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Feature - Posted November 24, 2017 10:11 a.m.
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Photos by Shannon Richardson

A Walk on the Wild Side

Here’s a scenario: You’re driving, at night, in your Amarillo neighborhood. An animal darts in front of your car. It’s too late for you to swerve or brake.

You’re an animal lover. You think maybe you hit a dog. Do you stop the car and check on it? Do you try to comfort it or save it? Do you take it to a vet?

For a dog – which could easily be someone’s pet and companion – maybe you would. After all, you love animals.

But what if it were an opossum?

What if your car struck a raccoon?

What if you injured a skunk?

What if the animal couldn’t be saved, but you knew it had left behind babies? What if a dying female opossum still had newborns suckling inside its pouch? What if it was a squirrel leaving behind a nest of newborns?

These wild animals don’t always elicit the same compassion or emotions from locals, even those who claim to love animals. But a small group of Amarillo animal lovers exists that wouldn’t think twice about checking on a raccoon or saving a nest of baby squirrels. In fact, a few have spent the past months doing exactly that.

After the wind and rain of Hurricane Harvey tore through trees throughout South Texas, it destroyed the nests of thousands of baby squirrels. Around 50 of them were sent to Amarillo by Austin Wildlife Rescue. The creatures came to Amarillo because Stephanie Oravetz – the founder and executive director of Wild West Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, a wildlife rescue organization and the first of its kind in Amarillo – knew there would be voiceless victims of the storm. She contacted Austin when Harvey hit. Within days, she and her team of trained volunteers were restoring the squirrels to health.

Now adolescents, the squirrels will likely get released within a few months. They’re the same species as local squirrels and will find homes in Amarillo’s parks and trees.

When that occurs, Oravetz and crew will consider their work done. Then they’ll go right back to feeding, protecting and monitoring the health of the hundreds more wild animals that enter Wild West’s care. Cottontail rabbits. Skunks. Opossums. Bobcats, hawks and songbirds.

If you’re already thinking, “Skunks? Possums? Who cares?” then Oravetz wants to educate you on the role wild creatures – even the less lovable ones – play in the local ecosystem.

“They were here first. We came in, and develop and destroy their habitats,” she says. “I’m a Christian and I don’t think God makes mistakes. I think everything has a purpose. We have a responsibility to care for the animals.”

Permission to Volunteer
Oravetz grew up in the Dallas-Fort Worth area and has loved animals for as long as she can remember. During her toddler years, she would pick up frogs and toads, kiss them, and then look for places inside her room to store them. “I was never afraid of animals,” she says. “I was always interested in them.”

She was also driven. At the age of 13, Oravetz began volunteering at I-20 Animal Medical Center, an enormous veterinary hospital in Arlington, Texas. “I wanted to be around animals, so I was doing grunt work,” she says. “I didn’t care because at least I was there.” At 14, as soon as she was old enough, she began working for a paycheck. She got certified as a veterinary technician at 15 and was managing a department by 16. “I started running a hospital by 20,” she says. During that period, she served as a technician for a veterinarian who sidelined as a wildlife rehabber. The work fascinated her.

Oravetz worked in the veterinary field for the next decade, eventually ending up in Fort Hood where she started a family with her military husband, John, an Apache helicopter pilot.

When the nearby Temple office of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department lost its permitted rehabber, the game wardens asked Oravetz to apply for her own permit. Rehabilitation of orphaned and injured wildlife requires a permit from the state of Texas. Officially, individuals must apply and receive state approval before caring for a wild animal with the goal of reintroducing it into nature. Lacking that approval, they must care for these animals under the authority and supervision of someone who does have such a permit. A number of Texas veterinarians are permitted, but the work is strictly done on a volunteer basis. In fact, most wildlife rehabbers keep animals in their homes or garages, which are subject to state inspection. They pay for their own caging, food, medical supplies and more. “Nobody gets paid to do this,” Oravetz says.

Oravetz had been a friend of Temple’s previous rehabber and didn’t hesitate to apply for a permit herself. Soon, game wardens began bringing her vulnerable animals. “I started doing it full-time at my house,” she says. The first permit allowed her to treat mammals. She also applied for, and received, federal permits to care for songbirds and raptors.

Then John got a job as a Lifestar pilot in Amarillo, and the family moved.

Welcome to Amarillo
“I thought it was flat and there wouldn’t be much wildlife,” Oravetz confesses. “And I thought it was bigger than Fort Hood, so [Amarillo] probably had several rehabbers already. I was wrong on both fronts.”

Once established, she contacted the Amarillo office of Texas Parks & Wildlife and told them she was permitted for wildlife rehabilitation. “They were like, ‘Great! All we have is a lady who takes care of birds.’ There was no one for mammals,” she says. “For decades, animal control had euthanized them because there was no one else. Baby foxes, possums – all euthanized.”

Oravetz pauses. “Some people may get mad at animal control, but if you don’t have somebody permitted, you can’t just let anybody do it,” she says. Wild animals are vectors for a variety of diseases, including rabies. (Oravetz is vaccinated against rabies.) Feeding abandoned baby animals isn’t just a matter of putting a bowl of milk in front of them. For instance, opossums are marsupials and feed by swallowing a spaghetti-shaped nipple for up to three months before leaving the pouch. “Even if somebody with good intentions wants to feed one, they can’t suckle. You have to tube them. It’s either going to go down their lungs and kill them or go into the stomach. You have to know how to do that, and you have to do it every couple of hours,” she says.

That’s why vet techs make excellent animal rehabbers.

Animal Management & Welfare and TPW jumped at the opportunity to bring injured or abandoned animals to a pro like Oravetz. In 2015, from May to December, she cared for nearly 200 animals. Sensing a need – and recognizing that her home would be unable to handle the demand – Oravetz established Wild West Wildlife Rehabilitation Center as a nonprofit organization. She recruited a few volunteer subpermittees to take in wildlife under her supervision. The next year, Oravetz and company took care of 757 animals.

Then came 2017. By the fall of this year, Wild West had already exceeded one thousand orphaned or injured snakes, lizards, prairie dogs, jackrabbits, skunks, owls, bats, ducks, squirrels, opossums and much more. Thanks to Wildcat Bluff Nature Center founder Mary Emeny, Wild West is now leasing 5 acres on the nature center’s property, where it’s refurbishing a nine-room manufactured trailer that will serve as a headquarters and holding facility for the hundreds of animals. “Amarillo has never had a wildlife rehabilitation center before,” says Oravetz. “It needs it desperately.” She expects the building to be ready by the spring, the result of hours and hours of construction, labor, and dedication from Scout troops, nature-lovers and other volunteers.

Still a relative newcomer to the Panhandle, Oravetz has been stunned by the overwhelmingly positive response to what she does. “I’ve been doing this for many years and never seen anything like this [response] before. The people of the Texas Panhandle are truly the most giving and supportive people.”

Misunderstood
One of those supporters is Nickie Kirchgessner, who works full-time as a veterinary technician at Animal Medical Center. Kirchgessner grew up with the same passion for animals that Oravetz had. “I’ve been a vet tech since I was 17 years old,” she says. “I’ve always been interested in animals that weren’t just dogs and cats.” She and her husband live west of Bushland and own a variety of pets, from dogs and cats to ferrets, rabbits and sugar gliders.

At her home, she’s currently rehabbing two doves, five pigeons, and three “teenage” squirrels under Oravetz’s permit. Kirchgessner estimates she has brought more than a hundred animals into her home this year.

“I stick to the smaller ones, what most people would consider varmint-type animals – the ones that are a little more unloved,” she says. “I deal a lot with cottontails, jackrabbits and a lot of the pigeons and non-protected doves.” (Certain doves and other migratory game birds are a protected wildlife species in Texas and require special licensing, and Oravetz is the only rehabber in the area who has it.)

Kirchgessner donates the time and space to care for the wild animals. “As far as care goes, they’re pretty simple,” she says. “They do require a lot of clean-up. Squirrels and birds are messy. I give them fresh food and water daily and try to give them interactive stuff – especially the squirrels, since they’re young and get into things.” The squirrels expend a lot of energy during the day and require a running wheel. “They can become destructive if you don’t give them adequate things to do,” she says.

A rabbit lover, Kirchgessner is partial to baby cottontails. “How can you not love them? They’re adorable,” she says. But that adorability is one reason she has to take in so many of them. She estimates that 90 percent of the cottontails that come into her care were either abandoned by their mother or were newborns removed from the nest by humans. “Adult cottontails only check on their young maybe twice a day,” she says. “You might never see them go to the nest. People might have the misconception that they’ve been abandoned but they haven’t.” Taking wild bunnies from a nest can significantly diminish their chances of survival.

“Sometimes people have a dog and a cat and the nest gets disturbed, or they’re afraid the dog will kill the babies,” she says. “They may be doing their best to relocate them or rescue them. That’s where I step in.”

Why do it? Beyond her love for animals of all shapes and sizes, Kirchgessner says she rehabs wildlife because animals don’t have a voice of their own. “Sometimes they need somebody to protect them, especially when they’re a very misunderstood animal.” She says possums are at the top of that list. They aren’t cute. They aren’t cuddly. They hiss at people, but they’re virtually harmless. “People think they carry rabies because they drool a lot. When something’s not cute, a lot of times they’re disregarded, but [possums] are very beneficial to the ecosystem,” she says.

Oravetz echoes this sentiment. “Opossums are extremely misunderstood creatures. They are very good for the environment,” she says. “It’s rare for them to carry rabies because they have a low body temperature. They eat thousands of ticks, which is excellent for keeping tick-born illnesses at bay. They eat venomous snakes.”

“Everything serves a purpose,” Kirchgessner adds, noting that the Amarillo area has an epidemic of Ehrlichia, a tick-borne disease that dogs can pass along to humans. “If you take [a possum] out of nature, you can cause a whole host of other problems. I’d rather have possums than ticks any day.”

The Skunk Lady
Skunks are another unappreciated species that often end up under the supervision of Wild West’s rehabbers. Most of the baby and juvenile skunks that arrive at Wild West are placed in the home of Shari Kloos. “We love her,” says Oravetz. “She loves skunks and even loves the smell.” She calls Kloos “our skunk lady.”

Kloos admits to it. “I don’t mind the smell. I’ve always kind of enjoyed it,” she says. Though she has been sprayed in the past, she says skunk spraying is a protective, defense measure meant to keep predators away. Young skunks don’t necessarily identify humans as predators. “When I get them from a young age, they don’t spray,” she says. “All they know is my hands feed them and scratch them and change their kennel. I’ve never been sprayed by one I had as a young skunk.”

A court reporter who commutes to Dumas each day, Kloos believes skunks are misunderstood simply because of that smell. “They are very sweet,” she says, describing the creatures as having the independence of a cat but a dog’s love of attention.

She began rehabbing with Oravetz after Wild West publicized a need for knitted nests for baby squirrels, rabbits and birds. Kloos had recently become an empty-nester – her three children are grown – and had been quietly rehabbing animals in her Olsen home for years without a permit. “I was just keeping things alive until they were able to survive on their own,” she says.

Kloos and her husband have three dogs, a cat and a bird, and take care to keep the animals separate from their pets. “I have a dedicated space outside that my dogs can’t get near, because you don’t want them to be familiar with dogs,” she says. “They need to be afraid of everything.”

In addition to skunks, she has helped care for raccoons, squirrels and birds. Kloos believes wild animal rehabilitation meets an innate personal need. “I’m a nurturer. I love being a mom but my kids are grown. I like being helpful,” she says.

She’ll even bring animals with her to work in Dumas, if they require constant supervision. “I may only have to do that for a couple weeks when they need to be fed during the day. But animals grow so fast. It’s for a limited time,” she says. Her coworkers are always excited to see what she brings to the office.

But Kloos doesn’t get attached. “My goal is for them to be free. I would never want these animals to be caged.”

Ready to Release
For animals at Wild West, their eventual release almost always takes place on protected and carefully selected land. “We try to pick areas that are native to the species,” says Oravetz. “Wildcat Bluff doesn’t have squirrels, so we would never release squirrels there. They don’t have a big water source, so we would never release water fowl out there. We don’t want to overpopulate an area, either. You have to keep those things in mind.”

All rabies-vector animals are vaccinated before release. “It’s to protect the public and protect that animal that we just invested all that time in,” she says. “We want him to be covered for three years with that vaccine.”

As more locals learn about Wild West (see below), Oravetz has enjoyed meeting people – from volunteers to those bringing her abandoned wildlife – who share her compassionate mindset. For every individual who considers prairie dogs or squirrels to be pests, she encounters another who truly cares. She likes to tell the story of an elderly gentleman in central Texas who once brought her a squirrel. “He had it wrapped in his favorite handkerchief,” she says. “The man had Parkinson’s and his hand was just shaking so bad but he was so passionate about making sure this squirrel got care. I love that. I love seeing the hearts of people.”

The animals, of course, don’t always return that compassion. With an eye toward their eventual release, Oravetz and her rehabbers try to limit any emotions related to the creatures, other than pride in how far they’ve come. “You might raise them and you think ‘I hope this guy wilds up because he sure loves coming to me,’” she says. “Then you get him in an outdoor enclosure for a week and he forgets you. You think, ‘Oh my god, I raised you since your eyes were closed, you little turd!’ But that’s why we do it. We will never keep something that can be released. Ever.”

Raccoons at the River
In May of this year, volunteer rehabber Shari Kloos found herself caring for four tiny raccoons. Two were females. Two were males. All were old enough for their eyes to be open – but just barely. The males were brothers, brought in by a Good Samaritan who had discovered them. At least one of the females had been rescued after her mother had been killed by a car.

“They were my first raccoons,” Kloos says. She fed them. She kept their cages clean. But she resisted the urge to cuddle or play with them because they needed to be afraid of humans, not friendly with them. “You go out and take care of them and leave. You can’t love them like you would your dog,” she says. Whenever she finds herself getting attached – like absentmindedly giving them names – she knows she’s going too far. “I have to remind myself that the goal is release,” she says. “That’s the best part. I know that every animal I put out there isn’t going to survive, but we give them the best chance they could have and that is very satisfying.”

For the baby raccoons, that release arrived less than four months later. As summer came to a close and the fall chill began to enter the air, they hadn’t yet become mature but had almost reached adult size. They were ready to thrive on their own.

Kloos and her husband, Brian, drove out to the Canadian River, an ideal natural habitat. Shari opened their enclosures to set them free amid the high grass and mud alongside the river.

The raccoons left the cages, but wouldn’t leave.

“All four followed me,” she says. “They were never around my husband so they were still afraid of him.” But Shari was familiar. She was the one who brought them food. They knew her.

Shari and Brian turned their backs to the river and tried to walk away. The raccoons kept following. She began to worry. Had they become too attached? Too secure? Had they accidentally become too “domesticated” to survive in the wild?

“We thought we were going to have to put them back in the car and take them with us,” she said.
But then.

The next part played out like a movie. “All of a sudden they stopped following us and looked at each other, then all four ran toward the water at the same time,” she says. Seizing the window of opportunity, Shari and Brian took off for their car. Reaching it, she turned back one more time. “I was afraid they were still going to be following us.”

All four raccoons crouched at the water’s edge. In unison, the wild creatures turned their heads back to Shari. “All four of them. They turned and looked at us at the same time” – as if getting one last look at the human who had saved them – “and then they started playing in the water.”

The moment was magic. “It was wow,” she says. “That’s my best memory. The call of the wild was much greater than security with us.”

Peanut Goes Viral


If you’ve heard of Wild West Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, it may be because you encountered a viral video of Peanut the prairie dog. Peanut loves humans. Videos on Wild West’s Facebook page show him receiving belly rubs and interacting with volunteers. “He was found running the streets and clearly was somebody’s pet because no wild prairie dog is going to let you pick him up,” says Stephanie Oravetz. “You won’t keep your fingers.” That fondness for people would not have allowed Peanut to survive in the wild. But it has allowed him to capture the attention of national media organizations and online video aggregators.

For educational purposes, Wild West also keeps a neutered and de-scented skunk named Stinkers, along with a gray fox and an opossum. The fox has a deformed sacrum that has left her lame. The possum had a flesh-eating bacteria that resulted in a leg amputation. “We’ve got to be practical on this stuff,” says Oravetz. “We don’t want to keep an animal just because we want that species. That’s selfish. If it’s stressed out and doesn’t like being in captivity, we don’t want it to live that way. We’ll only keep things that won’t have a chance out there and have the right personality for captivity or education.”

Coexist


Education is vital to Wild West’s mission, and Oravetz takes every opportunity to speak to schoolchildren. She believes it’s the key to teaching residents to coexist peacefully with wildlife.

“If a great-grandfather has been taught for generations that this one particular animal should be shot and killed as soon as you see it, I can’t teach him,” says. “But I can teach his great-granddaughter the benefits of that animal. When she’s outside with him and he’s about to [shoot], she can educate him and change his mind.”

For instance, destroying a prairie dog colony may impact 150 separate species that live in those colonies, from tiger salamanders to burrowing owls. “People tell me, ‘I eradicated all these coyotes and now I have a rodent problem.’ People annihilate prairie dogs and then wonder why the black-footed ferret is in danger,” she says, noting that the once-widespread prairie dog population in the American West has shrunk to 5 percent of what it once was. Relying upon prairie dogs for its diet, the black-footed ferret narrowly escaped extinction several decades ago.

“It’s a domino effect,” she says. “There’s a fine balance.”

Get Involved


While rehabbing wild animals takes a significant amount of training and oversight, Wild West is always in need of other types of volunteers. Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops have been helping prepare the new facility at Wildcat Bluff, and other volunteers are welcome to assist with the final elements of construction. Once the center opens, Oravetz will likely rely on a volunteer staff to help keep animals fed and cages cleaned.

In the meantime, Wild West needs donations, all of which go toward food and supplies for future animals as well as those currently under the supervision of rehabbers – who dedicate hours every week caring for animals without being paid. Visit wildwestwildlife.com to donate or see an Amazon wish list of frequently used items.

by Jason Boyett

Jason has written more than a dozen books and is the host and creator of “Hey Amarillo”, a local interview podcast. Visit heyamarillo.com and jasonboyett.com.
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