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We're looking for a few good volunteers

Orphaned raccoon kit at Wildwoods. (Photo submitted)

When I moved to Duluth from the Twin Cities 11 years ago, I was struck by the richness of the wildlife that was part of my Chester Park neighborhood. I quickly realized how much most people in the city and the surrounding areas have learned to not just accept but delight in their wild neighbors. While I have always enjoyed animals, I had never seen so much diversity so close to my home.

Our birdfeeders played host to such a wide array of both local and seasonal migrating birds, and an endless variety of red and grey squirrels; the owls and foxes paid us visits; deer wandered the yards; the crows learned to trust us and became members of our extended family; skunks and raccoons wandered across our deck at night; and our amiable neighborhood bear was a frequent autumn visitor.

It seemed almost a natural progression for me to end up volunteering at Wildwoods four years ago and it has been one of the most rewarding learning experiences of my life. What struck me most profoundly was the degree of respect and appreciation I gained for the animals in our care and the amount of knowledge I have gained about a wide variety of species I had never before considered worth observing.

Dealing with injured and orphaned animals has required me to discover in myself a well of calm, patience and compassion I never knew I possessed. Animals know when you are nervous, excited or fearful and they respond in kind. Gentleness and caring are also often rewarded with growing trust and tolerance on their part.

Of course it isn't all about "playing with baby animals." Truly caring for these animals has led me to understand that they are highly intelligent. You need to learn to respect the way they think and their fear of humans and captivity. Their communication patterns and their wildness is an important part of who they are. It is an honor to be trusted even a little by a wild animal and it is well worth the effort put into making it happen.

Of course it is not all sweetness and rewards. The care of these animals also involves the less pleasant tasks of cleaning cages, removing ticks and cleansing wounds of maggots and infection. Sometimes we need to understand that the kindest thing is to gently end their pain and suffering. It's a package deal. The failures make the successes and the release of an animal back into its own habitat all the more rewarding.

Wild animals are not "pets" and they shouldn't be. They are wise and wonderful and sometimes brutal in our eyes, but they all occupy important niches in our natural world and need to be appreciated for who they are. We have too often seen the results of people trying to make a pet of a squirrel, or a fox, or a raccoon, or a coyote, only to discover that they can't handle them as they begin to mature. The result is an animal who can't survive in the wild, hates living in captivity and is lucky if it can become an education animal in zoo or preserve.

Wildwoods volunteers and staff are blessed to do this work. They are also tested and, during the height of the orphan season, often exhausted, dirty and disheveled. But as every parent knows, those are the costs and rewards of caretaking. I, for one, can't imagine not experiencing these amazing creatures on an intimate level.

Information on becoming a volunteer at Wildwoods Wildlife Rehab can be found on our website. Please note that wildlife rehabilitation is seasonal with the "busy" season being between mid-May and mid-October. Applicants who apply in the middle of or at the end of the current season may not be called on until the next spring.

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