Wildlife sanctuary in Abilene helps rehabilitate wild animals.
Registered Nurse Jennifer Kleinpeter has always had a passion for helping those in need – whether it is her patients at Hendrick Medical Center’s Heart Valve Clinic or the animals she cares for at the Big Country Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation.
The Alabama native and wildlife rehab specialist said caring for animals has always come naturally and provides a rewarding supplement to her day job.
“Everyone has something they enjoy doing outside of their career,” said Jennifer, whose role as wildlife rehabber was almost inevitable. “I grew up caring for the livestock that lived on our property and that just fell over into wildlife, since sometimes we would find abandoned deer or injured birds and squirrels.”
Jennifer said a phone call about four baby skunks set her on the path to becoming a wildlife rehabber – a choice that has since resulted in numerous rescues in the two years she has been in Abilene.
“A mutual friend needed help with some baby skunks and because no one here took skunks I drove them to the Wild West Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Amarillo – it was then that I realized there was a genuine need for a similar facility in the Abilene area,” she said.
License to Care
“No one around here was licensed to rehabilitate, so I started the process of getting certified through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department,” she said.
To get certified, one of the requirements involved volunteer hours, which she completed at Opossum World in Weatherford.
“It was there that I saw firsthand the work and cost involved in caring for abandoned and injured wildlife – it’s not all just playing with cute baby animals,” Jennifer said. “There was a lot of cleaning cages, feeding and helping them potty – not to mention the cost of medical supplies and formula.”
Today she has her sub permit with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and is working toward her license. Part of her role as a wildlife rehabilitation specialist is not only responding to calls about animals in need, but also informing the public regarding the specific needs of wildlife and the role they play in our ecosystem.
“Without wildlife our lives would literally not be possible,” Jennifer said. “We don’t just share this world with these beautiful creatures – we all share this world for a common purpose. Our wildlife keeps our ecosystems alive, which keep us alive. Take vaccines and medicines for example – many have been developed from our wildlife and have saved millions of people, so we all have to work together to make sure these animals have the best chance to live healthy, happy lives in their natural habitat.”
Part of this goal is educating people on what to do when encountering a sick, injured or seemingly abandoned animal – and dispelling some common but incorrect assumptions.
“A lot of people are concerned when they see a skunk or raccoon out during the day and automatically think the animal is sick or has rabies,” Jennifer said. “But especially if it’s spring or summer, the mothers are typically out because they are trying to provide for their offspring.”
She said signs pointing to illness include walking in circles, stumbling, lethargy, aggression or not displaying fear toward humans.
“If an animal isn’t displaying any worrying signs and symptoms, then they’re just minding their own business and trying to take care of their babies, so harming them can have tragic consequences for their young,” she said.
For example, February through March is skunk breeding season, so during the spring and summer, many mother skunks are out looking for food while the babies are waiting for their mothers’ to come back. If an animal is shot or otherwise killed, Jennifer said, its babies are orphaned and are either left to die or if they do somehow make their way out of their homes, they are often discovered by a well meaning person.
“Never, under any circumstances, feed an orphaned animal; instead keep it warm with a blanket or heating pad on a low setting until an expert can be consulted” she said. “People think they are helping the animal, but actually each species of wildlife has different nutritional needs and metabolizes foods differently. They require specific formula and if fed anything else the animal could die.”
Jennifer said for example, cat or kitten food – which most people would assume to be good to feed an animal such as a skunk or a squirrel – can be fatal because of the high fat and protein content.
“People should never feed wildlife, since they could potentially be giving them the wrong nutrition. Also, they need to realize that by feeding these animals, they are actually causing them to lose their innate fear of humans, which could potentially jeopardize their life.”
Jennifer said it is also imperative not to try and move orphaned or injured wildlife, unless instructed to do so by a wildlife rehab expert.
“If someone thinks an animal needs intervention, never pick it up, particularly if it is injured,” she said, adding that “animals stick to about a five-mile radius, so don’t trap or move an animal to another location –doing so will disorient it and decrease survival chances.”
“There might be a dehydrated baby skunk alone in the grass, baby raccoons who have fallen out of their tree because their mother was killed because she was seen during the day foraging for food or orphaned squirrels looking for their mother who may have been hit by a car,” she said.
Another all-too-common reason Jennifer said she is contacted is because of what are assumed to be abandoned bunnies.
“Most people don’t realize that mother bunnies only visit their babies twice and that’s it, in order to protect them from predators, so someone might see a nest of baby bunnies and assume they have been abandoned when in fact they have not,” she said.
Jennifer added, however, that bunnies don’t make deep nests, so it is important for people to walk around their yards and look for nests, so lawnmowers won’t hit them.
Jennifer said that sometimes animals arrive in her care by well-intentioned people who have inadvertently “kidnapped” the babies, assuming that they needed help, while other animals come to her sick or injured.
“Wildlife rehabbers don’t get much sleep during the spring and summer, as we are up feeding orphans throughout the night, missing our own meals to ensure our babies have full bellies and are warm,” she said, adding that her favorite animals to rehabilitate are skunks.
“They have such great little personalities, like dogs and cats, and they make such cute little noises,” she said.
In addition to receiving calls about animals, who have been found and are presumed to be orphaned, Jennifer said her rehab facility also acquires animals through people who found what they believed to be an orphaned baby and attempted to raise them in their homes.
“We’ve had calls about animals found and kept as babies that have since grown and are now out of control because their hormones are raging. They go from being these cute, small babies to being wild, aggressive and hard to control,” she said. “Unfortunately when this happens, these animals are either euthanized or forced to live out the rest of their lives in captivity since they could never be assimilated back into the wild.”
Regardless of how cute and cuddly these animals are, Jennifer stresses that not only is it against the law to keep wild animals as pets, it can potentially lead to deadly consequences, not only for the animals themselves, but also for humans and domestic pets residing in the home.
“Finders think these animals are cute because they’re babies, but they could be incubating a disease such as rabies or distemper,” she said. “We’ve had calls from people who keep an animal until it falls ill, at which point any person or pet in the family is potentially at risk.”
Jennifer said Big Country Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation ensures each animal in her care receives love and proper nutrition, and also all necessary vaccinations.
“A lot of people wonder why we vaccinate against rabies, canine and feline distemper and parvo, since – after all – animals don’t receive vaccines in the wild,” she said. “I tell people to think about a pandemic that is nearly 100% fatal, is as contagious as the common cold and has a 7 to 10-day incubation period.”
Jennifer goes on to explain that most of the animals in her care have weakened immune systems, making them perfect candidates for life-saving vaccines.
“These animals are vulnerable and are all in one location at our rescue, so it makes sense for them to be vaccinated,” she said.
Jennifer said that habitats are shrinking and as a result it is important that people respect and learn to coexist with wildlife, not just for the animals’ benefit but for the health of the planet.
“We adhere to the One Health view shared by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization that states that ‘our health, as humans, depends on the wellness of the world around us and the health of the wild neighbors who share our planet.’”
Big Country Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation, formerly called The Little Rehab That Could, works solely from donations as well as volunteer and community support. Donations are accepted through Venmo at Jennifer-kleinpeter220 or PayPal at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information, questions or to make a donation, contact Big Country Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation at 325-280-1328 or find them on Facebook. General information is available through the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department at www.tpwd.texas.gov or 1-800-792-1112.
There is also a free app available from the App Store or on www.ahnow.org called Animal Help Now! It allows the user to immediately get in contact with an animal rehab specialist.
By Molly Hill