He's Wild About Helping Animal Park : Patron, 79, Contributes the Cash He Raises by Collecting Trash

Times Staff Writer

Like a man who makes his living in the volatile markets of Wall Street, 79-year-old Ernie Miller keeps a close eye on the price of commodities.

In an instant, he'll quote you the going rate: Glass: 2 cents per pound.

Newspaper: $38 a ton.

Aluminum cans: 28 cents a pound.

Miller doesn't deal with fancy metals like gold or silver and, unlike a broker who flashes cryptic hand signals, Miller earns his money the old-fashioned way: He digs it up.

Over the last decade, Miller--who hobbles around with a cane--has rummaged through garbage bins near his Ramona home and cashed in his recyclable goods for more than $5,000.

And every penny, he's given to the San Diego Wild Animal Park.

"I'm a digger," Miller said. "I dig around till I find a place that gives me the best price. The glass goes to a recycling center in San Marcos, the newspapers to San Diego."

Miller--who's never met an animal that he doesn't like--works hard to get the best deal for his favorite place, the Wild Animal Park.

"It's a wonderful place. . . . I don't think there's anybody who's been there more often than me," said Miller, who has been going to the park twice each week since it opened in 1972.

"If you put animals in a cage, they don't feel like breeding or anything else," Miller said. "But get them to the park and they feel like, 'Hey, we're back home.'

"I try to get the park before 11 a.m. That's when the bird show begins. At 12:15 p.m., the elephant show starts," said Miller, who continued to recite the park's show schedule. "Occasionally, they'll change times on me, and I'll be standing around waiting for a show to start."

It's a rare moment, however, when Miller stands around and does nothing. Plagued by an endless string of injuries and illnesses, Miller has only one lung and has lost feeling in both legs.

Even the slightest exertion causes him to huff and puff, but nevertheless, with the help of a cane or metal crutches, he keeps to his recycling routine.

"I keep working, I keep moving, I put in 10, 12 hours a day," Miller said. "At my age, you can't stop. I've seen too many people retire, and then they're dead within a year."

Miller collects most of his recyclable goods from the four garbage trash bins that serve the 160-acre trailer park where he lives. The trailer park was the former Samagatuma Resort, a nudist colony that Miller owned and operated for more than 40 years.

But Miller, like any scavenger worth his salt, finds treasures in less traditional spots, too. An abandoned bathtub behind a

neighbor's trailer often yields a stash of aluminum cans.

Miller hauls his day's finds back to a dilapidated shack for storage, and when he has collected enough, makes a trip to a recycling center. Boxes and boxes of crushed glass line one wall of the shack, bundles of newspaper and bags of cans cover the floor.

"I used to live in there (the shack) before it started caving in on me," Miller said.

On Wednesday, Miller, who stays on top of the recycling business, was getting ready to trade in his first batch of plastic milk containers.

"They just started recycling plastic around here, so I figured I'd take advantage of it, too."

He hooked his cane into a pocket and wrapped his arms around a plastic sack filled with the containers and shoved it into his battered 1969 Dodge van.

"This thing gets great gas mileage . . . 8 miles per gallon," Miller said sarcastically. "That's why I don't go to the recycling center until I get a full load."

Fateful Trip to Zoo

He also uses the van, which is decorated with four San Diego Wild Animal Park stickers, to go see the wild creatures and chat with park personnel.

Miller's love affair with wild animals began many years ago, when he was taking a young girl--a friend's daughter--to the airport. A canceled flight left Miller with time to kill, so he took the girl to the San Diego Zoo.

"I still don't know who had more fun," said Miller about the trip, which was to be the first of many.

"He waves a $100 bill in front of my face about once a month," said Grace Mecklem, a clerk at the park. Mecklem, who handles membership accounts, has recorded Miller's donations over the years.

According to Mecklem, Miller has contributed between $5,000 and $10,000, giving him "patron" status at the park, which makes him a lifetime member of the San Diego Zoological Society and gives him free admission to the park and the San Diego Zoo.

"He's here a couple of times a week," Mecklem said. "He's quite handicapped but that doesn't seem to slow him down. He's here so often, I think he knows the shows' dialogues by now."

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