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Back into the Wild

Area nonprofit cares for injured, orphaned wildlife

By Dan Thompson

The early June roster of animals in recovery at the American Heritage Wildlife Foundation represents a wide swath of the North Idaho branch of the animal kingdom.

There are orphaned pine squirrel babies, as well as a young flying squirrel. One batch of orphan skunks was already in, with another expected the next day. A young magpie with neurological issues had already been there for more than a month. A wild turkey and a blue grouse were also in the recovery process.

The AHWF sees about 100 different animals a year, founder Kathleen St. Clair-McGee estimated, so multiplied by the nearly 20 years she has been at the Clark Fork facility, she has seen quite the variety of animals.

“It’s incredible. We’ll have little animals come in and you’re working on them desperately. You only meet them a half a day and they might die on you,” she said. “It’s always a challenge. It’s always tricky.”

But the reward of sending off a rehabilitated animal into the wild again—something St. Clair-McGee estimates the organization does about 60 percent of the time—is worth the heartache.

“Probably the greatest reward is when you do have that animal and on the day of release you say, ‘OK, here you go, you’re back where you should be,’” she said.

The AHWF’s stated mission is to work toward the preservation of all wildlife through rehabilitation and community education. A nonprofit started in 2001, the organization has no paid staff and relies on volunteers, who provide between 3,000 and 4,000 combined hours each year, St. Clair-McGee said. They are working to create the first Inland Pacific Northwest nature center.

There are only a few species, like deer, elk and moose, that the AHWF cannot accept. But raccoons, skunks, squirrels, waterfowl, ducks, geese—volunteers will attempt to rehabilitate all of them if brought in. Some rehabilitations or recoveries take only a couple weeks. Others take much longer, like raccoon orphans, who usually spend three, four or even five months with American Heritage Wildlife Foundation.

Sometimes people will bring in orphans after seeing an adult animal killed by a car and then later locating the orphaned young. Other times, people bring in animals who have been injured, either by them or someone else.

“Rehabilitation is important because if you look at the animal cases brought in, the majority are not from nature-caused incidents. They are caused by human interaction,” St. Clair-McGee said.

She has been with the AHWF since the beginning after working at three different zoos as well as horse ranches and animal shelters. She realizes not everyone fully understands—or agrees with—the work the AHWF does, so a big portion of her job is education.

The organization’s website has numerous documents available that describe how humans can best cohabitate with wild neighbors, and she also spends time in public forums like libraries and spreads awareness through social media and other means.

Volunteers come from a variety of walks of life and aren’t just “animal people,” she said. One board member has an accounting background and so serves as treasurer. Another who loves to take pictures comes out to help with animal feeding. Still other volunteers work at the hospital or live on a ranch.

“You don’t necessarily have to have an animal background,” St. Clair-McGee said. “You just have to have a desire to learn.”

The care provided at the AHWF is very different from what might be done at an animal humane society, where part of the goal is to include the human factor. At the AHWF, volunteers try to do the opposite.

“We don’t talk when we’re in the animal room,” she said. “We put up towels or wear masks so they don’t directly see this is a human that’s feeding me. We wear gloves. We do everything we can think of to remove that human barrier. … The highest praise that can happen on a wild animal on release is you go in there and try to catch them and they come at you or try to avoid you. (If they do that) you’ve done your job.”

One of St. Clair-McGee’s favorite rescue stories involves an osprey that was “in pretty rough shape” when it was brought in. The AHWF lacks adequate staffing to go out into the field and pick up injured animals, relying instead on people to bring them in. Staff will coach them over the phone, but animals in their care often require feedings every 30, 20 or even 10 minutes, St. Clair-McGee said, so they cannot dash away.

Found late one August, the osprey was about two months old when it was brought in: weak, underweight and dehydrated. Normally osprey don’t leave the nest for two months, and once on the ground, as this one was, they’ll starve, St. Clair-McGee said, “unless they have the spirit to figure it out.”

The bird spent two weeks in rehabilitation, gaining strength. Upon release, volunteers pitched her up into the air and she took off. It was the sort of success story that sticks with St. Clair-McGee—she has taken in other osprey in similar predicaments that don’t survive.

“It’s always taxing. Sometimes it’s 16-hour days,” she said. “It’s not for the faint of heart, but that’s why we love our volunteers, and that’s why we strongly encourage people when they do find animals to follow the right steps.”

Some traumatic injuries the AHWF cannot handle, and in those cases volunteers will refer people to veterinarians. But many people do bring in animals, and some are willing to drive hours, St. Clair-McGee said.

“When I get people who are kind hearted and compassionate, I can’t say thank you enough,” she said. “It’s really uplifting.”

The cost of rehabilitating animals will vary, depending on their length of stay and the cost of food. Owls, for example, can require $5 of food per day. Others are more, St. Clair-McGee said. The organization offers various levels of donation and sometimes holds raffles to raise more money.

“That’s where the community support comes in, and we’ve been so very blessed to have the money we need each year,” she said.

St. Clair-McGee said she is excited, too, that Mya Jinright, a raptor rehabilitator, has joined the AHWF ranks of volunteers. Jinright works at the VCA North Idaho Animal Hospital in Sandpoint, and St. Clair-McGee said her help will allow them to better care for hawks and owls who are in critical condition.

And so the work continues. St. Clair-McGee was preparing to return a gray squirrel to Post Falls, where three weeks earlier it had fallen and suffered a head trauma. The squirrel has been getting its coordination back, she said.

“That’s the best part, the release,” she said. “It makes all the hard work worthwhile.”

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