When Kathy Stelford was 5, her father, Lane, found a cedar waxwing that had been hit by a car. He told her that if it survived the night, they’d take it to a nearby bird hospital. The waxwing persevered, and the three made the trip the next day. Afterward, the experience was all Kathy could talk about. More than 60 years later, rescuing animals is still all she can talk about. Kathy founded Oaken Acres Wildlife Center in Sycamore, Illinois, and she’s one of an extremely dedicated group of certified rehabilitators who give injured and orphaned animals a second chance at a natural life.
But caring for animals isn’t always smooth sailing; it takes a lot of effort. Nestlings, the youngest baby birds, must be fed around the clock—four times per hour for 14 hours each day. And a lot of prep work goes into those feedings. Rondi Large, who runs WildCare Foundation in Noble, Oklahoma, compares it to a Thanksgiving meal: Days of planning and preparation and hours of cleanup are required for meals that are gulped down in a flash.
The constant feeding keeps centers busy during “baby season,” which is at its height from about March to September, and most centers bring in extra hands to keep up. Rondi, for instance, works with 20 to 30 volunteers per week during those baby-intense times. Her center cared for 6,400 animals last year.
Kathy’s center takes in about 500 animals per year, including 300 birds. When she started seeing animals, she had just a couple of cages and $20 in donations. She found the current location, a 33-acre farm, in 1984.
As a point of comparison, larger centers include the 212-acre Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation sanctuary in Kendalia, Texas, which sees about 7,000 animals per year. In Kendalia, ponds, rocky bluffs, grassy pastures, and oak and juniper trees provide an idyllic home to recovering animals and those that can’t be released.
And then there’s the emotional factor. Wildlife rehabilitators get into the field because they want to be hands-on and help wildlife, but the reality is that not all the creatures make it despite human help. It’s important to keep that issue in mind to fully recognize the weighty work these animal lovers do. “It’s a myth that we have fun all summer just taking care of little babies,” Kathy says. “It’s physically and emotionally demanding. It’s not a hobby. It’s a mission.”
It’s also a business, albeit a not-for-profit one. Fundraising is a big part of what rehab centers must do. These are not government- funded operations—another misconception. That means the wildlife enthusiasts who create the centers often have to learn that part of the process as they go.
WildCare recently moved into a new building after running the rehab center out of Rondi’s garage for over 30 years. Her front porch was the original admissions room, and at one point her dining room was the nursery. She and the volunteers used to crowd around the single sink in her garage, four people at a time, cleaning bottles and feeding trays. The new center, with 13 sinks, seems luxurious.
Constructing the new facility required raising $370,000. “I’m not a fundraiser,” Rondi says. “I’d prefer to scoop poops than take executives to lunch and tell them what we do, but in order to make a center work, I have to.”
Building the proper facilities to care for these animals is one cost, but more daunting is the never-ending food bill. Rondi buys mealworms 70,000 at a time, and her last invoice for mice and rats (to feed raptors and some carnivorous mammals) was $53,000. Lynn Cuny, who founded Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation, estimates care and feeding costs at about $12 per bird per day. Multiply that by the 3,000 birds her center cares for each year and the urgency of fundraising becomes clear.
The need for certified rehabbers is equally crucial, because it’s illegal to tend to wildlife without the proper licenses and permits. Incorrect care also can do more harm than good. Federal migratory bird acts in both the United States and Canada protect birds, while state and local laws regulate mammals. With about 1,400 rehabilitators in the U.S. federally certified to care for wild birds (and 5,200 state-licensed to rehab other animals), it adds up to a lot of rescuing.
Education is vital, too. Besides spreading the word about what they do, rehabbers have to counter a lot of myths. The most common one is that a human touching a baby bird will cause its parents to reject it. Not true. The majority of our feathered friends don’t even have a sense of smell. Most “orphaned” birds typically have parents nearby.
“Too often an animal is pulled from the wild when it should have been left alone,” Lynn says. “It’s important to understand that our care is not the same as what they can get from their parents.”
Kathy, who has dedicated most of her adult life to animal rescue, remembers a time when she didn’t think the center was going to make it. She was $3,000 short of what she needed to continue for the year. She received a phone call from a teacher who asked her to visit an elementary school. When Kathy arrived, the students presented her with a check—one of those oversized ones—for $2,866. It solidified her feeling that she was doing the right thing and gave her the will to continue.
“There are just some things you’re meant to do,” she says. “Rehabbers know in their hearts that this is what their best life is.”