Gentle Creatures Given Second Chance

by | Apr 1, 2012 | Features

Back in the 1970’s there was a popular television show loosely based on a mountain man named Grizzly Adams. Adams saw it as his duty to protect nature and wildlife. The show’s introduction featured a narrative by Adam’s friend, Mad Jack, owner of the cantankerous mule Ol’ Number Seven. Mad Jack told some of the history of Grizzly Adams, why he came to the mountains, and that Adams “just had a special kind of way with the animals.” Some folks still have a special kind of way with the animals.
Sheila Johnson Williams of Hagarville has been a wildlife rehabilitator for about 50 years.
“I started when I was about nine years old. I’ve just always loved animals and my mom was very understanding. Living in the Ozark Mountains with lots of animals, it’s just something I always did. I brought them to school, people found out I liked to take care of animals and they started bringing animals to me.”
Sheila’s interest in animals never diminished. “As I got older, I took some wildlife rehabilitation courses, but I pretty much knew how to take care of them. I can’t explain it; I just had an instinct for it. Sometime years back, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission required a permit to do it, so I got a permit. I’ve kept a permit since then.”
Wildlife rehabilitation is a labor of love. “It’s expensive and there is no funding for it. Food, cages, medicine, it all comes out of the rehabilitator’s pocket. You have to be devoted. You get up in the middle of the night to feed babies, you can’t ever go anywhere and it can tear you up emotionally. You lose an animal and it breaks your heart, but it’s very rewarding when you finally turn an animal loose that you’ve raised or nursed back to health. This is something you’ve got to love in order to do.”
Sheila rehabs small mammals like squirrels, skunks, and raccoons. She also takes in deer, but the oddball animal in her history was a bird.
“I’ve rehabbed most all of the small mammals found in Arkansas, but the weirdest animal I’ve raised was a roadrunner. It was back before I had a permit and it was the cutest thing. It made this weird little sound when it was hungry.”
Animals only stay with Sheila until they can survive in the wild.
“It depends on the age of the baby animal as to how long I keep them, probably about 6 to 8 weeks is the average length of time. You can’t just turn them loose, you have to train them. For most of the animals I rehab, like skunks, my yard has a wire fence around it so I turn them out in it to catch grasshoppers and get familiar with being outside. After that, I take them on walks, trying to teach them how to be independent and then, one day, they just wander off on their own.”
Living in rural Arkansas means that hunting is something Sheila is very familiar with.
“As a matter of fact my husband Jerry is a hunter, but he’s not allowed to hunt on our place. It’s as simple as that. There’s just too much conflict. We bought a place in the mountains where he can hunt, but no, he can’t hunt around here. It would be like killing your dog or cat.”

Linda Vernon of Dardanelle has been a wildlife rehabilitator since she was a young girl. Conservation is in her blood and was a large part of her life as she grew up.
“My dad and granddad were game wardens. My first experiences with rehabbing animals as a child was a bear cub, six fox kits, and an eagle; all brought home by my dad. Daddy took his bear cub to Little Rock to the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission main office to show these guys and then he took it to the Little Rock Zoo where it stayed. They named the bear after my dad, his nickname was Pug so they named the bear Pug.”
Linda rehabilitates small mammals, deer, and has a federal permit to rehabilitate raptors or birds of prey. “It seems like I get a lot of a certain kind of animal at once. Last year it was deer, this year so far it’s been baby squirrels.”

Like Sheila, Linda states that being a wildlife rehabilitator is very demanding.
“People don’t realize that different animals need different types of care. I don’t know the last time I had a vacation, I just can’t leave the animals that need care.” However, the rewards are very satisfying. “I love to see the animals get better and be able to release them. It’s a great feeling of accomplishment.”
Linda offered some examples of reasons that injured or abandoned animals need to be turned over to a knowledgable wildlife rehabilitator.
“My friend got a little deer one time and told me she tried to feed it creamed corn. Fawns need milk for the first months of their life. Another lady called me and said she couldn’t figure out why the baby wood duck she had wouldn’t eat the baby formula she was trying to feed it. Of course, birds don’t drink any kind of milk.”
Linda believes that wildlife rehabilitators play an important part in conservation.
“I had a game warden call me the other day and tell me how much they appreciate us. I think they estimate that we save about 2,000 animals per year.”
Cute and fuzzy baby animals pull on the heartstrings of everybody, but Linda and Sheila caution against “rescuing” baby wild animals. According to Linda, the best thing you can do is leave them alone.
“Leave it alone unless you know the mother is dead. The best thing in the world for that animal is to be left in the wild. If the mother is dead or the animal is injured, then contact a wildlife rehabilitator.”
Sheila backs up these thoughts, particularly regarding deer fawns.
“A lot of people find fawns close to houses, barns, roads. Just leave them alone, the odds are that the mother is close by watching. They put the fawns close to people to keep them safe from coyotes. The coyotes usually won’t get close to roads and houses.”
Spring has arrived in Arkansas, and with it, the annual cycle of wild babies being born. As you travel the River Valley, Ouachita, and the Ozark Mountains, be on the lookout for the young animals just learning their way in the world. Remember that the little critters are probably not abandoned and that mama is watching close by. But, if you see an animal needing help contact one of the experts to insure that animal the best chance of returning to the wild.
If you do find an injured or abandoned animal contact the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission at 1-800-364-4263 or at for information about a wildlife rehabilitator near you.

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