Australian model and brain cancer survivor Traci Griffiths, of Woonona, surrounds herself with animals in every aspect of life.
She tells GREG ELLIS how her affinity with all creatures great and small helped her defy the odds after thinking she may only have three years to live. She talks about the wildlife sanctuary she helped establish, and how she discovered unconditional love and friendship as a child on her parents' farm.
When Australian model Traci Griffiths, of Woonona, was diagnosed with brain cancer five years ago she was told she may only have three years to live.
But the Goulburn farm girl defied the odds with the help of some very special friends.
Ms Griffiths had only recently moved to Wollongong after an international modelling career of almost two decades.
''For me the most scary thing was leaving the animals and them not knowing where their mum was.''
She chose Wollongong to live because of the big country town feel the city has managed to retain and the opportunity to surround herself with animals.
She still models with Chadwick Models and has made a new career with a global business she founded that makes designer products for pets.
Ms Griffiths is passionate about animals of all shapes and sizes and it was on a shoot with Snoop Dogg that she discovered an opportunity to help more animals live longer and happier lives. Zambi Wildlife Retreat has become a passion. One she helped establish and regularly organises fundraisers for so it can help more domestic and exotic animals.
Ms Griffiths surrounds herself with animals at home, work and at Zambi. And she wouldn’t have it any other way.
After she had brain surgery she said her partner Colin Blake was her biggest supporter.
“If he thought there was nothing he could say at times to make me feel better he would just bring one of my animals to me and that always made me smile,” she said.
Ms Griffiths agreed to this story because each animal enclosure she and fellow directors Donna Wilson and Silke Bader build at Zambi costs at least $70,000.
It is not a place people can visit. The location is a closely guarded secret. But at some time they will open the sanctuary to small groups for educational tours to help fund their work.
Many of the animals who call it home are domestic animals that have become homeless and rescued wildlife. There are also retired circus animals and exotic animals that have been privately owned but needed a new home. Others have been relocated from other wildlife sanctuaries if they have been rejected by their mothers soon after birth and need extensive care to survive.
Zambi offers a place where whatever their history they are treated with great care and love. And it shows in the way they respond to their human friends.
Ms Griffiths wants to help as many animals as she can. Her love of all species started as a young child growing up on her parents Appaloosa Stud near Goulburn.
“We had everything,” she said.
“We would rescue kangaroos, wombats and heaps of baby birds. We would feed the baby birds with a bent spoon. I have really early memories of saving animals. We always lived out of town so we never got to hang out with friends much. So my friends were the animals. And they are just so easy to get along with.”
Ms Griffiths parents Lyn and Lindsay Skelly now run Lyn Lin Appaloosa Stud. Her sister Charmaine Minassian was a horse trainer for a while and recently took home two rescued Pugs. “My brother (Dale Griffiths) is the same. We all love animals and if we see one that needs caring for..we don’t think twice about it.”
Ms Griffiths and her siblings spent so much time with animals when they were young they naturally think about them as best friends.
She was scouted for modelling while still at high school and later moved to Canberra to pursue her career before arriving in Sydney as a 20 year old model who was soon sought after in Asia and Germany.
“It was hard for me to spend much time with animals because in the modelling industry you travel a lot. But I am addicted to animals. I don’t feel complete when I don’t have them around me. So I filled the gap by volunteering at non-kill animal shelters”.
Ms Griffiths is still in demand as a model after two decades in the industry but nothing keeps her from her animal friends at Zambi and at home.
“I did modelling because I could. But there were few opportunities to get my animal fix. At the peak of my career I lived in Asia off and on for 10 years for three to six months at a time.”
To get her animal fix Ms Griffiths would stop people in the street and ask if she could pat their dog. Now she volunteers her time at Zambi as much as she can.
While working as a model she always knew she was going to end up working with animals. She spent some time working as a paramedic just after starting an online designer business for pets called miyow & barkley. It is a wholesale business that stocks over 100 stores in Australia and overseas. It started with her making a jacket for her Burmese cat Jesse. But the reaction from friends made her realise she was onto something. She got so much media interest that she decided to give the shift work away.
“I guess you could say my inspiration came from the catwalk. Actually it just came from a cat,” she said.
Ms Griffiths also does volunteer work at the Wesley Community Centre in Wollongong. On Christmas Day she was helping provide lunch to people who otherwise might have gone without.
“I help out at what I call the soup kitchen once a week. I have been doing that for six years now.”
Ms Griffiths recently started another online business called bubby grubs. She said everyone would look at the pet clothes she designed and say she should do that for babies. It is already branching into toys and other products. A percentage of all sales for each business goes to Zambi..which came about after she saw a screensaver during a Snoop Dogg shoot four years ago. When she asked where it was taken she was told it was a private property in Sydney’s west. She tracked down the caretaker and told Ms Wilson she was an animal rights activist and it was her dream to help more animals.
“I met Donna and we became good friends. And she was friends with Silke. Donna had always wanted to turn it into a sanctuary. We all got together and talked about leasing the land. And it all grew from there.”
Ms Griffiths said Zambi had come a long way since 2012 but could do much more with more financial support. She has rescued everything from dogs to pigs. Among the animals Zambi cares for are 30 lions and tigers. “More animals need help but we can’t take them on and give them a better life if we can’t afford to. We are constantly trying to come up with new ways to raise money. We have sponsorships..and we take donations and have merchandise online.”
Ms Griffiths can never do enough for animals because they have done so much for her. Especially when she had brain surgery five years ago and was told immediately afterwards it did not look good.
“When I was up in bed I had my cats and dogs on each side. So instead of laying there on my own focusing on what the outcome could possibly be … I had my animals around me. Dr (Charlie) Teo said I only had three years. But it is like I am a miracle case. I was really lucky. I thought if these are the cards I have been dealt I just have to roll with it.
‘’A calmness came over me and I just decided I am going to be the best version of myself and give my body the best that I can to fight this. Having the animals around me was so good. When people asked me what went through my mind at that time … for me the most scary thing was leaving the animals and them not knowing where their mum was. When I thought about that I cried.”
Ms Griffiths will have scans every six months for the next five years. But to her animal family at home and at Zambi she is not just a miracle, she is a hero.
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