My own private wildlife sanctuary

My backyard became a nature preserve for healed animals.

WILDLIFE: A young great horned owl chews the limb of a pine tree at Giant Springs State Park near Great Falls, Mont.

We couldn't pass up a chance to personally open the draped cage for the captive animal, granting it freedom. And so Charlie started the bidding to do the honors for a rehabilitated barn owl.

It was a fine way to encourage donations at the park-based fundraiser for Wild Care Inc., an organization in Bloomington, Ind., that provides a home and hospital for sick and injured wild animals. The organization helps rehabilitate these animals and releases them back to nature.

This owl had been struck by a car, but was now healed and ready to go. We deferred to deeper pockets as bidders generously upped the ante to several hundred dollars.

It was a thrill to watch other hands swing open the mesh door, and view the dark rush of feathery energy exit the cage – the owl's wide open wings powering it to a treetop.

After getting its bearings, it spiraled down to an area of heavy brush. The crowd, applauding, gave the thicket wide margin, allowing the owl time to come to terms with the suddenly bewildering possibilities of its new freedom.

Finding the right place for releases like this is challenging in an area of rapid residential growth. A park in the heart of a small city may work for a bird, but ground-bound animals, encountering roads on all perimeters, would be at risk.

And so one evening Charlie and I filled out a form inviting the organization to come to our farm with whatever rodents, larger mammals, birds, or reptiles needed a fresh start on a large rural plot.

Our 80 acres sprawled back into a wooded nature preserve, making it all the more attractive as habitat. It is already home to deer, turkeys, foxes, raccoons, groundhogs, and black snakes.

While I was away, Charlie introduced a pair of orphaned raccoon cubs that had grown old enough for release. When I returned, Charlie walked me to the spring-fed creek in the back pasture bordering the woods where the pair had scuttled off from their cages. Because it was October and the spring was dry, he had filled a container with water and had occasionally walked back with peanuts, grapes, and table scraps.

The young sibling coons weren't the only animals likely to be availing themselves of the food, but we hoped they'd benefited – our idea was to give them a nourishing head start, then gradually taper off the largess.

Yesterday I walked back to the spot with a few bread ends and carrots, my food-worshipping black Lab incredulous at being left behind. I emptied the water container beside the rain-replenished spring and scattered the food, finding no trace of previous scraps. There was no sign of the raccoons either.

Perhaps they filled their bellies with nuts and made their way to the wider preserve and lake by now. We'll scatter food a few more times, then stop until new arrivals need a head start.

Meanwhile, every time I see an owl by the barn I'll wonder if it might be the one we didn't release.

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