IT'S 9 in the morning, and Frances Poe is already in her mini-barn with three solid hours of work behind her. A spring rain is on its way, and thunder thumps from the cloud ceiling. But that's not enough to drown out the bird chorus of quackings, cawings, and honkings. Mrs. Poe lives in a big house in a posh suburb on the North Shore of Chicago, so you might expect her to give big, posh garden parties on her shaded grounds.
Instead, this gentle matron tends a menagerie of wildlife -- numbering about 75 -- which includes coyote and condor, lots of raccoons, opossums, rabbits, and birds of different feathers, plus monkeys, woodchucks, deer, and . . . skunks.
People from as far away as Indiana and Wisconsin make their way to Poe's doorstep, toting their hurt and helpless ``findings'' in laundry baskets, boxes, cages, and swaddlings of paper tissue.
For 30 years, Poe has operated this animal haven. Licensed by both the Illinois Conservation Department and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, she cares for mammals and birds that have been injured or displaced in their encounters with people. Some have been hit by cars, some shot, and others just caught in the crush of civilization.
``Skunks have a genius for tumbling into window wells,'' Poe says. ``And raccoons are always having their babies in chimneys -- their substitute for a hollow tree.''
And when they do, people always bring them to Frances Poe.
``But nobody brings in the deer,'' Poe says. ``I have to pick those up wherever they are.'' Most deer she collects have a broken leg but can still run and kick violently. In transit in the back seat of her Cadillac, their legs are tied, and they're tranquilized.
Poe is definitely a take-it-in-stride type of woman who has had to roll more than once with the punches, clawings, and bites she gets while working with frightened wildlife. Once her animal charges are finally on their feet again and ready to return to the wild, she takes them -- in that same Cadillac -- about 30 miles to Crabtree Nature Center, a Cook County forest preserve, which covers 1,000 acres.
Clad in khaki shirt and slacks, Poe wears her hair pulled back in a bun. She's a woman who dropped life's frills long ago to get at its core. And she possesses a portion of that special individualism reserved for the Georgia O'Keeffes of the world. Few women did Poe's type of work 30 years ago, and certainly not in this North Shore setting. Even today, running a grand hotel for creatures of forest and field is not exactly a popular pastime.
This particular morning she is plunged into that exacting business. Almost the moment she greets a visiting reporter, the barn phone rings. Poe answers. (An opossum problem.) ``Well, what does it look like?'' she asks. ``No, no, it's not a big rat. It's an opossum. Bring it in. We'll take care of it.''
Poe then peers into the hutch where a coyote cowers. ``Frightened,'' she says. ``Still so frightened.'' About three weeks ago, the coyote turned up in a church courtyard in a Chicago suburb. Police noosed him and presented him to Poe. She's now trying to find a safe place to release him, explaining that the coyotes at Crabtree preserve are set up in families and probably won't accept him -- may even kill him.
Sharing the barn with the wild specimens are some domestic mama cats, all expecting. Once their litters arrive, ``they'll adopt the baby raccoons,'' Poe says. ``And I can't wait.'' At present, Poe is hand-feeding 10 newborn raccoons on a three-hour schedule round the clock. That's why the raccoons are housed in boxes that sit on heating pads in an upstairs bathroom.
``I don't want to trek up and down stairs all night long for feedings,'' Poe explains.
The raccoons' neighbors are seven baby rabbits, thumb-sized. They, too, get fed with an eye dropper.
The phone rings again. Poe answers. (A squirrel problem.) ``If the mother's around, leave it alone,'' she says. ``Oh. You're sure the mother was hit? I'll take it then.''
Poe threads her way past the coops and cages, through the porch-turned-aviary, through her kitchen where the owls stay, to the front lawn, where about 200 ducks gather in the winter.
Poe's husband joins us, and she introduces him. ``Jimmy Evans,'' she says playfully. ``That was unusual back then, too -- keeping our own names. But we did.'' The one-time high school sweethearts have been married for 50 years.
Mr. Evans is dressed in suit and tie, attire that belies his adaptation to life amid the animals. But adapt he has.
``I had to like animals; otherwise I couldn't survive,'' he says, giving his wife a friendly poke.
A retired radio and TV sportscaster, Evans now helps his wife with the refuge work. One of his key chores is to shop for and lug home the 400 pounds of dry feed used monthly -- along with an assortment of apples, bananas, carrots, and zucchini. Hay, too. Poe and Evans set up a trust to finance the wildlife work, and they estimate the operation now costs $50,000 annually.
How did she get into this venture?
``By mistake,'' says Poe, who 30 years ago was a commercial artist with her own studio in Chicago.
``One day I found a bird,'' she explains. ``So I kept her, and she lived 12 years. But after six years I found I should have had a permit. So I got a permit. Then the conservation department and the police and everybody started bringing me stuff because I was a legal custodian. And I was stuck.''
Year by year the project grew, until now between 500 and 700 animals and birds arrive annually at the refuge.
The phone rings again. Poe answers. (A goose with a fish hook in its foot.) ``Well, you won't be able to catch her outside,'' she says. ``You've got to lure her into your house. Yes, into your house. Just take some bread and. . . .''
Evans starts to laugh. ``There's only one like her,'' he says. ``Absolutely only one.''