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Life as a wildlife ambulance driver

(Photo: Wildwoods)

I am a volunteer transporter for Wildwoods. Basically, I take injured animals to places like the Raptor Center in St. Paul, the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Roseville and Wild and Free in Garrison. Or, I pick up animals to bring to Wildwoods. My heart at various times has been lifted, crushed and touched gently by the animals to whom I have given rides.

On Aug. 2 I got a phone call from Tara Smith of Wildwoods, asking if I could do an emergency trip. She offered the bait that the injured animal was a loon, a bird I had not previously transported. I grabbed my "go bag" and was on my way. I was told I didn't need to stop and get a carrier because the loon would be in a box.

The transfer spot was a gas station north of Cotton. As I pulled into the lot, a highway patrol officer waved me over to his car. He showed me the loon. To my surprise, it was not in a box, but wrapped in his glaringly yellow raincoat. Even more surprising, it was sitting in the footwell of the front passenger seat. He explained that he had been in a hurry and had just picked the loon up from alongside the road and that the bird had been a cooperative, quiet passenger. Because there would be no way to return his jacket, I took out a piece of fleece that was part of my transport kit. We agreed that the loon would be safest in the same spot in my car.

After the loon was safely ensconced, I had to fill up on gas as I had been driving on fumes. As I was pumping the gas, the loon became highly agitated and pecked violently at the fleece covering it. I was apprehensive about traveling with the irate bird, so I motioned the officer over to help me. He thought the loon disliked having its head covered and that I should uncover it. He certainly didn't make any move to help me dodge the very long, very sharp bill. As quickly as possible, I plucked the offending piece of fleece from its head and, sure enough, it settled in comfortably.

The drive back to Duluth was strange. I kept the radio off, hoping that the silence would soothe the injured bird. He just kept looking around at his surroundings and then staring up at me. I made small talk and carried on a very one-sided, awkward conversation for about 20 miles.

Upon arriving at Wildwoods I was met by a rehabilitator, who carefully carried the loon into the exam area and asked me if I wanted to help him. I was very excited to be able to see what went on once the animals were delivered. He put the loon on a blanketed metal table and began his search for injuries.

After evaluation, he related that the loon had made a "hard landing." In a downpour of rain, it had mistaken a highway for a lake and had basically crashed. His foot, body and one wing were badly injured. The most humane option was to release the loon from its pain and suffering. I was allowed to speak gently to the loon and stroke it as it was eased from life. One long sigh and the loon was gone, its haunting voice silenced forever.

As I got back in my car, I noticed some droplets of blood on the door and floor. As I wiped them off, I shed a few quiet tears in sorrow for the lost beauty of nature.

The same tears were expressions of gratitude toward the loving, compassionate members of the Wildwoods staff. For all they do to help every animal which is delivered to their care, we give thanks and praise.

Elda Hein has logged more than 15,000 miles transporting wildlife in need.

Wildwoods is a 501(c)(3) wildlife rehabilitation organization in Duluth. For information on how you can help wildlife, including volunteer opportunities, visit wildwoodsrehab.org, call (218) 491-3604 or write to P.O. Box 3161, Duluth, MN 55803.

If you have rescued an animal, brought one to us at Wildwoods or had one touch your life in some way, we would love to hear about it and share it with the community. Send your stories to the address above or by email to tara@wildwoodsrehab.org.

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