Animals get a second chance
Cradling an injured wood duck in her arms, Diane Johnson heads to what might be called the aquatic treatment room at Operation Wildlife near Linwood.
"He has a bad foot because he was shot," she said. "So we put him in the whirlpool for 30 minutes every day."
As she places it in the tepid water of a bathtub and adjusts the whirlpool, the wood duck spreads its wings and settles on the water's surface.
The wood duck is only one of about 4,000 wild animals Johnson tended to this year.
Initially, Johnson's animal-rehabilitation project might seem like fun. But after taking a closer look, it might seem like an effort in exhaustion. Johnson works from 70 to 80 hours a week.
But she adores the work.
"There are very few people who actually get to do what they love in life," Johnson said. "The pay here stinks, the hours are long, but it's my passion."
Johnson smiles when she says she gave up a $50,000-a-year job to run Operation Wildlife for no salary.
Piece by piece
Ten years ago Diane and Mark Johnson invested their life's savings, buying the old Smiley golf course at 83rd Street and Quivira Road in Johnson County.
"My husband moved this building here piece by piece," Johnson said.
The 4,000-square-foot building, completed in 1992, now is four miles west of Linwood. It includes a surgical suite, medical lab, warming tables for infant animals, row upon row of stainless steel cages, and an educational classroom area.
Outside, coyotes, foxes, eagles, and various other species are kept in tall roofed cages.
As Johnson scrubs cages, a daily task at Operation Wildlife, a 20-year-old barred owl illegally taken from his nest as a fledgling, observes from his tall perch. Because he was raised by humans and is socially oriented toward humans, he can not be returned the wild.
Johnson dons thick leather gloves and reaches to pet the owl.
"We call him Joe on his good days," Johnson said.
And on bad days?
"I can't repeat that," Johnson said, grinning.
In the next room, a crow, also known as Edgar Allen Crow, watches warily from a perch. He was brought to Operation Wildlife because of pellets in his shoulder. He will never fly again, Johnson said.
"We're trying to get him used to being around people," Johnson said. "We'll use him for educational purposes."
Operation Wildlife keeps 22 animals for educational purposes, Johnson explained.
"We travel all over northeast Kansas and northwest Missouri, going to schools, and visiting with Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts," Johnson said. This is one of the ways the center generates funding.
"We operate on $70,000 a year," she said. "That comes down to about $18.71 per animal. Every year we get more and more animals as more people find out about us, but our finances don't grow," she said.
The center receives no state or federal monies, and only a minimal amount of funds from grants. The rest of the money comes from making educational visits from and private donations.
Calling all volunteers
Johnson said the center does all it can to cut costs. Volunteers include about 100 regular workers, along with seven area veterinarians.
Buying food for all the animals is a big expense, Johnson said. One way the center cuts costs is by breeding its own.
"We were paying from $40 to $50 a day for rats and mice to feed to the birds and snakes," Johnson said.
Laurie Doud, a volunteer from Lawrence, tended to the rodents on a recent winter morning.
"We clean their cages daily, give them fresh water and give them just as good of care as the birds in there," Doud said as she lifted a rat by the tail and put it in a five-gallon bucket so she could scrub the cage.
Mice and rats are even afforded luxuries.
"Today they're getting peanut treats," she said.
But tomorrow they may be breakfast.
"Death is the sustenance of life," Doud said.
Rosey is a boa constrictor found frozen last winter at Shawnee Mission Park.
"She was a snake-sicle, frozen solid," Johnson said as she held the now-healthy three-foot-long boa in her hands.
Johnson never knows when an animal will be brought to her door.
"The patients don't keep appointments," she said. "You never know what it's going to be when the phone rings or when somebody walks in here."
In a room-size pen across the hall, a bald eagle recently shipped from Alaska shrieks as Johnson opens a door. The 5-year-old bird will be a part of the center's educational training program.
"He has an injured left shoulder and can't fly like he's supposed to," Johnson said.
Destroying the habitat
Johnson said when areas grow in population, wildlife suffer.
"We build houses at such an alarming rate and destroy the habitat. We wipe out so many things and never even realize it," Johnson said.
That's one reason why she likes to educate as many people as possible.
"I just want people to realize how special the animals are," Johnson said. "We go into the schools with the animals and the kids go: 'Wow! Awesome!'"
The goal of Operation Wildlife is not to tame the animals, Johnson said.
About 58 percent of all animals in Kansas taken to a shelter for rehabilitation go to Operation Wildlife.
"Of those, we release between 69 and 70 percent back to the wild," Johnson said.
When released, the animals are taken back to the areas where they were found.
"They may have a mate waiting for them," she said. "It's their territory and it's the place they are familiar with."
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