Wild Heart Ranch is located in Claremore, Oklahoma. We provide medical or infant support to any indigenous wild animal in need of assistance and release it into suitable wild habitat once care is completed.
Restaurant manager, insurance rep, believe it or not, the skills I acquired with those work experiences would come into play as a wildlife rehabilitator and operator of a wildlife rescue. The phone rang all day, every day, all spring and summer long. I learned many phone skills working with insurance and I was surprised how similar the calls were.
Many of the calls were emergencies, the people often angry or upset. As it was with taking insurance claims, it was my job to calm them down and get information, only now it was wild animals instead of cars that were in need of repair. I got calls of wild animals hit by cars, lying in the road. Wild animals were in backyards after being attacked by the family pet. There were animals living in attics, trapped in fireplaces, hiding in Christmas trees, in car engines, in garages, under houses, in the tree in the front yard, in the shed, on the back porch, lying on the sidewalk, in the bathroom! My word, they were everywhere! People have asked over the years, where do I find these animals? I can’t think of anywhere I haven’t been called to capture an animal! If there is a potential place to eat and sleep, something will eventually move in. Little old ladies have called me to remove opossums and raccoons from the bathrooms of their mobile homes; you earn hero status solving that nightmare. Can you imagine? People still do not believe that the animals truly are more afraid of us than we are of them in those situations. I have never dealt with a person being injured by an intruding wild animal. Far more often, the reverse is true with one person swinging away with a baseball bat while the other frantically sought my phone number. Those calls broke my heart.
I soon added a telephone log sheet to my growing collection of clipboards. Eventually I had to purchase headsets for the phones as the calls were constant and unrelenting, just like the hoards of hungry wild orphans that found care with me. I learned to work and talk simultaneously, something I had years of experience doing. I would have never guessed how my professional history would have helped me survive the first years. I was a well-trained multitasking master, and I just continued to get better at it. I could work calmly and without mistakes under extreme pressure and speed, without sleep, no matter how busy or how stressful, and never forget a feeding. On the outside, I was the calm professional that had everything under control. It was just natural for me to give that impression. No one knew that inside I was absolutely terrified of failure. I was still working for customer satisfaction, only now it wasn’t the temperature of the food or the speed at which an insurance claim was handled. Now, it was literally life or death for those that depended on me to help them, and as I had learned with both my professions, when in doubt, consult the manual.
The best money I ever spent in those early days was for an instruction manual for wildlife rehabilitation. I was amazed to find out that one even existed! Just like any other corporate “your job description for dummies” it was thick and tabbed, overloaded with the simple, over simplified with the complex. It was a lifesaver, literally, and it became a constant companion as I learned the specific diets and needs for every species, and they all had one. It was just like my restaurant days; going a hundred miles an hour, a hundred different directions, pleasing every customer, and service with a smile. I was still in my element.
The morning's busy pace was my favorite part of the day. I would wake up, bolt is more like it, and hit the floor running. A leisurely cup of coffee and a nutritional breakfast? Forget it! My house was alive with infants waiting to be fed. What had become a daily familiar routine for me should have been absolutely absurd, but it wasn’t. It was the first time in my life that I actually felt I was living my life as it was meant to be, and didn’t feel that I was on a path forged from necessity. I was doing what I was born to do. If there is such a thing as a calling, mine came from a bullhorn on steroids and I was knee deep in it and there was no turning back.
Six a.m. would buzz from the ever demanding alarm clock; stretch, yawn, deal with the now annoyed skunk sleeping soundly between my feet. Ginger was my de-scented domestic skunk, born in captivity and sold as a pet. She had needed a home when her family moved away to a state where she was illegal to have, and of course I took her in. Ginger was a frumpy, cuddly girl who relished nights under the covers, keeping her mother’s ever frozen feet warm. She was never ready to rise at six a.m., so I scooted her safely to the center of the bed, and quietly slipped from under the covers. Of course they woke the moment the alarm went off. Six sets of eyes and ears were on me the second I looked at them. Their diapers (yes diapers) were full and I had to move fast before they gathered their spindly legs under them and began their incessant begging for their breakfast.
It was bizarre, but I had nowhere to put the fawns to contain them. I had no barn that was heated at night, no spare room that didn’t contain carpet. Fawns do not potty train you see. The diapering worked just fine, though it seemed completely inappropriate to be diapering wildlife. I decided it was far better than six fawns using my carpet for a toilet. I did what I had to do, having no better plan for fawns. It had never occurred to me when I applied for my license that I would be raising deer in my house, but they were innocent babies that had no mother and it was my job to take care of them. I took them in, without thought, as usual.
Clothes were thrown on in record speed, the bathroom was visited in seconds flat, and formula was mixed and heating in the microwave as baby bottles were lined up on the counter to be filled. The fawns were now all gathered in the kitchen, punching my legs with their hungry snouts, looking for their breakfast. I couldn’t move fast enough, even with the use of a microwave. I began gathering the full diapers as they slid off the dainty legs hitting the linoleum floor with an audible thump.
Tossing them into the trash with perfect aim from my basketball playing school days, I dashed to the rehab room to fetch fresh ones, baby wipes and believe it or not, powder. The fawns were wiped clean, powdered to prevent chafing and re-diapered at breakneck speed.
The bottles were held quite creatively as six hungry fawns do not, no matter how nice you ask, line up and take turns. One bottle held in each hand, one under each arm, one between my knees and one under my chin. I’m sure I looked like some demented juggler, but I got the job done. They sucked down a full eight ounces of formula in seconds and immediately retreated back to the bedroom to lie down in their nest. Infant fawns have only one goal in their little life…food. Once that is satisfied, sleep is always next, thank Goodness.
By now the raccoons would be awake and ready for their bottles as they were the second most demanding infants, and much older than the new fawns that had just arrived. The kits were now between five and seven weeks old and were learning to climb out of their playpens, unfortunately. A hungry raccoon kit that can leave its bed, will surely do so, and in the process of searching for their surrogate mother, may rearrange your house while they are at it!
Once again human baby paraphernalia was utilized in my wild nursery, the play pens being the perfect way to contain and manage raccoon kits prior to them discovering their climbing skills. The inside of the play pens were lined with bed sheets to cover the easy to scale mesh and secured around the edges with wood clamps. Yet another sheet was laid to cover the entire pen and keep the little terrorists from waking at every movement or sound. It didn’t matter if it was morning or not; if they were hungry, nothing would stop the ruckus and they erupted in typical form, “We’re hungry NOW!”
Once again, bottles were washed and readied, this time with a different formula precise to raccoons. Special nipples were dug out of one of the various bins that adorned my kitchen counters. Fresh bedding was fetched, potty rags were grabbed (yes, potty rags; a rehabber’s best friend. I will explain later) and my chair was pulled up to the playpen for the marathon.
A peek into their bed was met with the usual “Oh nasty!” as the kits had been up for awhile. Very resourceful to entertain themselves, they had spent their morning finger-painting with the only substance they had available, coon poop. Their canvas being the walls of their nest, their stuffed toys, and of course, each other. This would be a bath morning as the coons were scooped up and into the bathtub they went. I would fill the tub with shallow, warm water, and some “tub toys” thrown in to keep their attention. Interestingly, kits of various ages and ability would group together. The younger ones still discovering their feet would pat around on the floor of the tub, occasionally reaching for a ‘floaty thing’ crossing the water. The older kits would work at trying to drown each other, breaking into fits of sibling rivalry, competing for toys or the coveted, “My turn to put my paw in the drain” position and of course, mommy’s hands.
Being the mother of a group of a dozen or so raccoons, you learn how to keep your wounds clean under any and all circumstances. They each come with twenty very adept claws and lots of budding teeth, so you will, at some point in every day, bleed. They all want held, all the time, and you just cannot succumb to it if you are going to keep them wild and someday independent. Instead, you fill their world with distractions and things to investigate and you can never, never spoil a raccoon to human affection. HAH! That’s what the manual said, it wasn’t in my manual. As usual, I had to learn the hard way. On this day a dozen fecal coated, soggy pin cushions clamored and competed to climb my bare arms. Luckily they couldn’t scale the tub walls, so once they were all scrubbed of the mess and the water changed to rinse them, it was time for babies to be dried, fed and pottied with my usual frantic pace.
I had changed their bedding in their playpen quickly while they all screamed bloody murder from the tub where no mommy was with a bottle and towel yet. Fresh stuffed animals, ‘stuffies’ I call them, were selected, a heat pad was turned on to warm the nest as the kits would still be damp, fuzzy blankets for hiding were tossed in for comfort. Bottles were collected and a stack of clean towels and potty rags, which were small towels designated for body functions, were carried into the bathroom. One by one a screaming kit (who by now was no longer interested in anything but breakfast) was wiped dry, a potty rag used to rub their bottoms and stimulate them to empty whatever was left in their bowel and bladder, and given a bottle gratefully taken in the same manner as a human infant, which one by one, restored a semblance of peace back into my morning.
Stimulating baby animals to eliminate is as important as feeding. In nature, the mother does this to keep the nest clean to avoid it being detected by predators. She uses her tongue and consumes the waste. I am dedicated, but I have my boundaries and that one will remain intact, thus the potty rags. Baby animals must mature to be able to eliminate without assistance. As newborns, we have to do this for them to avoid rupture, but we keep it up long after they are going on their own and with some animals, especially raccoon kits, just to help keep their bed clean. You learn their bodily function routine and develop a process to beat them to it. Eventually, as with any child, they become independent and will mature to a point when this process becomes their business and they will fight you for their dignity. Luckily by that point, the raccoons will have chosen a designated potty area in their nest and will cease to utilize their feces for artistic purposes.
Raccoon kits must also be burped. This fact has always amazed visitors. How do you burp a raccoon? The same way you burp any gassy baby who is going to spit up their breakfast if you don’t. Over the shoulder, patting the back, they will lay there for you until their tummy is depressurized. Very audible and sometimes substantial, the kits are as individual at burping as we are. You have your hard burpers that take some time and a little extra energy at patting, your easy burpers that immediately give you a belch to rival any beer drinking sailor, and your spit up burpers who you never pick up without a rag over your shoulder. There are also your chronic hiccup babies who you can’t burp fast enough before they spend their morning dealing with the cutest case of hiccups you have ever seen, to which the other kits investigate as some neat trick they cannot figure out.
Raccoon feeding is more methodical than any other activity. As my rescue grew and became staffed, each volunteer would have their assignments for this task. One person would change and clean, one would feed, one would burp, and one would potty. When you have thirty to fifty babies who are all hungry NOW, it is only accomplished with perfect execution and organization and, if all goes well, the kits will be back to sleep within minutes. Alas, my early days were solo. I had all this fun all to myself and I somehow managed to do it every four to five hours, every day, seven days a week for about three months each year. Today there are still no words more appealing and exciting to me in the English language than the words “raccoon weaning time”. Just the mere mention of it puts a smile on my face. Luckily for me, the raccoon is one of my most cherished infants to rear, so the joy of watching them thrive and grow always overcame the mess and stress involved. They are truly nature’s little comedians and I know of few infants quite as charming. This fact is always a source for much needed education and enlightenment as people find the kits abandoned and are determined to keep them forever as they fall hopelessly in love, nothing so adorable having ever been seen in their lives. Then one day, the precious little bundle of purring perfection grows up. That’s when people find my phone number.
As a wildlife rehabilitator, it is my duty to discourage people from keeping these animals as pets. I may exaggerate about a lot of things when it comes to the tendencies of wildlife in captivity. With a raccoon, the truth is as poignant as any fictional nightmare I could manifest. They are terrorists all on their own and rarely is the outcome of an illegally kept wild born raccoon positive.
Over the years I have received a hundred; “Will you please take him!” telephone calls from people defrauded by the precious infant raccoon. As unlikely as it may sound, the highest damage estimate to the interior of a home was in excess of thirty thousand dollars. The people who called only because their precious baby had become “too aggressive to handle” just didn’t know how lucky they were. These animals are miniature grizzly bears and their nature is very similar, determination being the epitome of a raccoon. They are most definitely ADD/HD children with aggression issues, complete with claws and teeth who can easily scale walls and anything else they make up their mind to conquer. Share is not in their vocabulary. For instance, your mattress is worth a good two hours of exploring, its “super-duper reinforced-heavy duty stitching” is no match for a determined raccoon. Once the stuffing is removed, the springs explored, verification that there is nothing else fun inside the big inviting package of fluff, the dresser, blinds, electronics, wardrobe, lamps, books, and whatever else is sitting innocently around the bedroom will beckon for exploration and dismemberment. People often lock their raccoons in a room to keep them out of the kitchen once they have repurchased dishes and groceries after an afternoon of tremendous unattended raccoon fun. My thoughts are always somewhere along the line of “when will people ever learn?” I have to say, the thought of a destructive monster lurking behind those wide innocent eyes of an infant raccoon seems impossible at six weeks old, but as with all things born wild, it will someday rear its ugly head and when it does, a wild born infant raccoon raised captive becomes one of the most dangerous animals I have ever dealt with. No fear of humans and no lack of sense. They will calculate when to escape, when to attack, and how to make your property their own. They will get it done. I learned these lessons by experience and by my own underestimation of the complex nature and tremendous intellect of the raccoon. Leave the wild in the wild and when you cannot, preserve what you can. Especially their natural wariness of humans. That is what keeps them safe and our personal property even safer.
In learning these lessons, I experienced my own share of costly enlightenment. One overly imprinted raccoon I released on my property developed a fear of thunderstorms. She had been raised in the house, a late spring baby who had no siblings her own age or any to raise her with. In making up for her loneliness and allowing her to become as much my child as my own offspring, she became quite attached to her human environment. Her name was Ellie and when she matured, I built her habitat after habitat away from the house to encourage her to behave more like a raccoon and less like a spoiled, dejected child. It didn’t work.
When a thunderstorm would break, Ellie would go from door to door of the house, banging to be let in. It wasn’t until the neighbors called that I realized I had messed up by ever allowing her to come and go through a door. They had a scared, angry, thirty-pound raccoon banging on their door demanding to be let in. This was a direct result of my ignoring her and trying to break her behavior and dependency. If the first neighbor didn’t grant entry, Ellie just continued to seek a house to pound until one was opened for her. I asked the neighbors to hold their ground, I was on my way. Sure enough, Ellie saw my car and launched her wet and muddy self into the window, furious with me. I could no longer handle her physically, but she had no fear of me. She knew I was taking her home and she knew she was getting her way. She rode the storm out sleeping in my dresser drawer after she had emptied it of everything but what she considered appropriate for snuggling, onto the floor in a muddy pile.
We had a spa in our yard for which Ellie was quite fascinated. The problem was that when an aggressive overweight raccoon decides to have a whirlpool bath, you got the hell out, clothing or not. There were some tremendously awkward moments. Most involved Ellie first stealing the towels and then and then taking over the spa. The best Ellie-spa episode involved freezing temperatures, towel theft and doors to the house that often seemed to lock themselves. We learned to hide house keys and carry bathrobes and shoes with us. When you live with a raccoon, you develop odd tactical strategies. Mace and a stun gun crossed my mind, but I never went there. She would probably steal it anyway and use it on me.
Eventually Ellie learned how to open the heavy spa lid herself and fear of her becoming trapped caused me to lock the cover when it wasn’t in use. Did you know those heavy-duty spa covers were nothing but Styrofoam covered with vinyl? I didn’t either. No match for a raccoon determined for a swim. When does a raccoon get to play in the spa? Anytime it wants to! They will see to it that you won’t want it anymore anyway. Raccoons will emphatically claim what they decide is theirs. Remember as kids when we would lick the Hershey bar so our sibling wouldn’t ask for a bite? Yep, that’s a raccoon, only they will use more than spit. They are far from dumb animals and know exactly how to get their way. There is no training, no correction, and no discipline. They do not speak the language of domestic animals. They belong to themselves and themselves alone. There is no ‘owning’ a raccoon. What you do own belongs to them and you are only allowed to have what doesn’t interest them. Period. One in a thousand may make a good pet, and that only happens because the animal is unusually good natured and decides to share, but this is so rare that it is impossible to claim as a potential outcome. My advice for those who want a pet raccoon? Leave them in nature, get a puppy.
I remember one night around Christmas. We had a terrible snow storm that threatened to knock out the power. We prepared for the loss of the furnace and equipped ourselves with blankets if the worst occurred. I figured the enemy was the snow laden branches threatening to snap over the power lines, but when you share your property with a raccoon, you find that disaster comes in many forms.
Ellie decided her ‘fully-enclosed, heated, carpeted, food and water readily available, filled with toys, treats and blankies’ nesting box in the shed was just no longer suitable. Somehow (a term that coincides with raccoon behavior) Ellie made it on top of the house and I was awakened to the sound of the roof coming off just above the heater closet. She was ripping off the leak proof ring and the shingles from around the exhaust pipe, trying to get to the source of the heat and into the attic. I could tell from the sounds that she was succeeding. I threw on whatever I could grab and ran out into the freezing weather with my flashlight to find two yellow eyes staring accusingly at me from my roof; her oversized, over fed, over zealous figure clearly busied with her task at hand. Ellie was not giving up and increased her frantic pace with my discovery of her vandalism. My yelling did nothing to discourage her. Snowballs were ignored. She was furious. Suddenly, a loud hissing and cloud of steam erupted from the dismembered shaft. It frightened Ellie and she ceased her destruction and fled the scene. Relieved, I headed back into the house to discover the heater no longer blowing, the hissing sound coming from the heater closet. To my dismay, it would be a long, cold night after all. Not for the branches that would fall to tear down the power lines that ran the blower to keep us warm, but a newly constructed hole in my roof which was allowing snow from the roof to fall directly into my heater and douse the burners.
I resolved to shut down the whole mess and go to bed fully clothed. Repairs would be made at dawn and hairdryers would be utilized to dry the damage. It was life with an imprinted, adult raccoon. It was life with Ellie.
More embarrassing moments occurred that involved visitors and their vehicles. How do you explain when someone is leaving your house, attempts to start their car and get no electrical response? No groan, no click, nothing. You certainly do not offer,“Uh, a raccoon might be the problem.” You keep your mouth shut and suddenly everyone you know is a mechanic and you will secretly pay them later. The insurance adjustor would have a field day with your rates if they discovered you had a thirty-pound wire collecting menace living on your property. Ellie somehow (there’s that word again) knew exactly which wires to pull to cause the greatest problem. Luckily she never discovered brake lines, and no one ever left my property without the ability to stop their car, though I often strained to listen for a crash at the first curve in the road down the hill. It was the days of free mechanic services and tours of a wildlife rehabilitation facility while you wait. It was a long, long year and luckily, eventually, Ellie began to turn back to the world from which she came.
The last time I laid eyes on my beautiful, vibrant raccoon was after a long absence which caused me mixed emotions and concern. On one hand, the repairs to the vehicles and house had abated to an occasional bit of raccoon evidence, (dead chickens, mangled lawn mowers, ripped window screens, a big pile of dookie on the seat of my car when I forgot to roll up the windows) but on the other hand I worried about her safety and her ability to care for and protect herself as it had been months since she had shown herself. At last Ellie finally made an appearance, but she wasn’t the first mask that caught my attention. Three perfect raccoon kits, no more than six weeks old were climbing down the large oak tree beside the back fence. I spotted them immediately and slowly went to investigate. They puffed up at my approach and their high pitched “danger” noises alerted a not too far away mommy who responded with a trilling command for them to come to her. It was Ellie. She looked absolutely wonderful. She was standing twenty feet from the tree, calling her kits to follow her into the seclusion of the woods. I approached the tree, now eager to examine her babies.
They were fat, immaculately clean, and terrified of the stranger who loomed just below them between the safety of the tree top and their beckoning mother raccoon. I stepped back as two kits scampered down the tree and dashed to Ellie’s wide body for comfort. She continued to trill at the remaining kit, but it clung wide eyed and frozen to the tree. He wasn’t budging. Unwilling to turn my back until all of Ellie’s babies were safely at her side, I decided to help him down. I reached up to him as his screams became more urgent and Ellie’s pitch changed from one of calling to one of comfort. The kit responded and immediately calmed down. I decided she must have somehow told him not to fear me. I reached out a hand to him, not sure of what would happen. The tiny kit, overcome with curiosity, reached out one tiny paw and made a split second of physical contact with me. The warmth and satisfaction that I felt grew from the tips of my toes to the top of my head, as he suddenly made his break and down the tree he went, directly to his mother’s side, where he peeked one last time at the strange intruder he had been so bold to touch. Ellie trilled softly to them, inspected them for harm, and with one last look in my direction, waddled away into the safety of the woods, kits in tow scampering about, pausing only to investigate a log, a rock or a flower along the well worn raccoon path.
Ellie’s fat raccoon rear end and her bushy tail entering the brush was my last sight of her. Somehow motherhood had helped her reclaim her place in the wild to ensure the safety of her kits. She never brought them home again during the daylight. But ever present and growing paw prints at the pond’s edge told me the family was doing well and staying close in case Ellie needed to raid the feed pans for the dogs, which she was always welcome to do.
Ellie’s turn back to the wild was the end of an era for me and the last stretch in a long and hard learned lesson about wildlife and the importance of keeping the babies, especially the raccoons, at an emotional distance for all our sake. It wasn’t like I didn’t have enough to do to keep my hands from cultivating the attachments that were so damaging to human raised wildlife. In addition to the fawns and raccoons that first spring, I had over seventy baby opossums arrive, dozens of cotton tailed rabbit infants, fox squirrels and gray squirrels, baby birds by the dozens, and several orphaned baby skunks. Yes, wild skunks.
I have found out without a doubt that the common skunk is the most misunderstood and unfairly judged critter on our continent today. Having an open mind, there was no animal I was unwilling to assist. My first nest of orphaned skunks were completely fascinating to me. There was the vermin stigma of the stinky skunk and the risk of rabies to which I was soon preventatively vaccinated. They were so tiny and so absolutely adorable; I couldn’t imagine not helping them. There was the ‘in my house’ factor, but like everything else in those days I decided to cross that bridge when I found time to build it. The skunks would stay, and I would find a solution for them as well.
I thought the raccoons were fun to watch, but there is nothing more entertaining then witnessing baby skunks learning to stomp. Yes, they stomp. It is a body posture and language that the skunk uses most often. It can initiate play or be used as a warning, and it is the cutest thing to watch. They charge, stop and stomp, turning their tail toward whom or whatever they are encountering. This is also the point at which they will spray later in life, but as little guys, it is all about play.
Several mishaps took place in my home involving escapees out playing at their natural nocturnal hour and people wandering through the dark to investigate the noise. The fully loaded baby skunks never sprayed without reason. Stepping on one accidentally was a good reason. Playful baby skunks see feet as something to chase and stomp play at. They can see perfectly in the dark. My advice to anyone considering keeping a loaded, wild skunk for a house pet? Don’t. There just isn’t enough air freshener on the planet.
My family became very adept at cramming towels under bedroom doors and shutting off the circulating central air system in seconds flat. It was that or rent a motel in the middle of the night, and not smelling like the most welcome of guests for the establishment. I’ve taken two direct hits out of hundreds of skunks raised, and trust me, there is nothing worse to befall your nose than a direct hit. You will truly find out who your real friends are when you have been sprayed by a skunk. Even my ever devoted pet cat avoided me. That’s bad. There is no feeling quite so low as to offend someone who licks their butt as a favored leisure activity.
The skunks took their formula from syringes just like everyone else except the fawns and raccoons who used human baby bottles and nipples. It was a syringe marathon every morning. I became extremely adept at loading and dispensing formula one handed while I held the babies securely with the other. The opossums and the skunks were fed every 3 to 4 hours, raccoons every 4 to 5 hours, fawns every 4 to 5 hours and birds were every hour on the hour on the hour on the hour on the hour.
Fortunately I learned early on that the birds I then cared for, mostly starlings and sparrows, ate dry dog food soaked in water. This resulted in easy preparation and fast feedings. Anyone that knows me knows how to feed baby birds. There is no break between feedings. It is continuous as long as the sun is up. If you visit me during spring and summer, at some point you will be handed a small cup of soaked dog food , a set of blunt tweezers, and steered in the direction of the birds. Don’t worry, they will be well trained. All you have to do is insert the food into the gaping mouths. If you look up and I am no longer in the room, I am showering, shoving a ham sandwich down my throat, and putting on fecal-free clothing. I have never eaten in the shower, but I have been known to have a sandwich in one hand and a toothbrush in the other. It doesn’t work very well at all. I can strongly recommend wildlife rehabilitation as an annual weight loss plan. My average weight loss each spring is around forty lbs. I’ve had my stomach go into growling spells over the smell of canned dog food….more than once, and no, I never tried it.
My rehab room was crowded. Hell, my house was crowded! I had an eleven hundred square foot home to begin with, a family of three, and when adding three hundred animals to the mix, it was ridiculous. Believe it or not, I made it work, but it was exhausting. The kitchen was rotated between animals and people. The refrigerators had designated animal cubbies and those were clearly labeled. Animal food was prepared and their dishes washed twice a day, and then everything bleached for people. Animal laundry was washed once daily and then bleach ran through the cycle before people could use it. My daughter Katie was about seven years old and I could not bare the thought of putting her health at risk. I worked non stop at keeping everything and everyone clean. One night, I realized there were problems I had not considered. It had never occurred to me that my child would be selected as a nest mate, or more accurately, the nest itself.
Normally when a normal family’s mother is awakened in the night under normal circumstances by their child at three a.m. and told, “Mom, there are ‘possums in my hair.” the mother gets the child a drink of water to fade the nightmare and sends them back to bed. In my house, we turn the light on and investigate. Katie’s waist length hair had become home for thirty or so baby opossums during the night. I was in shock and disbelief, fighting to contain my horror so as not to scare my serenely calm daughter. They had escaped their nests which consisted of a dozen cardboard boxes with towels clothes-pinned in place to contain them. Wasn’t much of a challenge I suppose as they had, crossed the entire house, squeezed under two doors, scaled Katie’s bed and found her hair. The rest of the opossums were all in the bathtub, completely trapped. Why were they in the bathtub? I still haven’t a clue.
It took two hours to untangle every tiny finger from her long hair. Had I had my dithers, I would have taken a photo. It was bizarre to say the least. I called her in sick for school the next day because she had lost so much sleep. Of course I lied! Wouldn’t you? Child Protection Services would have a field day!
My daughter never panics about anything and never has. She was just as calm as a cucumber throughout the entire ordeal as she sat yawning on the edge of the bed as I collected baby ‘possums and deposited them into a towel. I couldn’t imagine the reaction of someone who gets the creeps. A normal child would have probably had to be sedated. Though I have shed most of my willies for uninvited guests, a cockroach still sends me into a girly frenzy, but my daughter grew up friends with everything. Camping with her as a little girl was usually spent telling her to “DROP THAT SNAKE THIS INSTANT!” and one horrible evening at home she calmly came into the living room to tell me there was a scorpion in a drinking glass in her bedroom. When I asked in utter horror how the hell a scorpion got in a glass in her bedroom, she calmly explained, “It was crawling on my leg mom. I put it in the glass to trap it.” I turned the house upside down in a frantic rampage. To my utter relief, we never saw another one.
Towels were shoved under Katie’s door the next night and twice the clothes-pins were used to contain the little four inch marsupials who were learning to climb and doing an excellent job of it. The nightmare repeated itself, the towels circumnavigated without problem, thirty something new hair bobs for Katie and a few dozen trapped in the bathtub and another fraudulent sick day at home with mom. Katie asked for a haircut. Clearly, something needed to be done. Another room, away from the house, but what could I possibly use? The light bulb that appeared above my head was blinding.
At some point prior to my home becoming a madhouse, I had purchased a slide-in camper for us to use to go camping in a moment of family time-inspiration and all that good stuff that in your mind turns you into the Cleavers, but ultimately becomes memories of that near fatal case of chiggers, mosquito bites, heat stroke and the filthy camp site restrooms. That camper became my saving grace. In a moment of epiphany, I moved it into the front of the house, just outside the door to the rehab room. It became my teenie-weenie piece of heaven. It had everything. A cab-over bed for two that held multiple incubation tubs, cabinets, a sink, electricity, stove, running water, a large table and cushioned benches, refrigerator, windows, curtains, skylights…everything but a bathroom of which I had no need for to care for animals. The camper would save my sanity and my daughter’s beautiful hair. I moved most of my babies right in.
There is no way to explain how I managed to set it up in the tiny space, but I did and it was organized beautifully. Tub after tub of opossums and baby birds, skunks and squirrels, bunnies and bunnies and bunnies and bunnies lined up on heat pads in their newly commandeered nursery. The large trees shaded us from the summer heat, the windows opened, curtains billowing in the breeze, fans working whenever needed, it was very comfortable. I had all the animal dishes and food, towels, bedding and cleaning supplies, feeding implements and formulas filling the multiple cabinets and drawers. I had a four-burner propane stove where I could heat water and eventually I bought a small microwave for the camper which made me completely independent of the house for everything other than the washer and dryer for their bedding.
The fawns and raccoons were still in the house as I had no room for them in the camper, but I can only say that I remember those camper days with such simple bliss and complete delight. It was my world and I spent anywhere from ten to fifteen hours a day working there for weeks at a time. Sure I would have liked more room, but after the calamities in the house, I was in complete heaven. I have never felt alone when I was in the presence of animals. I prefer them. There is something about the simple ease of their company, no expectations, no judgments, just moment after moment of interaction and discovery. Without a doubt, animals bring out your authentic self. Who you are with them is who you are. For some people, it is the only time they are relaxed and truly connected with anything. They do not care who you are, what you look like or what your status is in the world. They seek only kindness and attention, or for the wildlife, care and nurturing. I cannot imagine a world without animals, and my life would be far too empty without their ever present need for me.
I worked two years from the camper. I had three main hubs of animals to tend too. My rehab room and my dining room remained filled to capacity. I raised and repaired nearly two thousand wild animals those first few years and worked myself wiry trying to keep our home fit for human habitation, though the camper saved a tremendous amount of struggle.
You know how when you leave home for a week or two and return, you find out what your house really smells like? One morning, after the spring and summer frenzy had passed, I had one of those moments. It wasn’t the worst “Oh no, we live here?” smells, but it was alarming for someone who refused to accept a smelly house. For the next several months of fall and winter, I worked like a madwoman raising money selling everything I could think of, mortgaging my home and collecting the building materials it would take to build a proper facility for the wildlife and make my dream come true. I would have my rehabilitation center as they were commonly called. It couldn’t happen fast enough for me, but it didn’t come before I received a call from the Fish and Game department that would change my life forever; “Annette, we have a mountain lion cub who needs help. Will you take her?” “I’m on my way.” I responded, without thought, as usual.
Annette King-Tucker, Animal Rescuer
Wild Heart Ranch Wildlife Rescue