Progress: Guardians of the wild - Wildlife rehabbers rescue squirrels, nurture relationships

GARRISON--When Debbie Eskedahl describes what her work in wildlife rehabilitation means to her, the story of "The Star Thrower" is what comes to mind.

Technician Nicole Chavez works with a sun conure parrot named Pineapple-Mango-Franco on her arm while at Garrison Animal Hospital. The parrot, likely a former house pet, was brought in through the Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation program and now lives at the hospital. (Brainerd Dispatch, Kelly Humphrey - Gallery and Video)
Technician Nicole Chavez works with a sun conure parrot named Pineapple-Mango-Franco on her arm while at Garrison Animal Hospital. The parrot, likely a former house pet, was brought in through the Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation program and now lives at the hospital. (Brainerd Dispatch, Kelly Humphrey - Gallery and Video)

GARRISON-When Debbie Eskedahl describes what her work in wildlife rehabilitation means to her, the story of "The Star Thrower" is what comes to mind.

In the oft-retold story adapted from a 1969 essay, a man walks along a beach, throwing starfish back into the ocean after they've become stranded by the tide. Another man approaches him and asks why he would spend his time rescuing the creatures, when his efforts will have no impact on the population as a whole. The man continues casting the starfish into the sea, replying, "It made a difference to that one."

For Eskedahl and her business partner Katie Baratto, this parable is akin to the work they do at Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation in Garrison. The nonprofit organization rescues, rehabilitates and releases orphaned and injured wildlife, including birds, deer, bears, raccoons, foxes, squirrels and a number of other species.

"We're just trying to give back with our expertise," Eskedahl said. "We're trying to give back to the community what we can. ... Every animal plays an important role in our ecosystem and deserves a second chance at life. As humans, we tend to put our value system on them."

Bears, barred owls and a bittern


On a steamy day in late July, the population at the rehab center recently dwindled following the release of several fawns back into the wild. Three recently released barred owls perched nearby, still consuming dead mice placed on a platform thrice daily until the raptors can support their appetites with hunting skills alone. Two outdoor pens contained black bear cubs and coyotes, shielded from human interaction to help ensure successful release. A great horned owl, missing its horn feathers from a recent storm, occupied an outdoor cage.

Inside, a family of gray fox kits occupied a large pen next to a few rescued raccoons, and a woodpecker flittered about in a small bird cage.

And these were just the residents in the rescue facility. Down the road at Garrison Animal Hospital, baby animals and others in need of specialized care resided, including a young loon, an injured swan and tiny squirrels in need of frequent feedings.

Baratto checked in on a small, heron-like bird called a bittern, a rare visitor to the center. Between 3 and 4 months old, the bird was nearing release after proving it could catch and eat live minnows. It was full-sized, but still had fuzzy down poking out among its feathers. Baratto said she would consult a local birdwatching club to learn where another population of bitterns exists.

"We try to let them go where there's some other one of his species on the lake," she said.

Eskedahl and Baratto are veterinary doctors and co-owners of the animal hospital, where all the necessary examinations, treatments and surgical procedures for the rescued wildlife are performed. All of their time is donated to the separate nonprofit Wild and Free, which is supported entirely through volunteer efforts and private donations.

The people's profession

Eskedahl moved to the area and opened the hospital and rehab center in 1990. There was no wildlife rehabilitation center in the area at the time, and it remains the only center-based rehab in the Brainerd lakes area. The next closest facility able to accommodate the breadth of species treated at Wild and Free is in Duluth. Eskedahl said she's long been interested in rehab work. She worked at the Raptor Center while attending veterinary school at the University of Minnesota, fueling her natural inclination toward working with animals.


Baratto began working at the animal hospital in 1998 as a high schooler and never looked back. The Crosby-Ironton High School graduate earned her bachelor's degree from the University of Minnesota-Duluth and her doctorate degree in veterinary medicine from the University of Minnesota.

"You know you like it, if you come back after that long," Baratto said. "I just never wanted to do anything else."

The profession itself has evolved in recent decades as enrollment in veterinary schools is nearly 85 percent female, Baratto said. This trend is easily recognizable in Garrison, where every staff member is a woman.

The veterinary profession is not for everyone, even many who believe they want to enter the field, she said. The animal hospital accommodates many students to expose people to the profession early on.

"I bet half of people say, 'Oh no, this is not what I thought it was, it's not playing with kittens and puppies.' ... It's high-paced and sometimes it's stressful," she said. "We do have to put animals to sleep and we have to deal with clients who are confused or stressed out or mentally upset otherwise, and it can be scary."

Sometimes, that means dealing with upset clients facing pet emergencies in the middle of the night. Eskedahl and Baratto trade on-call weeks, during which they are available 24 hours a day to potentially save a pet's life. Recently, Baratto was called in past midnight to see a pet that she determined required euthanization. The client's 12-year-old son was at home a half-hour away and wanted to be with the pet. Despite the early morning hour, Baratto encouraged the client to go home and get their son.

"I'll be tired the next day, but what's two hours of sleep for me versus permanent closure for the kid?" Baratto said.

Ultimately, she said, being a veterinary doctor is far less about the animals than one would expect.


"This is a people job. We get to do this, and it's what you love, but they don't come in unattached to a person. You really have to care about the owner and the owner's quality of life with their pet," she said. "There's a lot of personal relationships that are formed there, if you're doing it correctly. Especially in a small town like this. In the last two or three months I think we've sent flowers to four or five funerals. They've been clients for 30 years. We know them, we know their pets. ... It's how it should be. It's how human medicine should be."

Rehabilitate and educate

For Baratto, a similar maxim applies to the work in wildlife rehabilitation.

"We're not affecting the squirrel population, by what we do," Baratto said. "It's the individual animal and the people. It means a lot for the public to be able to call someone and be told what to do. And if nothing can be done, to be able to bring it in and know that it's going to be cared for the best it can be."

A large part of rehabilitation work also involves educating the public, whether it be what one should do if they find an animal in need of rescue or steps one can take to help assure the animal does not need rescuing in the first place. Almost all of the wildlife cared for at Wild and Free are there because of some kind of human intervention-they were hit by cars, ran into power lines or were shot.

"You wouldn't believe how many swans and eagles we get in that are shot purposefully," Eskedahl said.

And some of the animals are completely fine, but are "rescued" mistakenly. Baratto said this year, the center housed half the fawns it typically sees-a victory from her perspective. Fawns are one of the most common animals believed to be orphaned, when really, it is natural behavior for the baby deer to be left alone for sometimes days at a time.

"They don't have much scent, and they're safer than they are with her (their mother) hanging around them," Baratto said.

Sometimes, people will take wild animals home and attempt to raise them before realizing they've taken on more than they bargained for. This is the wrong course of action for multiple reasons, Baratto said. Not only does it greatly increase the likelihood an animal can no longer be released to the wild-which often leads to euthanization-but it's also against Minnesota state law. Only those who've obtained permits through the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources are allowed to house wildlife.

Two of the three black bear cubs at Wild and Free this summer are tame because they were kept in a home for more than a month before they were turned over to the rehab center. Baratto said because of this, there is no way they can return to the wild and instead, the organization must find a zoo willing to take the bears. A tame gray fox kit kept in a different home was euthanized, because there was no place for it to go.

The best course of action is to call Wild and Free first before doing anything, Baratto said.

"A lot of people will just grab something, which, No. 1, is not safe for them most of the time," she said. "Even squirrels and bunnies bite, and they carry fleas."

A contingent of volunteers seeks to spread that education through presentations to various community groups. Nearly 80 volunteers are actively involved in the organization in one way or another-a huge number in comparison to the early days, when Eskedahl was nearly on her own.

Although the plan calls for Baratto to eventually own the veterinary practice on her own, she joked she doesn't expect Eskedahl to ever retire. She described the mentorship she received as a young woman from Eskedahl as "priceless," and it is something she believes attracts the next generation of veterinarians to work with her in Garrison.

"That's become a very big goal for me, to be good at that, to be a mentor to the staff," Baratto said. "It's important for anyone, but for women that's a big thing, to have somebody to lean on when you need it. Because you will. You can't be a professional who is on-call, and a business owner, and a mom, and a wife, and be active in your church, and do all the hobbies that I like to do-you can't do that without help.

"You're still going to break down and cry and have bad days and that's life, but to have that support and that faith behind you, it's the only way you can do it."

Become involved

Want to become involved in Wild and Free, or assist the organization through donations? Visit to view a donation wish list and find the form to become a member. Send an email to for more information.


Business: Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation; Garrison Animal Hospital

City: Garrison

Number of employees: 12 employees of animal hospital, 76 active volunteers

Fun fact: Wild and Free volunteers logged 4,042 hours in 2015 and were expected to exceed that in 2016.

Related Topics: WILDLIFE
Chelsey Perkins is the community editor of the Brainerd Dispatch. A lakes area native, Perkins joined the Dispatch staff in 2014. She is the Crow Wing County government beat reporter and the producer and primary host of the "Brainerd Dispatch Minute" podcast.
Reach her at or at 218-855-5874 and find @DispatchChelsey on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
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