The volunteers at Wild & Free have many stories to share about the wildlife they care for that have been injured or orphaned. Creature friends include fawns, bears, eagles, hawks, owls, fox, swans, loons, ducks, bobcats, rabbits, squirrels, raccoons and even turtles.
The nonprofit wildlife program’s mission is to professionally rehabilitate wildlife, educate the community and promote the conservation of the natural environment.
Veterinarians Dr. Deb Eskedahl, who founded the organization in 1985 in Anoka, and Dr. Katie Baratto are the vets at the Garrison Animal Hospital, which was opened in 1990 by Dr. Deb. The hospital not only treats domestic pets in the community but wild animals as well in cooperation with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and concerned citizens.
Wild & Free is the only organization in Minnesota that is certified by the DNR to care for bears. While the volunteers can release the other rehabilitated animals, the DNR is in charge of releasing the bears.
Wild & Free was based at the animal hospital for the first few years, but soon there was not enough space. Since the organization is not funded by federal or state monies, memberships, donations and fundraisers are important financial sources. In 2004, an insulated building that serves as the rehabilitation facility was constructed on 17 acres of wooded land in Garrison. The new location, referred to as “the site,” has allowed the organization to expand its activities, improve the care of the animals and allows space for long-term care.
Because of their love for animals, three of the many active volunteers who work with Wild & Free are Bob and Char Wrobel, of Garrison, and Penny Koehler, of Deerwood.
It’s not uncommon for the Wrobels to take baby birds home and feed them every 15 minutes in order that they will survive.
“We recently released some goslings on our lake,” Char, a retired schoolteacher, said. “We put the crates by the water to acclimate them for a while and then we released them. They still come back in the yard at times, but they’re doing well.”
“Since the lakes were still frozen, we were going to send him to Florida by plane,” Bob said, “but when we called down to the Nature Center, they suggested keeping him, as all the other pelicans that they had received from other parts of the country had died due to the stress of the plane flight.”
It was an early spring in 2012, and the ice went out on Borden Lake near Garrison in late March, so Bill was released on the lake.
Bob added, “We assumed that he would join the flocks of pelicans that stop on Borden for the night on their way north. When they flew in, Bill would join in with them all evening, and when they left in the morning, Bill was still there. This happened time and again until the spring migration of pelicans was complete, and Bill was still there.”
The pelican stayed all spring and summer and would swim up to boats of fishermen, stick his head in the boat to see if they had any pan fish or minnows to share, which many fishermen did. He also flew back and forth to Mille Lacs Lake, one mile east, but seemed to like Borden best.
“When fall arrived, we assumed that Bill would fly south with the other pelicans that stopped by on their way south. Again, Bill would join them in the evening, and when they flew south in the morning, Bill stayed on Borden Lake.”
In October of last year, knowing that the pelican wasn’t going to leave, Dr. Deb Eskedahl captured Bill. An airline ticket was purchased, and Bill was placed into a large pet carrier and safely flown to Florida. He was watched for a few days and then released by the Nature Center staff.
“They told us he was doing great and had joined the other pelicans in the area and spent the winter in warm Florida,” Bob said. “If he flew north for the summer, he must have gone somewhere else, as we have not seen him on Borden this year.”
A couple of years ago, the DNR brought three bear cub siblings weighing between 4 and 6 pounds to Wild & Free in March and a fourth cub was brought in a week later. The cubs were fed milk daily by the volunteers along with a variety of fruit. When the weather was warm enough, the cubs were released into the site’s half-acre fenced bear pen, where they romped and played. In the fall, acorns were donated by the public. The volunteers enjoyed watching the bears from the deck of the building as they played in the donated bathtub filled with water or scamper around in a game of bear tag.
Later that fall, the DNR came to release them back into the wild in far northern Minnesota. The three small female cubs had grown to over 100 pounds and the large male weighed over 140 pounds.
Bob noted that in order to feed the bear cubs, the volunteer must wear a costume made from a sheet and camouflage netting placed over the head. Dressed in this disguise, the volunteers bring food into the bear pen. The costume is worn so that the young bears do not associate humans with food.
In August, Wild & Free was caring for five bear cubs, 15 fawns, three coyote pups, one duckling, a red-tailed hawk, three gray fox kits, bunnies, squirrels and numerous migratory birds. Every animal is identified with different colored collars and records are kept for each one’s medical information and feeding.
Once again, the public is encouraged to donate acorns to Wild & Free. They will be fed to the bears, which are released after deer hunting season and before hibernation.
The volunteers emphasized that the majority of the fawns that are brought to Wild & Free should not be there as they have not been abandoned by their mothers.
“If you pick up the fawn and take it away, the mother is probably watching,” Bob said. “The best thing to do is walk away and to go back in a few hours to see if it is still there. In most cases, the fawn is gone, as the mother has returned for it.” If the fawn is crying and wandering around, it may be the time to take action, but first call the Garrison Animal Hospital (218-692-4180) to find out what is best for the fawn.
Penny Koehler, the volunteer coordinator for Wild & Free, owned a real estate business for 38 years with her husband near Corcoran before retiring in 2008 and moving to their lake home near Deerwood.
“I joined because I loved animals, and I wanted to make new friends,” she said. “When I stopped to find out about Wild & Free, Char told me that if I love animals, this was the place to be. She was right!”
Penny helps to coordinate the many fundraisers held throughout the year, including a garage sale, the gala dinner, brat sales, and also hosting booths at various events to promote Wild & Free. She also is heard frequently on area radio stations speaking about the organization and its fundraisers. Penny stressed that volunteers are always needed, not only to care for the animals, but to help with the fundraisers or to do secretarial work. Volunteers who work at least 10 hours per year are honored at an appreciation dinner.
In order to care for the animals, all volunteers are required to complete an annual training program in the spring conducted by Dr. Deb, Dr. Katie, and the vet techs at the hospital.
To promote education about wildlife, Bob and Char, who have lived near Garrison for over 30 years, present programs to various service organizations, schools, churches, nursing homes, senior citizen centers, and welcome other volunteers to join them.
Before larger birds, such as eagles or hawks, are released, they are tethered to make sure they are able to fly. When eagles are ready to be released, they are sent to the Raptor Center in Minneapolis, which is part of the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medicine Program.
For those people who may be critical of the wildlife program, the medical staff and volunteers believe that if anyone is willing to put the effort and time into bringing an animal in to be treated, they will take time to treat the animal.
Individuals or businesses are invited to become a member of Wild & Free. Memberships are $20 for individuals, $30 for a family, $50 for a business and $300 for a lifetime membership. Every member receives the quarterly newsletter, The Trumpeter, and monthly e-mail updates.
For more information on Wild & Free, call (218) 692-4180, or check its website at www.wildandfree.org.