When your cat gets sick or your dog breaks his leg, you take those animals to the vet. If wild animals are in the picture, Operation WildLife is the place people go.
First, you have to make sure those backyard critters really need your help, however. The clinic, which specializes in treating sick and injured wild animals, gets a lot of calls about animals that will actually do fine on their own.
“Just because your dog gets into a bunny’s nest doesn’t mean the bunny is orphaned,” said Diane Johnson, OWL’s executive director. “The mom only comes twice a day. Most people think that (since) we’re with our children all the time that animals should be too.”
There are similar problems with calls about baby birds, which can spend three to five days living on the ground, out of the nest, before they learn to fly.
“I say, ‘Think of a toddler learning to walk,’ only this toddler’s learning to fly,” said Milly Norris, who leads the volunteers at OWL.
If a bird doesn’t fly away when you approach, it doesn’t mean that the bird necessarily has a broken wing — it may just not be ready to fly.
“They still have a mom and a dad who will care for them,” Johnson said.
If you want to protect a nest of baby bunnies in your yard from your dog or any passing foxes, OWL has a cinderblock and plywood contraption developed by Norris that allows the bunnies and their mom to get in and out but keeps out the predators.
Johnson wants people to call OWL before trying to move an injured or sick animal and trying to care for it on their own.
“They’ll take baby animals out of their yard. Their first thought is that the animal is orphaned, and they’ll go on the Internet, and they’ll try and find something to feed it,” Johnson said. “People get on the Internet, and they think that the Internet will not lie to them. We usually see those animals when … the animals are starting to die on them.”
When you call OWL, a volunteer or staff person will take you through all kinds of questions about the animal and its condition to try to determine if it really needs outside assistance.
If it does, OWL has a receiving center, which is like a triage area or emergency room, in Shawnee. Its main facility is in Linwood, just west of De Soto.
Johnson is the clinic’s only full-time staff person. There’s one part-timer as well, and the rest of the work gets done by about 100 volunteers, such as Milly Norris.
The clinic gets no state or federal funding and subsists on donations from the public. Caring for wild animals isn’t cheap, even with volunteer labor.
“We don’t feed them dog and cat food,” Johnson said. “They’re eating mealworms, beetles and rats. I can’t go the grocery and buy those.”
Johnson estimated that about 69 percent of the 4,000 to 5,000 animals they treat each year survive, a figure well above the national average for wildlife rehabilitation, she said.
Norris is proud of the work done at OWL.
“I’ve never been bored and I’ve been doing this almost 25 years now,” Norris said. “It’s rewarding. It’s hard when you lose animals. There’s some you fight and try to give them a second chance, and they don’t have what it takes.”
Treatment and recovery can take weeks or months, but when it’s done, the animals will go back into the wild if they can. For animals such as foxes, which mate for life, Johnson said that OWL will release them back into the area where they were picked up so they can find their families.
“If you’re lucky enough to be at one of the releases, it gives you goosebumps,” Norris said. “A lot of animals come out slow and timid, and (a recently healed) coyote shot out like a rocket.”
On the Web
To contact Operation WildLife, call (785) 542-3625 or visit www.owl-online.org.