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Thursday, July 31, 2008

Animal ICU: Gentle care for wild animals

Yvonne Wallace-Blane in the X-Ray room of Fellow Mortals Animal Hospital in Lake Geneva.

By Donna Lenz Wright
Photographs by Terry Mayer

Most of us have been there. For me it was just last month during the torrential rains. A baby bird was crying hysterically in the grass in my back yard. The noisy downpour couldn't drown out his loud cries.

I watched and waited for his mother to show up. I could barely see him through the rain even though he was just a few yards away from my back door.

As he cried, rain poured into his mouth and he'd cough, shake his head and resume his wailing. Within a few minutes he stopped calling out and hung his head.

I couldn't take it anymore. I grabbed a clean kitchen towel and scooped him up. He immediately began to cry again but was shivering so badly even the towel was quaking.

I tried to keep him warm and within a few minutes he settled down, which I thought was good. Then he died.

After that round of rain passed I laid him back on the ground where he had fallen so that at least his mother would know what happened to him.

It's impossible to go through an experience like that without feeling guilty. Is there anything I could have done better? What would I have done if he had made it? I didn't even know what kind of bird he was.

This is exactly when people call Fellow Mortals Animal Hospital in rural Lake Geneva. They will tell you exactly what-and what not-to do. If they feel your critter-in-distress needs their attention, they'll take him right in and do everything possible fix him up and release him back to the wild.

Fellow Mortals is tucked into the trees in non-descript outbuildings at the home of Steve and Yvonne (Wallace) Blane. It's such a peaceful place as you approach that it's very hard to believe there are over 400 healing animals inside today, and over 2,000 pass through each year.

That's just how they want it because many of those 400 animals are outside in perfectly planned habitats in the latter stages of their rehabilitation.

The stories run deep in a place like this. There are lots of wonderful success stories and, of course, lots of heartbreaking ones too. The stories range from natural accidents to people being cruel.

Fellow Mortals itself began with one of the stories. Yvonne accidentally ran over a nest of baby rabbits in 1985 with a lawnmower. She and Steve cared for and released them.

Now, 23 years later, here's what a typical day at about noon looks like behind the scenes:

It's buzzing like a busy urban ICU. In the infant bird ward, summer interns take turns continually feeding the youngest of the hospital's patients.

It seems that the June rains that cost my little bird's life took a very big toll on adult birds too, leaving scores of orphans.

It's a loud room. Imagine a hospital nursery filled with over 100 newborns and a lot, lot, lot of them crying at once.

"She does nothing but feed them," Yvonne says as we watch. "Food goes straight through these little ones so when she gets to the end, she has to start over again."

Interns have come from all over the country to work with Steve, Yvonne, Karen McKenzie and Jessica Massaro, the in-house licensed wildlife rehabilitators.

In another ward-at this point in the rehabilitation they're in habitats-young ducks and other waterfowl, about halfway to health and freedom, happily play in their pools and eat-a lot.

Passing through the new kitchen at lunchtime you see today's menu. Three bowls filled with squirming grubs and lots more filled with specialized healing mixtures.

The new X-ray and examining rooms are a godsend for the staff.

"It saves so much all around," Yvonne said. "We don't have to take all of that extra time and money taking them to the vet every time. Just as importantly, we don't have to put the animals through the stress of it-that's very hard on them."

The squirrel ward is full of activity. Happy squirrels play in their rooms, not seeming to mind their confines. As they rehabilitate they move to an outside habitat where they are given their own nest box. When it's time for them to go, their own personal nest boxes go with them.

Next to the outside squirrel habitat is the deer habitat. Four deer-victims of the CWD outbreak in 2004. No they weren't sick, but in the panic many deer were put down "just in case." They are the survivors of one of many black marks on human's negative imprint on nature. To this day, our laws don't allow us to rehabilitate deer.

Many of these critters are victims of similar negative human imprints. Red-tailed hawks, herons and so many others are there because they've been shot.

They glare at you as they heal in the very quiet isolation ward, as far from human activity as possible. It's a simultaneous heartbreaking and heartwarming rush. And it helps you understand why they do this demanding, unforgiving and even sometimes dangerous job.

"It's their world too," Yvonne sums it simply. "It's not their fault that they get hit by our cars, injured by our fishing lures or poisoned by us."

There's a wide range of people who bring in animals in trouble, from people who've just hit a woodchuck with their car to hunters who happen upon a sick or injured animal.

"Every one of these animals are brought here by someone with compassion. Every one of these animals is important in their own right."

Future plans include installing a live video feed in the gift shop so visitors can see what goes on behind the scenes. Human visits beyond the caregivers are really too disruptive for the injured and ill animals. The other key reason for limited tours is to keep these animals as wild as possible in anticipation of their release.

Steve has built the entire sanctuary as green as possible, complete with a hydraulic-powered electrical system. But not surprisingly, their constant need for funds is as much work as saving thousands of lives each year.

At about $100 per animal multiplied by 2,000 per year, those expenses alone are tough for the non-profit group to cover. Add to that upkeep of the facility and you're looking at some serious cabbage.

"We're always looking for donations, of course," said Yvonne. "We can always use more of everything, including landowners' permission to release our animals on their land."

If you ever find yourself in the position of needing the help of Fellow Mortals, call them right away at 248-5505. While you'll probably get an answering machine, leave a message and they will return your call promptly. In the meantime don't feed them, just keep them as safe as possible and wait for Walworth County's wildlife heroes to call you back.

Fellow Mortals can accept a wide range of animals. But if they can't due to their careful balance of species, they will help you find someone who can.

For more information, visit www.fellowmortals.org.

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