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‘Very emotional and very impossible’: the struggle for survival at Wildwoods wildlife rehabilitation center

Wildwoods is the only major, take-all-comers wildlife rehab center in northern Minnesota, a sanctuary for animals — and people.

Tara Smith holding a plastic cone over an injured chipmunk’s snout.
Tara Smith, the head of animal care at Wildwoods wildlife rehabilitation center, holding a plastic cone over an injured chipmunk’s snout.
Photo by Jacob Benson

The chipmunk lies in the middle of a large steel work table, its only movements the quick rise and fall of its midsection that comes with each breath.

Standing in this basement-turned-clinic, Tara Smith is holding a plastic cone over the animal’s snout. Smith, the head of animal care at Wildwoods wildlife rehabilitation center in Duluth, watches the chipmunk’s respirations as anesthesia flows into its nostrils.

Globs of white pus cling to the animal’s skin.

“What is that?” Smith wonders out loud.

Standing opposite Smith, squinting as he leans closer to the chipmunk, is Farzad Farr, the executive director and animal care instructor at Wildwoods. Just now, he is holding an instrument that looks like a pair of long tweezers, which he uses to pick at a disfigured chunk of fur on the animal’s side.

Caught in the chipmunk’s flesh is a plastic line with connective points, like a piece of garden netting. The material enters under the left side of the animal’s neck and pokes out from a small hole on its back.


Farzad Farr, the executive director and animal care instructor at Wildwoods.
Photo by Jacob Benson
Farzad Farr, the executive director and animal care instructor at Wildwoods.

For half an hour, Farr and Smith give the chipmunk their attention, puzzling over how this could have happened. Farr cuts the foreign strand and pulls out the segments, intermittently pausing to pick and scrape away the pus, then flushes the wound.

“This must have hurt,” Farr says, and applies a large bandage as Smith turns down the anesthesia. “Poor thing,” Farr says, as he and Smith put the chipmunk in a small container to recover.

A MASH unit for animals

Wildwoods admitted about 1,800 animals last year, making it the second-busiest wildlife rehab organization in the state by volume. More than a third of the animals it admits are songbirds, while rabbits make up its second biggest group, followed by squirrels and water- or shore-birds. The rest are a grab bag of species common in northern Minnesota: raptors, porcupines, bats, fawns, bear cubs, canids and others. “We don’t just deal with cats and dogs,” says Farr. “We deal with 78 different species of animal.”

Wildwoods is the only major, take-all-comers wildlife rehab center in northern Minnesota, and people regularly drive an hour or more to bring in an animal. In 2018, one person drove 242 miles to bring in an animal, and the center admitted wildlife from 30 different counties, including four in Wisconsin.

Wildwoods has evolved into a triage unit for wildlife. A “MASH unit” is Smith’s description. Staffers at the center are capable of doing a wide variety of general and emergency care on site: cleaning wounds, treating infections, offering pain meds and nutrition, among other things.

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When an animal needs treatment beyond the team’s capabilities — surgery, for example — staffers coordinate with other rehab organizations to get it care, and tap into Wildwoods’ volunteer network and 15,000-plus social media followers to find transportation. In that way, Wildwoods also serves as a conduit and connection point among other rehabilitators.

At the University of Minnesota’s Raptor Center, many of the north woods species that come in funnel through Wildwoods, said Executive Director Julia Ponder. That could be one or more birds a week during the busy season. “There would be a hole there [without Wildwoods] without question,” Ponder said. “They’re definitely serving a need.”

For animals. And for people.

If there is one region of Minnesota whose identity is shaped by its proximity to nature, it is the state’s north woods, where swaths of untouched forest offer a home for all types of animals. On the edge of this wilderness, in the northwest of Duluth, is where Wildwoods exists.

Now more than a decade old and in its second location, the center itself looks less like a care facility than a family home, which is what it was: a small, one-story white bungalow built in 1950, set back from the road and obscured by trees. The living room is now a reception area, and the two former bedrooms are now offices. The cramped kitchen, aside from the regularly used coffee maker, is used for storage, and the basement functions as the clinic and exam room. Out back, a low-slung green building, constructed when the center moved to this property in 2016, serves as a nursery, with seven small rooms with names such as Camp Waterfowl and Pigeon Park.

Photo by Jacob Benson
Wildwoods is the only major, take-all-comers wildlife rehab center in northern Minnesota.
The hope for every animal that comes to Wildwoods is treatment and rehabilitation, then release back into the wild. But Farr says the organization is also for people — about being there for those who find injured wildlife and feel compelled to help. Farr should know. The organization was actually started by his former wife, in 2006, with animals housed in the couple’s spare bathroom. Farr quickly found himself fully invested, and now serves as executive director and animal care instructor, all without taking a salary.

“I’m never going to claim that we are making an impact to the population of the animal,” he says. “The number of animals we rehab and release is negligible compared to the number of animals that die because of many, many reasons, mostly human-created. But what we are doing is one, important to that individual animal; and number two, it’s for the community, for compassionate people who drive two, three hours to bring us something.”

One of those people is Lisa Plachta, who is working in the Mammal Nursery and during her third day of volunteering at Wildwoods. She’d previously brought an injured pigeon to the center, and says what Wildwoods provides to humans sometimes “gets lost in the mix.”

“To be able to bring [the pigeon] here was such a service to me,” she says. “Not just the bird, but it was to me too, because you suffer when you see suffering in the world, no matter what animal it is.”

Tara Smith tells a similar story. Back in 2014, she needed a change. She’d spent the previous decade in a successful career as a pastry chef in Maine and had even published a cookbook. “I’m actually kind of a big deal,” she laughs. “But I just didn’t want to do it anymore.”

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She was unfulfilled, and didn’t think she was having a positive impact on people. So she quit and moved back to her hometown of Duluth. The following spring she stumbled onto Wildwoods, volunteering to drive an injured owl to the Twin Cities. That led to more volunteer work: feeding baby squirrels and birds, cleaning the aviary, doing whatever else was asked. “Once I fell into this, I was like, ‘Yeah, you know, my days are hard,” she says, “but I feel like when I leave I’ve done something good.”

Each workday, she arrives by 7:30 a.m. and quickly begins what she calls live check: visiting each admitted animal, reading over notes from the night crew, and taking care of the patients that didn’t survive the night.

On a morning late last year, inside the nursery building’s Quiet Room for songbirds and rabbits, Smith is dismayed. In her hands, wrapped partially in a towel, is the long, stiff body of a blue jay that had died overnight. A second bird, a vireo, lies dead on the bottom of its fabric enclosure. “I don’t want to say I’ve gotten used to it, because you never do,” she says, before bringing both birds to the freezer across the hall.


Tara Smith chatting with Wildwoods volunteer Lisa Plachta.
Photo by Jacob Benson
Tara Smith chatting with Wildwoods volunteer Lisa Plachta.

There’s a third bird in the Quiet Room, too: a phoebe. It’s perched on a small stick in its carrier, quiet but alive, which is what Smith says she has to focus on.

That survival rate is typical. The center says one in every three animals admitted is successfully rehabilitated and released, in line with other such facilities. But that also means a normal day includes losing an animal twice as often as saving one, a reality Farr says can be wearing. “It slowly chips at you,” he says. “Jab after jab after jab, at some point you can’t take it anymore. … It’s taxing on your body, on your soul.”

The day of the chipmunk procedure, Smith admits two birds, a thrush and a cedar waxwing, each stunned after probable window collisions. There’s also a large, female rabbit (“I can feel its nipples,” Smith says with a chuckle when asked how she can tell its sex) that’s been hit by a car. It’s likely none will survive.

Some injuries are so grim that there’s no choice but to immediately euthanize the animal. Farr puts down a bunny with a gaping head wound, the result of a cat attack. A woman who occasionally volunteers at Wildwoods brings in a thrush with an angled beak. Smith determines it’s a broken jaw and can’t be repaired. It will never eat again. “I always feel so bad when I can’t fix them,” Smith says. “But it’d be far worse to be starving to death out there.”

Then there are the especially difficult cases. Megan Stanton, who works part-time in animal care and office administration for Wildwoods, still has trouble talking about the night a fawn was brought in. It had been hit by a car, its leg and hip shattered beyond repair. Stanton tried to euthanize it, but the fawn was so big the gas took an hour to take hold. She waited by the animal’s side the entire time.

“That night I cried a lot,” Stanton remembers. “And sometimes, thinking about it, I still do. It’s very emotional and very impossible. You just remind yourself that that fawn otherwise … would have been out there, in pain, crying, until he just died of pain.”

“Doesn’t make it easier,” she adds.


Tara Smith holds a thrush, stunned after probable window collision, that probably will not survive.
Photo by Jacob Benson
Tara Smith holds a thrush, stunned after probable window collision, that probably will not survive.

Smith is haunted by cases in which animals have been intentionally harmed — where the fallout of someone’s choice lands in Wildwoods’ basement, often bloodied and in agony. There was the 50-pound snapping turtle found by a St. Louis County deputy in a pit near Mountain Iron. It had been attacked, repeatedly, with some sort of long knife or machete. “It was nearly decapitated and had slashes all over it,” recounts Smith. The wounds were untreatable, and the turtle, estimated to be about 100 years old, died that night.

Or the crow, shot in the head with a BB gun but still alert when it arrived, Smith says, flapping its wings and looking around. The swelling was uncontrollable, eventually pushing the crow’s brain to the exterior. Smith could do nothing afterward but cry. “I needed to fix this bird because somebody messed up, somebody did something horrible,” she says. “You want to show kindness. The only kindness I could give him was release from that pain and an apology.”

The battle for survival

This emotional pressure is exacerbated by Wildwoods’ tight resources, the result of skyrocketing admissions and precarious finances. In 2013, the center admitted about 500 animals. Each year since, that figure has climbed higher, often jumping by the hundreds. “I’ve never heard of them turning anything down because they’re just too busy,” said Christian Balzer, area wildlife manager with the Department of Natural Resources in northeastern Minnesota.

Yet the size of the organization has barely changed. Smith is the only paid full-time staffer, and often works well over 40 hours a week. Because Wildwoods is open every day of the year, she also covers many holidays. “I feel guilty a lot,” Smith says, “because it always seems like you should give more and more and more.”

Farr, Wildwood’s executive director, also works almost daily in both the morning and evenings, though, again, he takes no salary. There’s also Stanton, who works part-time, plus a couple of seasonal part-timers, a few summer interns, and a network of 20-30 weekly volunteers. But that’s pretty much it.


Rabbits make up the second biggest group admitted to Wildwoods.
Photo by Jacob Benson
Rabbits make up the second biggest group admitted to Wildwoods.
Nor does Wildwoods have the sort of operational infrastructure in place to raise more money. It operates on a budget that hovers around $100,000 a year and receives no public funding. It relies almost entirely on individual donors, Give to the Max Day, and its annual fundraiser.

Unless the center limits admissions — which it doesn’t plan to do — or finds some big donors, the squeeze will become tighter just to continue to do what it is already doing, let alone plan for expansion. Wildwoods expects admissions to pass 2,000 a year by 2020.

The organization is also trying to prepare for the departure of Farr, who plans to leave in late 2019 to return to California, where his family lives. His replacement, to be chosen by Wildwoods board of directors, will undoubtedly not work for free. “How much pressure can I put on the staff?” Farr asks. “They already are under tremendous amount of pressure because of everything going on. But then, at the same time, I have to think about the finances and everything else too. It makes it a very challenging job.”

‘If we weren’t here, I don’t know what they would do’

Smith initially felt good about the prospects of the impaled chipmunk. With the plastic line extracted and the surrounding infection eliminated, the animal looked poised to recover.

It was, as Smith describes it, a bright spot in an otherwise difficult shift, during which most admissions faced a grim prognosis or had to be euthanized. “By the end of the day, you’re just like, ‘Can’t something live?’” she says.

The chipmunk’s condition, however, didn’t improve. After the procedure, its temperature quickly dropped, so Smith placed it in a warm incubator. Hours later, the animal was still struggling. Smith held on to hope it would bounce back, but in the days that followed the animal ultimately went into shock, lost consciousness and died. “Sometimes [the job] is really hard but I can’t imagine walking away from it,” Smith says.

That’s because of the animals, but also because of the people who bring animals to Wildwoods. “They are in need of doing something with this injured critter,” Farr says. “So it’s for the community. And the compassion that they have, I mean, you see people who walk into this building and some of them are in tears.”

Ensuring Wildwoods endures long into the future is — for such people and the animals they are all hoping to help — is the “driving factor” in the work, Farr says. “The big question is,” he says, “if we don’t exist, then what?”

That’s a possibility Smith doesn’t like to contemplate. “I think it would just be incredibly sad,” she says. “And not just for the animals that would end up not getting help. When you see the people that come in that are desperate to get this animal help: If we weren’t here, I don’t know what they would do.”