- Associated Press - Sunday, June 26, 2016

ROCKVILLE, Minn. (AP) - Linda Peck has two raccoons in the bathroom, five more in a pen outside, a robin on the back porch. In the basement, she’s raising mice to feed the raptors.

A wildlife rehabilitator for 30-plus years, Peck, 74, fields calls - and takes in animals - from throughout Minnesota.

The animals arrive injured, diseased, shot, poisoned - as many as 250 of them in a single year.

“I believe (animals) enrich our lives. They enrich mine, and I think if we don’t maintain a connection to the natural world we are losing some joy. We’re going to lose our own existence if we don’t learn how to live gently,” Peck said, explaining why she continues an effort that can be as heartbreaking as it is rewarding.

Last year, Peck received 154 animals for rehabilitation. The 29 species of birds and 11 species of mammals included 40 gray squirrels, 32 cottontail rabbits, 13 raccoons, 11 mallards and nine robins. Ninety of those animals were released, 32 died, 19 had to be euthanized, 12 were transferred and one was dead on arrival.

Linda Peck knows too well the reality of wildlife rehabilitation.

The St. Cloud Times (https://on.sctimes.com/1UfwnUW ) reports that she spent $2,000 feeding animals last year - sometimes feeding them milliliters at a time, sometimes feeding them every 20 minutes. Only the occasional donation helps offset the cost.

Peck is one of about 75 licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Minnesota, according to Heidi Cyr, Minnesota Department of Natural Resources wildlife rehabilitation program coordinator, DNR falconry program coordinator and issuer of wildlife education permits. She’s working to update the list of licensed rehabilitators and put everything online.

“Some don’t want to be found by the public,” Cyr said. “The rehabber can only rehabilitate certain animals. When they say they can’t take that animal, people get snippy. People just leave animals at their doorstep.”

Peck is a master rehabilitator and holds a federal permit that allows her to accept migratory birds. Being a master rehabilitator means she can take on apprentices - although those are in short supply. Cyr permitted four new rehabilitators this spring; none is in the pipeline.

The program isn’t likely to disappear. There’s not only public demand; the volunteers also help out conservation officers and other DNR staff, whose overarching mission is not centered on individual animals.

Because her name has been in the books for so long, Peck is often the first person Minnesotans outside the metro call. While individual rehabilitators’ operations are low key - Peck does the work with her husband, John Peck - the Twin Cities centers operate with hundreds of volunteers and tens of thousands of dollars.

The Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota in 2015 saw 11,995 animals, including 184 different species. Executive Director Phil Jenni said about 36 percent of all animals that come to the center are released. Some are too sick or injured for rehabilitation. About 52 percent of the animals that enter rehabilitation are released back into the wild.

The WRCM budget this year totals about $1,066,000 - all but about $20,000 (revenue from T-shirts and other sales) comes from a base of 12,000 donors. The 25 full-time staff members get help from about 600 volunteers. About 70 interns help out in the summer.

The Raptor Center at the University of Minnesota takes in 750-800 raptors a year, according to Executive Director Julia Ponder, who’s also a veterinarian.

About 55 percent of its $1.4 million budget comes from donations, 25-30 percent from earned income, 10-15 percent from tuition (faculty members teach for the College of Veterinary Medicine). Its 300 volunteers are the equivalent of 13 full-time employees.

Wildlife rehabilitation in the St. Cloud area started in the St. Cloud State University biology department in 1982, before there were so many rules and permits. Professors - among them, John Peck - and students took care of the animals during the day; one person took the animals home at night. The Pecks had already torn into their large dairy barn for a methane conversion project; when that fell through, they converted the building for wildlife rehabilitation.

No matter the location, the goal is the same.

“Your major responsibility is to keep them wild. You want them to be independent and not need you,” Linda Peck said. “You can’t make a wild animal a pet. It’s a death knell.”

At the Pecks, where minimizing human contact is easier, this year’s roster started with two lead-poisoned trumpeter swans that were transferred to the WRCM. It continued with a gray squirrel, pileated woodpecker, fox squirrel, a ring-billed gull pierced by fish hooks.

By May 26, spring was wearing on and the animal count was down.

That morning’s arrivals from another rehabber in Moorhead - a near-starving great horned owl and an injured merlin - occupied separate spaces in the barn.

The young robin on the porch had graduated from the cloth-covered, hand-knit, nest tucked into a Cool Whip container to a small cardboard box with a perch. It was adapting to a playpen covered with netting, lined with fresh fern fronds, containing a variety of perches.

Peck peeled back the netting, offered the robin a mealworm clasped in a pair of long tongs.

The bird gaped.

Peck patiently extended the worm. Eventually the bird will learn to take the food. Peck fed it a few more worms, dipping some in water first.

“So that’s one,” Peck said, heading outside to feed the raccoons.

The five outdoor raccoons - May 4 arrivals from Hewitt - climbed their wire cage as the Pecks carried out shallow bowls of food. They were learning to eat solids, getting the mixture all over their fur in the process. For a moment, it was easy to see how people could see the fuzzy critters as pets. (If a wildlife rehabilitator falls into that pattern, Cyr said others are quick to see it on social media and report it.)

Eventually, these raccoons will move into the silo that’s been scrubbed down with bleach to prevent the spread of ringworm. When the raccoons start to get ferocious, it’s the signal that it’s time for them to be released. For a month after the release, the Pecks will bring food to the release site, supplementing their diet as they learn to hunt.

The four mallard ducklings in a screen-covered cattle watering tank (its floor removed so the enclosure can be moved onto fresh grass) will be ready for release once their wings develop.

When the first mallard arrived solo, Peck outfitted a small box with a feather duster warmed by a heat lamp (a substitute for the hen) and a mirror (so the duckling wouldn’t think it was alone). The trio arrived five days later.

All four graduated from the porch to the yard where, from arm’s length, Peck dropped mealworms into the water.

Peck calls everyone who drops off an animal to let them know the outcome.

The duck trio, at least so far, has been one of the happy stories.

Pam Howard, an account manager for Medica, had found duckling trio on the sidewalk across from Walmart in Sartell. Seeing no hen, she scooped them up in her shirt and took them from one pond to another, trying to find other ducks.

No luck.

So she put them in a box and took them home. A neighbor had Peck’s number. Following Peck’s advice, the next morning Howard took the ducklings back to the Walmart ponds. She waited about 30 minutes at each site.

“I could not in good conscience leave them where they were in a parking lot without their mother. Something bad was going to happen to them. I did what my heart said was the right thing to do. It took like all day,” Howard said.

She named them Huey, Dewey and Louie. When nothing worked, she brought them to Peck - along with a $20 donation.

About a week later, she got a progress report.

“That’s probably it for me. I don’t want to bother (Peck). They’re wild animals, so it’s not like I’m going to visit a puppy,” Howard said.

___

Information from: St. Cloud Times, https://www.sctimes.com

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