How to Begin Wildlife Rehabilitation on Your Farm

We speak to an experienced rehabilitator about helping animals in need and protecting livestock while maintaining balance in a farm's ecosystem.

by Karen Lanier
PHOTO: Ame Vanorio

Do you care about wildlife? As a farmer or gardener, that’s a loaded question. Where do you draw the line between fighting off and creating barriers against wild animals to save your crops versus creating habitat that welcomes them and supports them? Ame Vanorio, founder and director of Fox Run Environmental Education Center in Falmouth, Kentucky, (pictured below) is a wildlife rehabilitator and self-reliant homesteader. She shares her insights about balancing these important roles.

wildlife rehab rehabilitation

What Does a Wildlife Rehabilitator Do?

In Vanorio’s words, “The role of the wildlife rehabber is ‘to help the animal find their inner wild.’ The goal is to release the animal back into the wild. We don’t play with the babies or let them interact with our pets. We want them to develop those natural instincts so that they will be safe and healthy when we release them.”

Having an established homestead is a great foundation for beginning to rehab wild animals.

“I look at the garden and think, ‘What can I plant that will be good for me and for wildlife?’” Vanorio says.

She grows food and medicine for her patients, and a Girl Scout troop recently built a special garden just for injured turtles. They researched the best plants, built the frame, and planted it full of good veggies.

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wildlife rehab rehabilitation turtle garden
Ame Vanorio

What Wild Animals Can a Farm Start Rehabilitating?

It’s not as easy as you might think.

“I have learned from experience that deer are not like goats (even though they are both ruminants), and baby bunnies are a far cry from domestic ones,” Vanorio says.

Some specialized equipment and preparation is required, depending on the animals. A series of shots, pre-exposure rabies vaccines, are required if you want to handle certain mammals that could carry rabies, for example. Vanorio recommends focusing on the animals you are passionate about and checking the applicable laws of your state. It’s important to thoroughly understand the wild animal’s habitat. Vanorio recommends a helpful book called Wild Mammal Babies: The First 48 Hours and Beyond.

wildlife rehab rehabilitation baby squirrels
Ame Vanorio

Vanorio grows her own food; cares for injured, orphaned, and sick wildlife; and provides educational programs for all ages in addition to working a full-time job. How does she do it all? Any farmer can relate to her work schedule.

“It’s just a never-ending flow from one thing to another,” Vanorio says. “Life is all about balance. Some days everything aligns, and some days it doesn’t. I revolve with the seasons. Spring is crazy busy with planting and baby animals, and I’m lucky to get three hours of sleep. But winter is quieter, and I have more time for reading and art and a full night’s sleep.”

Vanorio has been known to bottle feed baby opossums and raccoons with one hand while typing on her computer with the other.

What Motivates a Wildlife Rehabilitator?

Education is a big part of Vanorio’s work, no doubt influenced by her own upbringing. She believes in the importance of kids understanding how wildlife families work, rather than separating and segmenting a wild animal from where it belongs.

“I have always loved the outdoors and all creatures,” Vanorio says. “I am passionate about wildlife and believe we need to treat wildlife with compassion and respect. We are all part of the circle. I am part Native American and learned to gather herbs and mushrooms with my great grandmother and my aunt, who were very interested in traditional ways.”

She says she was raised on a farm, and whenever a wild animal was found hurt or sick, the men on the farm would bring it to her.

“I went on to study science in school and worked for National Wildlife Federation,” she says. “During college I saw that so many people were disconnected from nature, and it was very sad. So I decided to do what I could to help others learn about organic agriculture and wildlife.”

Advice for a prospective wildlife rehabilitator comes with some stark facts. There’s no money in wildlife rehab work. Jobs in the field are few and far between.

“Wildlife rehab is a passion, not a career,” Vanorio says. “Many rehabbers have jobs or have a spouse willing to support their passion.”

Vanorio established her nonprofit business so she could accept donations for building enclosures.

“Eighty percent of the money to run my nonprofit comes out of my own pocket,” she says. “Only about 20 percent of people who drop off wildlife actually make a donation. Most people want free classes and don’t want to pay.”

wildlife rehab rehabilitation raccoons
Ame Vanorio

What Should You Do if You Find an Animal That Needs Help?

It depends on whether you believe it is orphaned, sick or injured. If orphaned, in most cases you should just give it plenty of space and wait for its mother to return. If sick or injured, call a wildlife rehabilitator. Vanorio provides more details on each of these scenarios on her website, and another good resource is Second Chances Wildlife Center. Above all, do not attempt to give the animal food, milk or even water. Without knowing its injuries, you could do more harm. If you need to keep an injured animal safe until a rehabber arrives, keep it contained, warm and quiet.

Here are directories and links to wildlife rehabilitators. It’s best to check with your state’s wildlife agency, which is likely to maintain current lists of licensed rehabbers in your area. Don’t be too surprised if you don’t find one near you. Because of the volunteer nature of the effort, for example, Vanorio is the only licensed rehabber in a seven-county region.

wildlife rehab rehabilitation turtle repaired shell
Ame Vanorio

Tempted to Care for Wildlife Yourself?

Leave it to the experts, as hard as it might be. In most states, it is illegal to have any wildlife in your possession without the required license or permit. That’s also a good reason not to keep wild animals as pets, in addition to the ecological impact their removal causes and the stress inflicted on the captive animal.

Are You Ready for Wildlife Rehab on Your Farm?

Start by volunteering with another rehabber. Then take the Basic Wildlife class taught by International Wildlife Rehabilitators Council. Every state has different requirements for rehabilitators, and the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association can guide your next steps.

Taking care of injured, orphaned or sick wildlife can be a challenging and heartbreaking endeavor, yet it can be managed well on a farm. Vanorio reflects her values around rehab and farm life: “For me, homesteading is about being part of nature, of nurturing young plants and baby animals, of connecting with the land. So in my way of homesteading, I protect my chickens from predators and work to make my barnyard a safe place. But I don’t go and kill the predators on my farm because that would throw my ecosystem out of whack. Predators are an important part of our ecosystems and should be respected.”

She sums up her reasons for going to all the effort she does to include wildlife in her farm with this: “It’s the right thing to do.”

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