- Associated Press - Saturday, June 27, 2015

LOUISVILLE, Neb. (AP) - Tucked away in a bathroom strewn with branches from a downed cottonwood is the current star of the Nebraska Wildlife Rehab Inc. rescue operations.

It’s an albino porcupine - a rarity for the group. Halsey, as she’s known for now, was recently picked up, seriously injured, from a roadway near the Sand Hills town of the same name. In Nebraska, porcupines are more commonly found west of Grand Island, the Omaha World-Herald (http://bit.ly/1IxceDw ) reported.

Her coloring also is unusual, the result of a genetic anomaly. And her image has gone well beyond the state since Nebraska conservation photographer Michael Forsberg posted a photo on Instagram and National Geographic Creative shared it on a blog.

But Halsey, aside from her poster child status, also is part of a surge in orphaned and injured animals and birds this spring that is straining space, supplies and volunteer staff at the rescue group’s center in Louisville and at its scattered holding areas and release sites on private property in the region.

Laura Stastny, the group’s executive director, said the number of animals and birds the group has received has increased steadily over the last several years.

More people know about the group and its mission, which includes handling all the wildlife received by the Nebraska Humane Society. More folks also have become inclined to save wildlife.

Even given those factors, however, this year has been an anomaly, she said. The organization already has received more than 2,000 critters, about 600 more than the average seen by now in recent years. And it still has some of its busiest months - the rest of June, July and August - to go.

“I can keep my fingers crossed, but I don’t think it’s going to slow down,” said Stastny, noting that wildlife rescue groups in Sioux City and Minneapolis are similarly ahead of pace this year.

So the organization is reaching out for additional support in caring for animals. In the short term, it needs funds for extra food and caging and supplies such as newspapers and towels, small stuffed animals to tuck in with orphaned babies in quarantine and heavy-duty dog and parrot toys to keep busy a record number of young raccoons. They’re particularly costly to rehabilitate because of the time and food required.

In the longer term, the group is seeking funds to pay for full-time staff to help recruit, coordinate and train volunteers - it now has about 70 - and to buy land where it can set up larger, permanent outdoor cages. Wildlife are placed in the outdoor enclosures for the final stage of their rehabilitation before they’re released, typically on the property of willing landowners.

The organization now is staffed by volunteers. Stastny is paid part time, and the group hires some staff on a part-time basis in the summer. With the large number of animals it has taken in recently, however, the group has had to bump the staff to full-time hours.

Stastny said the group would like to acquire 40 to 100 acres within 30 minutes of Omaha. Eventually, it would like to build a specialized wildlife rehabilitation center and hospital. Slate Architecture of Omaha is drawing up plans, pro bono, for a future center.

For years, the organization operated entirely out of volunteers’ homes. In 2010, it moved into its first official headquarters, a two-story building at the Ash Grove Cement Co. plant in Louisville. Ash Grove donated the building.

With the recent surge in animals, the organization has set up nurseries in the upper floor of the building as well as on the main floor and basement. During a week this month, it housed 350 animals, from birds to turtles, not counting those in homes or on private properties. A batch of rabbits already has been released.

Also among the critter complement were a couple of woodchucks, a host of opossums and four coyotes. Two of the orphan coyotes were captured near David City. Volunteers still are trying to catch three siblings so they, too, can be treated for mange. One, which was being kept apart in Stastny’s office, has a broken leg.

Each species requires a specific diet and special handling in order to prepare it for release. To teach the juvenile northern flickers to pick insects out of trees, handlers will smear peanut butter on a surface and stick mealworms on it.

Stastny said more than 90 percent of animals come in because of a negative encounter with people. She urged people to be mindful of wildlife, both when driving and when deciding whether to pick up baby animals.

Rabbits and deer, in particular, often leave their babies for relatively long stretches while foraging. Many animals now are on the move, and they often have to cross roads to get where they’re going.

Halsey’s leg, nasal bone and incisors - her front chewing teeth - were broken in her accident. She also had a large open wound down her tail and lost many of the quills in her lower back and tail.

Stastny said she’s already doing a lot better, although she’s still being hand-fed as her incisors come back in. For now, the cottonwood branches aren’t for eating but to help make her comfortable.

While the group’s state permit requires it to euthanize most animals too badly injured to release, Halsey is different, Stastny said. She could go to a Nebraska zoo if she can’t be released. The Lincoln Children’s Zoo already has expressed interest.

The group would not release an albino prey animal because it would be too vulnerable. But Halsey, despite her coloring, comes with natural defenses against predators: quills and a strong odor.

Said Stastny, “She’s starting to really perk up and get a lot more energy.”

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Information from: Omaha World-Herald, http://www.omaha.com

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