as she approached the fence. The warmth and charm in her voice is the same you might hear in a cat or dog lover getting ready to rub bellies or scratch furry backs.
Benny, the donkey, and Cheeto, the miniature horse, also approached Osler, stretching their necks over the wire fence to nuzzle their way for her affection.
All in all, Osler owns and cares for 16 animals on her property in Connellsville, Pennsylvania. She refers to them lovingly as her “critters” – always critters, not farm animals or pets – when talking about her furry and wooly family members. Her crew of critters also includes a pig, several adult sheep, two ram lambs and four house cats. Most of her critters are rescues. One of her sheep was purchased by a stranger who saved her from a butcher. Another sheep was brought in from a petting zoo because she needed around-the-clock care. She also just added a three-legged sheep.
“Some people think they’re just extra work, but to me, they enrich me. Just like having dogs, or any other pet, when I get home, they’re super excited to see me,” Osler said.
The critters follow Osler around her hobby farm, even when she’s not carrying any food or jellybeans, which are one of their favorite treats.
Osler surrounds herself with animals both at home and at work. In the office, Osler introduces visitors to Riley, an eastern black snake she caught while he was crossing the road. Riley’s eyes turned gray and hazy while in the process of shedding. As she picked him up, he was in a vulnerable stage, she said, and yet he curled to embrace Osler’s touch as she reached for him.
“He’s a very chill snake,” she said, which makes Riley great to show to kids and adults alike. “I know a lot of people get freaked out by snakes but bringing a calm snake like Riley in front of visitors really helps alleviate some of those fears.”
Professionally, Osler serves as a park ranger at Youghiogheny River Lake, operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Pittsburgh District. The lake is a reservoir that provides flood protection for the Youghiogheny and lower Monongahela River valleys.
“I get to protect and look out for our natural resources to enjoy for future generations to come,” Osler said about her role as a park ranger. She helps preserve life both on and around the lake, as well as downstream.
Educating the public about the wildlife at Youghiogheny is just a small part of her job. Youghiogheny River Lake stretches for approximately 16 miles. Osler and her fellow rangers oversee and protect more than 3,900 acres of land and water. Their job comes with a rolodex of responsibilities, from enforcing water safety on the lake to maintaining peace and quiet at the campgrounds and assist visitors.
“As a ranger, you come to work every day to something you’re excited about. It keeps me stimulated,” Osler said.
But above all, Osler said she is “drawn toward the critters.”
Rescuing and helping animals are regular occurrences in Osler’s workweek. While on patrol one day, she stopped her ranger truck to watch a doe crossing the street with her fawn. The fawn struggled to keep up, and it collapsed in the middle of the road. Osler waited, but she realized the baby wasn’t going to make it on its own strength.
A vehicle might hit the fawn if she left it there, so Osler stepped out of her truck. She lifted the fawn over to the other side of the road, where the mother watched and awaited her baby’s rescue.
Osler also helps tortoises and sometimes injured critters cross the road, and at times she helps rehome kittens and other pets abandoned at the lake by neglectful owners.
The largest animal she encountered on Youghiogheny property was a black bear. The bear had been known for his sweet tooth. It had ravaged a homeowner’s private beehive and devoured his honey. Pennsylvania Wildlife Conservations officers caught the bear twice using donuts as bait.
On the second capture, Osler worked with the Pennsylvania Gaming Commission to stage the bear – who remained safely tranquilized inside a bear trap – as part of a live, interactive demonstration to inform visitors about bear-human interactions. Officers later released the bear about 100 miles away to another game land to avoid future conflict.
The bear encounter brought full circle Osler’s animal experience with large critters. Before becoming a park ranger, she worked as a big cat handler for 15 years up close with lions, tigers, and other exotic animals.
She was 12 years old when she first interacted with a 700-pound Bengal tiger who needed a surgical procedure to remove an infected claw. Osler was a volunteer at a veterinary practice. The tiger’s name was Cody, the mascot for Exxon gasoline commercials and advertising. That experience hooked her into working with large cats.
Osler’s coworkers sometimes jokingly call her the Tiger Queen or the Lion Queen because of her background, but those titles are more ferocious than her gentle personality demonstrates.
“As sensitive as she is to animals, she’s also very sensitive and caring to humans,” said Matt Balas, a fellow park ranger at the lake. “She makes you feel like you are absolutely a valued human and where you’re supposed to be on the ranger team.”
Even though Osler is not officially in a leadership position, she invests time mentoring and teaching younger rangers.
“Karen is always there for advice,” said Balas, who, even though younger in age, has almost as much park ranger experience as Osler. “If I have anything that I need to ask, or even if I think I’m confident on a decision, I still look to Karen for her thoughts.”
Balas refers to Osler as an “encyclopedia of animalia,” which comes in very handy in their line of work, he said.
Osler inherited her love for animals from her mother, Connie.
“She was my best friend,” Osler said of her mom. “She was very kind towards people and animals alike. She would do anything and drop everything to help animals in need.”
Osler wears a ring with four engraved horses she had commissioned specifically for her mother, who adored horses and considered them her spirit animal. The four horses represent Osler’s family, including her mother, father and brother, all of whom have passed away.
Before she declined in health, Connie ran a nonprofit animal rescue shelter called Animal Angels from her home. Osler lives in the same home where she grew up, so she cannot remember a moment in life when animals weren’t around.
“My whole life has revolved around animals,” she said. “Animals bring me peace and joy. They enrich my life in so many ways. They also remind me of my mother.”
Cheeto, the miniature horse who shares a fenced pen with Bennie, the donkey, Penelope, the mini pig, and Jaxx, used to belong to Osler’s mother. He, too, was a rescue. Osler built the fence and barn to care for him in the backyard.
“This is how my hobby farm was born,” she said, who built and grew the hobby farm as more critters joined the family.
As a young girl, Osler had multiple career ambitions related to wildlife. She wanted to become a marine biologist, a veterinarian, a wildlife preservation professional, a wildlife artist, and a park ranger. As she volunteered and later worked as a caretaker for the Western Pennsylvania National Wild Animal Orphanage, Osler was able to satisfy all those ambitions, except one.
“I wanted to achieve a lifelong dream of being a park ranger,” she said, but working with exotic cats satisfied her. She even painted wildlife portraits which sold at fundraising auctions to support the orphanage.
Years later, however, the wildlife orphanage closed. Osler was devastated. Without another animal career to fall into, she took advice from her mentors and enrolled in college hoping for new opportunities. She pursued a bachelor’s degree in environmental science. In one of her classes, she met Paige Lupyan, a park ranger for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. They became good friends, and Osler was thrilled when she heard Paige was a park ranger.
“I was kind of like, ‘What! Are you kidding me?’ I really had no idea that opportunities like that even existed near me,” Osler said.
The Pittsburgh District operates 16 reservoirs throughout western Pennsylvania and in a few neighboring states. Each reservoir employs park rangers, offering Osler opportunities within an hour from home. Other park rangers who work with Osler think this career choice was a perfect match for her.
“This job was made for Karen. Karen was born, and the Army was like, ‘Let’s make a park ranger job for her,’” joked Sam Phillips, a summer ranger at Youghiogheny who has known Osler for years. “She loves this job. She lives for this job.”
Being a park ranger is one of the jobs she’s wanted to have ever since she was a little girl, and it’s now a career she intends to keep until she retires.
“I’m blessed to earn a living doing a job that I love. I’m very fortunate to be where I am,” she said.