GARRISON — From rehabilitating a whole host of wild baby animals, to collecting funds for a new enclosure, to trying to educate the community, Wild and Free is a busy place.

The nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation facility in Garrison works with orphaned baby animals as small as squirrels all the way up to bears, and most species in between. Just like any other organization this year, Wild and Free felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic, but the faithful volunteers and workers continue their mission to help wild animals through both rehabilitation and educational efforts.

“Our mission is to rescue, rehab and then release animals back into the wild,” General Manager Mary Roach said Monday, July 6, while giving the Dispatch a tour of the facility.

She emphasized Wild and Free is not in the business of cuddling, petting or ultimately taming any of the animals. Their goal is to re-release the wild creatures back into their native habitat.

More than 714 animals came through their doors last year, and about 250 made it back home.

“Which you may say doesn't sound very good, but for those 250 it meant a lot,” Roach said. “Our rehabilitation rate was around 35%. Most rehabbers are around 33%, so we're proud of the work we do here. And actually that's a higher rate than animals survive in the wild alone.”

Wild and Free is the only facility in Minnesota that can rehabilitate bears, as founder Dr. Debbie Eskedahl has a master class permit in wildlife rehab and Dr. Katie Baratto has a general permit. All the animals housed at Wild and Free go through Garrison Animal Hospital first, where the doctors examine them and determine the best course of care.

Right now, staff and volunteers are taking care of nine orphaned bear cubs. Because of such a wet fall season last year, farmers weren’t able to plow their fields, and bears made themselves at home in the tall vegetation.

Bear cubs feed on corn and watermelon Monday, June 6, at Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Program in Garrison. Steve Kohls /  Brainerd Dispatch
Bear cubs feed on corn and watermelon Monday, June 6, at Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Program in Garrison. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

“So this spring when (farmers) started to combine, many of these sows — which are female adult bears — were either hit by the combines or scared off and ran and never came back to get their babies,” Roach said, noting another incident occurred when a logger accidentally hit a bear den. He waited for the mom to return, but she never did.

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What to do with orphaned animals
Those who find wild baby animals they think might be orphaned can call the Garrison Animal Hospital 24/7 at 320-692-4180, and an on-call veterinarian will answer and assist.

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The bears will be at Wild and Free until next spring, as they work to gain weight and bulk up to the 50 pounds needed to hibernate. Feeding the bears requires staff to wear a special “bear suit,” composed of some sort of poncho and mosquito net, anything to avoid the bears getting too comfortable with humans.

After the bears fill themselves with food all winter, the Department of Natural Resources will come to sedate them, do some field studies and drive them two hours north of Grand Rapids to release them back into the wild.

Other animals at Wild and Free right now include raccoons, squirrels, coyotes, gray foxes, bald eagles, peregrine falcons, homing pigeons, kestrels, ducklings, cygnets (baby swans), barred owls, great horned owls, a screech owl and a mink.

One of the barred owls began its transition back into the wild Monday, when Roach and Wildlife Program Coordinator Alex Witkowski released it on the property. The owl sat on the ground for a little while, perhaps stunned at its newfound freedom, before flying up into the trees. A wooden platform high up on the balcony contains a white mouse as an easy food source for the owl at first. Witkowski and Roach said it may hang around for a while before flying off on its own.

A barred owl takes flight after being released Monday, July 6, at Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Program in Garrison. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch
A barred owl takes flight after being released Monday, July 6, at Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Program in Garrison. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

When they’re ready to go, young swans are introduced to parents with babies a similar size of the swans being released. Otherwise, Roach said the parents will kill the newcomers. But Wild and Free has so far been successful at finding the right swan parents for their babies.

“They took them with open wings,” Roach said of previously released swans. “... I’m always amazed at the wild animals. They are so willing to adopt other babies.”

Several turtle eggs are buried on site, too. When female turtles carrying eggs get hit by a car, doctors will perform a cesarean section to remove the eggs.

“Especially Blanding’s turtles, which are an endangered species,” Witkowski said. “Not many places can rehab them, but we’ll take them in, and we’ll bury the eggs, and hopefully they’ll hatch.”

A couple animals Roach noted they won’t take in are wolves, which go up to the International Wolf Center in Ely, and skunks.

Stolen fawns

While the idea of Wild and Free is to rehab orphaned babies, the sad reality for the 25 fawns at the facility is they may not have been orphaned at all but rather stolen from their mothers.

“Unfortunately, good-hearted people think that they’re going to do right by bringing the fawns to us and saving them, and most often that isn’t the case,” Roach said.

Does can wander and graze for more than eight hours at a time, building up their milk supply to feed their fawns. But the babies often can’t keep up for that long, so their moms will attempt to hide them before leaving to feed.

“The doe will come back and then wonder where the fawn is, and we have them,” Roach said. “It’s really important that fawns get the first mother’s milk. They’re much more equipped, I would say, to successfully feed that fawn than we are. And so bringing the fawn to us is not a guarantee that that fawn is going to survive either, but we do the best we can.”

With General Manager Mary Roach in the background, Alex Witkowski, wildlife program coordinator,  checks some of the 25 fawns in the Wild and Free facility in Garrison Monday, July 6. Steve Kohls  /  Brainerd Dispatch
With General Manager Mary Roach in the background, Alex Witkowski, wildlife program coordinator, checks some of the 25 fawns in the Wild and Free facility in Garrison Monday, July 6. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

Generally, if a fawn is looking alert and being very still, it’s probably fine. If it’s crying, humans should back away, as it might just be crying for its mom to say it’s hungry, and does will not come back if people are around.

“But if it's crying and walking around, or if you know a doe got hit on the road, or if its ears are curling a little bit, call us,” Roach said. “No matter what, call us, and we’ll tell you what to look for.”

If a fawn is injured or bleeding, or if there are a lot of insects around its butt, Roach said there is likely a problem. Otherwise, leave them alone.

“These fawns, I would say, are stolen from their mamas,” she said. “That’s what we have are stolen babies.”

At least one of the fawns at Wild and Free is most definitely an orphan, though. Nicknamed the “miracle fawn,” this baby was born on impact when it’s pregnant mother was hit by a car. It miraculously survived and is doing well.

Along with fawn protocol, Roach said Wild and Free works to educate the public on issues like environmental preservation and the dangers of lead ammunition.

Flight pen and public involvement

A new flight pen is under construction for Wild and Free’s feathery residents. The 400-square-foot building will have easy-to-clean fiberglass reinforced panel walls and two swing gates to provide the ability to separate different species of birds from one another.

“You may not know this, but you cannot put owls with eagles with hawks. They will kill each other,” Roach said. “And you can’t have barreds with great horned owls. You have to have specific places for each species, and that’s where we’re going to have flexibility here with the swing gates to be able to have different species and different paths.”

mary Roach, general manager of the Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Program in Garrison, talks about their new building  Monday, July 6, where raptors can stretch their wings and practice their flying skills. Steve Kohls  /  Brainerd Dispatch
mary Roach, general manager of the Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Program in Garrison, talks about their new building Monday, July 6, where raptors can stretch their wings and practice their flying skills. Steve Kohls / Brainerd Dispatch

While construction has begun, Roach said Wild and Free still needs about $75,000 to complete it. Due to COVID-19, they were not able to go through with their capital campaign this year as planned, and the organization is fully funded through donations. But once they get back to their “new normal,” Roach hopes to raise more money.

Those interested in donating can call 320-692-4180 or visit wildandfree.org or the Wild and Free Facebook page.

“We’re really excited to be able to be assured that these animals are ready to go when we’re going to put them back into the wild,” Roach said of the birds that will use the flight pen.



THERESA BOURKE may be reached at theresa.bourke@brainerddispatch.com or 218-855-5860. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/DispatchTheresa.