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Northwoods Wildlife Center: 40 years of courage and compassion

October 04, 2019 by Jordan Smedberg

In the 40 years since its founding, Northwoods Wildlife Center (NWC) has rehabilitated thousands of animals, and while they’re always on-hand to mend a wing or stitch a wound, they’ve also discovered that sometimes the best way to help wildlife is to educate the most threatening animal of all: Humans.  

So consider, if you will, the following, a public service announcement from our furry, feathered and finned friends, who so graciously share their Northwoods home with us. 

Let’s start easy. Sometimes, instead of doing too little to help the wildlife, we humans do too much. 

“Somebody finds a deer fawn curled up in their yard, they don’t find Mom, (and they think) ‘Oh my gosh, it must be orphaned,’” NWC assistant director of education Courtney Wright said.  

In fact, Wright explained, it’s perfectly normal for a doe to leave her fawn for up to 12 hours at a time. 

“We call it kidnapping, or basically helping wildlife that didn’t need to be helped,”?Wright said. “So we’re trying to limit those impacts we have on the wildlife and by answering that phone call and educating somebody before they rescue that animal is our best way of doing it.” 

Of the animals admitted to NWC each year, Wright estimates 75-80% were injured or orphaned because of humans. 

“Sometimes it’s very passive, you know, like, ‘a bird flew into my window and I built a house here,’ sometimes a turtle gets hit by a car,” Wright said. “Sometimes it’s, ‘I had to cut down this tree because it was dead, but there was a woodpecker’s nest in it.”

“A lot of times people in the environmental field are so doom and gloom … but at the same time there are ways that we can help fix the problem for future generations,” she said.

Houses need to be built. Cars need to be driven. Sometimes trees have to be cut down. So what can we do? 

For one, we can clean our birdfeeders. 

“There are certain bird strains of salmonella that can kill off an entire flock of birds in your yard just by not cleaning your feeders and not raking out from underneath your feeders,” Wright said. 

Another easy way we can help out is to put a sticker on our picture windows, NWC rehabber Amanda Schirmer said. 

“We have these big, beautiful, glass vista windows and birds can’t really see that when they’re flying at high speeds and they hit them,” she said. She suggests ultra-violet stickers, which appear as a bright spot to the birds, but are much less noticeable to the human eye. 

One issue that asks for a larger change of our behavior is the prevalence of lead poisoning in the areas of fish and fowl. 

“Eagles are opportunistic,” NWC rehabber Amanda Walsh said. “You’ll see them eating off of deer carcasses and things like that. Well, the majority of ammo that’s used in this state is lead and so, when you shoot a deer and you leave gut piles or whatever in the woods and the eagles feed off of that, they’re ingesting lead.”

The lead sits in their body and leeches into their blood system. It only takes a small amount of lead for them to become toxic, Walsh said. 

While copper bullets are a safe alternative for hunters, Walsh says they are more expensive than lead and haven’t caught on in the Northwoods yet. However, she and Schirmer are hopeful.

“When it comes to hunters, a lot of these hunters do love the environment in their own way, so we’d love to work with them on that,” Walsh said. “It’s not that they don’t care about the eagles, it’s that it’s going to cost them a significant price. If we get those copper bullets down, I think it would be a fix. ‘Cause there’s a group of hunters out there that truly love the environment … and it’d be nice to bring two groups of environmentalists together and fix that issue.”

Perhaps surprisingly, NWC has a good relationship with hunters. 

“Hunters help us out an extreme amount with donating venison here, and we accept bow hunted meat or meat hit by a car,” Walsh said. “The majority of us are not hunters, so we definitely rely on them a lot. We are not anti-hunting.” 

“They are definitely environmentalists,” Schirmer said. “They love this land.”

“They need this wildlife,” Walsh finished. 

So you’ve found an animal. Now what? 

First off, don’t feed it. 

“(People) want to help,” Walsh says. “They find an animal. They look up on the internet how to feed it, but we always say, ‘please don’t feed it, if you have questions, call us first,’ because we have proper diets that we can feed them.” 

And no matter how tiny, adorable or nonthreatening the animal might be, resist the urge to cuddle.

“When you have your pet at home, your pet enjoys being cuddled and you want to make them happy,” Schirmer said. 

“That interaction stresses out (wildlife),” Walsh explains. “They don’t know you’re trying to help them. That stress can cause an animal to pass away. I mean, it’s that serious.” 

In addition, some species, especially raptors, Schirmer said, are extremely imprintable.

“They learn from their parents very early on, so if they look at your face, they think that they’re a person,” Schirmer said. “So sometimes you think you’re caring for and nurturing an animal and it’s actually a negative for them.”

An imprinted raptor, Schirmer explained, could be quite dangerous toward people later in life when they’re ready to breed. 

“They’re trying to make their territory and they see you as their con specific (belonging to the same species) now, not other raptors, so now when they’re trying to protect their territory, it’s against you.”

Walsh says those are tough cases. 

“There could be nothing wrong with that animal, and it’s hard because now that animal is non-releasable.”

On the other hand, Schirmer and Walsh said imprinting has been exaggerated in film and television. 

“Sometimes when you (accidentally) kick the mom out and put the babies outside in a box, mom will come back,” Schirmer said. “They have the same instincts we do, they’re not going to abandon their young if you touched it. That’s a myth. So if you touch the fawn, it doesn’t mean I have to bring it in because mom won’t take care of it. And if you’re really worried about it, you can take some grass or something and rub it on there, some dirt to make it smell more natural, but they’re going to come back.”

Walsh agreed. 

“The mother instinct is stronger than you touching it,” she said. “You’re not spraying it with perfume.”

Not a zoo, not a humane society 

From the moment an animal is admitted, NWC works to give that animal the best chance possible of being released back into the wild. 

“When we admit a young raptor, one of the steps is, we ‘live prey test,’” Walsh said. “We want to make sure they can efficiently kill prey when they leave, they’re not imprinted, they fully heal from their injury, they’re not sick.”

For orphaned animals, the work is the same. 

“For us to raise these baby raccoons, it’s not enough for us to get it to reach adulthood,” Schirmer said. “What is their proper diet? Can they search for their own food? Can they recognize their own behavior — their natural behaviors? Can they recognize their con specifics? And are they walking up to people? All those kind of things are just a few of the factors we have to consider every day.”

While the center does have a number of animals that call NWC home permanently, including kestrels, snakes, turtles, an eagle and Hortense, a turkey vulture admitted back in 1988 with an amputated wing, the center reminds people that its goals are rehabilitation and education.  

“It’s easy to forget that we’re not a humane society,” Walsh said. “I don’t cuddle animals. I don’t — but we have that long-term goal in mind, that, by taking care of them here, our number one goal’s to get them back out into the wild.” 

To that end, a tour at NWC may surprise some people. 

“(Sometimes) when people come here, they expect to be able to see the animals that are healing or growing up with us and that’s not something that we do,” Walsh said. “We have a live feed camera that we kind of move around to different cages that you can see (the animals) in, but, we’re not a zoo either.”

And what about zoos? 

“Not all zoos are created equal,” Wright said. 

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) offers accreditation to zoos adhering to their standards and practices, which can help guide the public when looking for a reputable zoo.

Rory Foster, founder of NWC, drew a hard line between educational zoos and roadside wildlife attractions. 

“The state of Wisconsin is littered with so-called wildlife exhibits or roadside zoos run mostly by amateurs with purely economic motives,” Foster writes in his book, “Dr. Wildlife.” “A properly run zoo, in addition to providing a good environment for wildlife is an educational institution … a genuine concern for the individual animal and species and a dedication to learning are the qualities that distinguish the true zoo from a roadside menagerie.”  

As for how to tell if the concern for the animals at any given zoo is sincere, Walsh is direct. 

“I do know that if you see a wolf by itself, the first thing about wolves is that they’re pack animals. So you don’t love animals if you do that,” she said.

Wright said what she loves about NWC, where only guided tours are allowed, is the education that is offered. 

“We get that opportunity (if) kids are kicking stones or something on our tour (we can say) ‘hey, you know, would you want someone kicking stones at your door?’ So we get to build that relationship with those kids and … make them think a little bit more instead of just what I’m doing, but also how it’s affecting other people and other animals and the world in general, starting that from a young age,” she said.

Keeping wildlife wild 

A disturbing trend NWC is hoping to educate the public on is keeping wild animals for pets. 

“Our biggest exotic issue that we’ve run into recently has been people trying to keep foxes as pets,” Schirmer said, which are often bought from a “fur farm” on the black market. 

“Well then when these foxes really start acting like foxes, they release them thinking they’re going to be OK and they can’t,” Schirmer said. “Or they bite you or something and they want us to get rid of it and that’s not what we can do.” 

And if that’s not enough of a deterrent, Schirmer said, “foxes’ urine smells a lot like skunk.”

Another factor fueling the exotics market are Facebook videos of people snuggling with wildlife like owls, raccoons and squirrels. 

“These videos are taken when they’re six months old,” Schirmer said. “Give it one year and you’re not going to want that squirrel in your house … Those things can be crazy … If you wouldn’t go out and grab an adult grey squirrel and put it in your house, don’t raise a baby in your house and keep it because you’re going to get an adult grey squirrel in your house.” 

Schirmer said it’s important we let wild animals be what they are and not what we want them to be.  

“For us to love these animals it’s to do what’s best for them and where they’re happy is where they’re meant to be,” she said. “So for us to put them back, we’ve done the best possible thing we can for them.”

Helping out

Wright credits NWC’s supporters for keeping them going all these years. 

“Some people have been with us for almost 40 years,” Wright said, like board member Dee Dee Lund who worked with Foster in the years when NWC was formed. 

“The only reason we’re still around 40 years later is because of those people and because people find a common ground in our passions for wildlife,” Wright said. 

There are many ways to support NWC, including volunteering, donating or sponsoring an animal. In doing so, you’ll be helping to keep the Northwoods wild. 

“Up here, we cohabitate with so much wildlife that it’s easy to encounter wildlife,” Walsh said. “We’re in the forest with them, and so interactions happen and sometimes (they) get hit by a car. So, I’d like to think that in some way we are righting a wrong in giving them that second chance to be put back out into the wild, which I think is awesome.”


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