Our companions on the earth

It came as naturally as breathing. For as far back as I have memories, there has been an intangible something between animals and me. Perhaps it began with the one-eyed teddy bear that shared my crib or with those forlorn, flea-bitten felines I dragged home . . . solemnly assuring my mother they had ''followed'' me. When they began doing their pussycat thing, I retrieved the prey from their reluctant jaws and paws. As a result, my room was littered with boxes containing recuperating birds, rodents, and reptiles. Convinced I possessed a magic wand, my young friends began bringing in all the little creatures they could find, including some long-dead specimens!

Fortunately, I was blessed with parents who, in their own distinctive ways, kept me constantly aware of God and His marvelous creations. My dad taught me to see not just forest and field, but the structure of the leaves and the way the grass moved with the wind. My mother, though loving and compassionate, was not much of an animal buff, probably because she was the one who mopped up after my pets and who gingerly picked fuzzy caterpillars and garter snakes from my pinafore pockets. But whenever the cats were ''off their paws,'' it was she who made catnip tea and warmed milk laced with butter, pepper, and salt.

While my mother tolerated my obsession with animals, my dad catered to it. As a motherless twelve-year-old, he had gone to work in the woods, carrying lunches to the lumberjacks. For sixty-three of his eighty-four years, he was employed in the forest as camp cook, river driver, timber cruiser, game warden, fire warden, guide, and runner of the first telephone lines. He introduced me to wildlings by bringing them home for me to observe, releasing them later in their natural habitat.

Because of the awareness my parents instilled in me, God was a constant presence in my life, contributing to the deep feelings I had for His creatures. My faith was compounded one day when I found a limp little bird on the lawn. I recall holding it in my hand, whispering to God. Suddenly, the bird spread its wings and flew into a nearby lilac bush. Perhaps it had only been stunned, but it was such an awesome experience, something very personal between God and me, I never revealed it to anyone.

To work well with wildlings, a person must have deep love and concern for them. It's a silent communication which animals sense and to which they respond. How often I've opened the door to find men standing there with heavily gloved hands holding baby foxes and raccoons by the scruffs of their necks. Hissing and snarling, the little ones unsuccessfully tried to refute the terror in their eyes. The moment I gathered them close to me, murmuring ''mama'' sounds, they crumpled into whimpering bundles of fur as they clung desperately to their newly found security.

Aware of my love for animals, people have occasionally brought distressed creatures to me over the years . . . but, it wasn't until the 1970s that things began to snowball.

When a stranger wantonly shot a mother woodchuck, my husband and I dug her litter of five from their burrow. I recorded the hectic happenings of raising the young 'chucks and sent the brief bulletins to a potpourri column in Maine's largest daily newspaper. The reader response was rather overwhelming, as people began bringing wildlings to us from all corners of the state. We even received two swallows from Oregon and a young raccoon from a Massachusetts animal hospital.

Happily, my husband shares my feelings for animals and, although he doesn't participate in the feedings and rehabilitation, he dutifully stumbles out of bed when those midnight crises occur. Many a black night he's shimmied up a tree to net an escapee, whacked an emergency cage together, or driven miles to pick up an injured animal.

We soon discovered that rehabilitating wildlife, although a rewarding experience, was a highly expensive hobby. As the ''borning season'' influx rose from thirty-five to over two hundred, we suffered a shortage of shelter space and worried about how we were going to finance the next bag of feed. We brought many of the wildlings into our own living quarters, borrowed on our life insurance policies, let the policies lapse, mortgaged our property, and began sliding into debt.

Husband John, who was supposed to be retired, had to be ''recycled'' as he turned his woodworking hobby into a business to help finance the Fodder Fund. Still, the worrisome days became downright anguishing days and at length panic set in when we realized we couldn't continue without help. How could we turn away the wildlings in need? Where could we dispose of the in-residence birds and beasts?

As my grandmother often remarked, ''It's always darkest before the dawn.'' When the future seemed as dark as it could possibly be, the dawn came. Upon learning we were being forced to end our rehabilitation work, animal lovers came to our aid. Many would like nothing better than to do what we're doing, but have neither the facilities nor the expertise; they stabilized the Fodder Fund and became involved in the survival and recovery of our wildlings. They can also be credited with the recovery of our peace of mind!

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