Archive for Wednesday, June 5, 2002

Call of the wildlife

Operation WildLife’s continual care for critters costs thousands a year

June 5, 2002

The critters may be small, but their grocery bills are big. A one-week supply of earthworms to feed baby robins costs $36. A five-pound order of high-protein WildLife formula to feed eight baby raccoons for a week carries an $89 price.

Diane Johnson, who operates the not-for-profit wild life rehabilitation center, Operation WildLife, in southwest Leavenworth County worries about the foundation's budget, which is down 13 percent from a year ago.

Tracey Elliot, a Kansas University biology student on a summer
internship, slices watermelon and berries that volunteers have
brought from their own refrigerators. She will feed the fruit to
baby robins and other songbirds.

Tracey Elliot, a Kansas University biology student on a summer internship, slices watermelon and berries that volunteers have brought from their own refrigerators. She will feed the fruit to baby robins and other songbirds.

Operation WildLife relies on donations to foot the bills. Last year about $80,000 came in. This year Johnson thinks it will be more like $69,000.

"We got hit with September 11 just like everybody else," Johnson says.

Will the $69,000 pay expenses?

"Probably not," she says. "We'll be robbing from next year's budget it's sort of a Catch-22."

Baby in a basket

In recent weeks, area residents have dropped off more than 300 orphaned or injured babies to Operation WildLife. From robins and blue jays to woodchucks and flying squirrels, Johnson and her staff of some 100 volunteers take care of them all.

While Mary Friedl bottle-feeds a fawn in a curtained stall, Tracey Elliot, a University of Kansas biology student participating in a summer internship, uses long tweezers to drop insects and bits of fruit into the gaping, chirping mouths of baby robins.

Nearby, Lois Peppin, a 10-year volunteer at Operation WildLife, softens dog food in water and mashes bits of watermelon and apples brought in by volunteers. This too, will be fed to the animals.

Last year, OWL was the temporary home to more than 4,000 animals.

As she fed a litter of packrats, Johnson said she has been asked why she bothers to take care of rats. It's because all animals are important, she said.

"If we are species-bigot for different types of animals, what prevents us from being a bigot toward different types of people?" Johnson said. "We get a lot of children in here on tours and bigotry is not something that I want children to learn from me."

Johnson opens a cage door and reaches inside to fill a food dish for an opossum. It is a mother brought in when hit by a car. Johnson points to an opening in the opossum's belly it is filled with pink babies, each about an inch long. Opossums are underappreciated, Johnson said.

She explains that they are marsupials, related to the kangaroo. Their time on earth dates back to the time of the dinosaurs. And, she said, their lifespans are surprisingly short opossums only live for 30 months.

Surrogate motherhood

For Johnson and her staff of volunteers, which includes her children, the work continues year-long.

At 8 a.m., seven days a week, Johnson crosses the lawn between her house and OWL and begins her day's chores feeding, cleaning, nursing, record keeping and bookkeeping. Even on a slow day the work could keep her there until past midnight.

Johnson answers the telephone, holding the receiver between her head and shoulder. The caller has babies to bring in.

As she speaks, Johnson continues tending to an infant opossum in her hands. She cleans its rectal area with a washcloth to make the animal relieve itself before feeding as a mother opossum would do. Then she threads a slender feeding tube into the infant's digestive tract and injects formula through a syringe. She pats his now-fat little belly, puts him down and picks up another of the half-dozen baby opossums in the cage. Other cages wait. By midnight this process will have been repeated at least four times. It's even more time-consuming to tend to the baby birds, which need to be fed every 30 minutes from morning until midnight.

One wonders how Johnson copes with the continual demands.

She laughs and says: "Genetically there must be something wrong with me. But you do it because there isn't anybody else out there to do it for them. As people we're supposed to have compassion and God said we're supposed to be stewards and I guess this is my way to be a steward and to be a caretaker, to make sure that things get taken care of."

We brake for turtles

Lois Peppin, Edwardsville, has volunteered at Operation WildLife for 10 years.

"I saw an article in the paper one day that showed Diane on Highway 32, they found a possum it was baby season and she was checking to see if there were any babies and there were," Peppin said.

The half-days she puts in are wearing, she said.

"You're absolutely exhausted but it's worth it," Peppin said. "I can always go home and rest."

She points to the birds and mammals in cages. The assortment includes dozens of baby robins.

"They can't go anywhere, poor things, not for a while anyway."

Operation WildLife volunteers are animal lovers to the core. These are people who think nothing about stopping on a road to carry a turtle across.

"I've learned from experience to put them where they're going to, not from," Peppin said. "If they're going across the road they have a reason usually it's mating season. That's why you've got to help them get over there."

Hand to mouth

Johnson and her husband, Mark, envision someday acquiring land to establish a refuge.

"It would be nice," Johnson said. "I'd like to have at least 100 acres, maybe more. I'd like to have land set aside that people could come and just walk the trail."

Will it happen?

"I hope," Johnson said. "I don't know though, I mean I've been at this for 20 years and it hasn't materialized yet."

It's a misconception that the center receives state or federal dollars, she said.

"Most people think that since we're licensed by the state and federal government that we're funded by them or that we get sales tax revenue or United Way funds, but that's not true," Johnson said.

Meanwhile, as OWL operates on a slimmer budget than last year, the group readies for an upcoming 5K run to raise money, continues its educational visits to schools, which is an important moneymaker for the organization, and of course accepts donations.

"Somebody walks in the door with a bunny and maybe donates 10 or 15 bucks," Johnson said. "That's how we live it's hand to mouth."

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