DOW — Warmer weather brings with it lots of activity among area wildlife.
For the TreeHouse Wildlife Center, it also creates an influx in orphaned newborns and injuries. For 35 years, the rehabilitation center has worked to nurse birds and wild animals back to health, for release into nature.
Originally located in Brighton, the rehabilitation center has operated out of an expanded facility in Dow since 2010. According to rehabilitation manager Rachel Heaton, this season has already brought in a variety of abandoned baby animals, including 30 squirrels, 20 opossums, 7 groundhogs, 8 fawns, 12 baby owls and 8 baby kestrels in addition to injured animals.
An outdoor display area offers visitors a chance to view the center’s permanent residents. A red fox named Chuckles greets guests with a unique, hearty laugh, the result of a brain injury. Her cage mate is Zorro, a grey fox with a leg injury and a big attitude.
“They were originally housed separately, but kept digging into each other’s enclosures,” Heaton said. “They became best friends, so we decided to let them be together.” The odd couple now raises baby foxes together as foster parents.
Next-door is Zuni, a coyote. “She likes people too much and was not able to be released. She likes to howl for our guests,” explained Heaton as she begins howling and is quickly joined by the plucky coyote.
Other outdoor enclosures house a variety of birds such as ospreys, hawks, bald eagles and several types of owls, including some on the endangered species list.
“All these birds are here for different reasons, from wing injuries, to eye injuries, to human imprinting,” Heaton explains.
“Our goal is to release the animals into the wild, but if for whatever reason they can’t be released we see if we can house them here,” Heaton says. “If they are housed here, they have a role. If they are a good animal for interacting with guests, we’ll use them as a display animal for education. Or if they have a mellow personality we might train them in our outreach program. If they’re really nurturing we can use them as a foster parent.”
According to Heaton, public education is an important component of TreeHouse’s mission. She cites the example of fawns that are often “kidnapped” by well-meaning people that mistake the babies as being abandoned by their mothers that hide them during the day.
“If people ever come across an injured animal, it’s important not to touch it, but to call a wildlife rehabilitation center like us,” Heaton said. “If necessary we can come and get it, or walk them through how to contain it safely.”
Also on location is a one-of-a-kind flight cage designed by TreeHouse co-founder Adele Moore. It has two hundred-foot-long sloping flight cages, with 18 holding cages.
“This is where the birds of prey go when they have recovered in the hospital. They come here to get used to being outside again, and then when it’s their turn for the flight space, they get their strength back in their wings. If needed we can train them on live prey before releasing them into the wild.”
One of Heaton’s favorite success stories involves the rehabilitation of a great horned owl.
“The people who found it drove three hours to bring it to us. I was worried the owl wouldn’t make it because he was extremely thin and non-responsive. We started him on fluids for a few days and I was surprised that he kept fighting. Eventually he moved up to solid food. It was funny to see the light bulb go off in his head when he ate his first full mouse. He got his strength back fully after being in the hospital for a few months. But when we put him out in the flight cage he wouldn’t fly. Very slowly he started and eventually had his full strength back. The people who brought him were so excited they drove all the way here again to take him back for release. It was one of those cases where I had written the bird off, but he pulled through and fought everyday through a long rehabilitation, to be able to fly again,” she said.
The center hopes to be able to build a waterfowl enclosure around a large pond, but such plans are on hold because of funding. As Heaton explains, with the seasonal influx of baby animal guests, feeding is a huge undertaking.
“This time of year we get in so many orphans. It’s really expensive. For food alone we spend $25,000 to feed them during the summer, not including operation and labor costs,” Heaton explained. Ed, a pelican with a permanent wing injury, eats a pound of fish a day and animals in the nursery often require expensive, special formulas.
The center relies on outreach programs, grants, gift sales and private donations to maintain operations. An online fundraiser has been setup on GoFundMe to raise money to provide food for the seasonal arrival of baby animals. With only a few permanent staff members, the center relies on volunteers to help with the feeding of the animals.
The tender care that the animals received is apparent in Heaton, who glows as she enthusiastically introduces the animals by name. “This is really rewarding work. It can be hard because you see the best and worst of everything. But that feeling of getting an animal back in the wild is the best thing ever. When you see it be the way it’s supposed to be, to me that makes it all worth it,” she said with a heartfelt smile.
TreeHouse Wildlife Center is located at 23956 Green Acres Road in Dow. The outdoors display area and inside hands-on education center is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. daily. More information on the center can be found online at www.treehousewildlifecenter.com. A link to the GoFundMe campaign can be found at www.facebook.com/TreehouseWC. The center can be reached by phone at (618) 466-2990.