July 20, 2008

Friends of Wildlife: TreeHouse Center is an Endangered Species

By Teri Maddox, Belleville News-Democrat, Ill.

Jul. 20--A fawn sleeps in a pet carrier and drinks formula from a baby bottle. A bald eagle exercises its wings in a giant flight cage. Wood ducks swim in a plastic kiddie pool. A groundhog pokes its head out of an igloo-shaped doghouse.

Some of the sights at TreeHouse Wildlife Center in Brighton are surreal, particularly for first-time visitors.

The stories behind the birds and animals are pretty amazing, too.

"When (the groundhog) came in, you could hold him in the palm of your hand," said board president and night-shift supervisor Lynn Schreiber, 47, of Elsah. "His eyes had just opened. His mother was dead. She got hit by a car. He probably came out of the den looking for her, hungry, and fortunately somebody was able to rescue him."

Then there's the large, white pelican that was spotted along the Mississippi River with fishing line hanging from its bill.

TreeHouse veterinarian Paul Myer removed the line and took X-rays, using a machine designed for dogs and cats. He decided to leave in a fish hook and sinker the pelican had swallowed.

"It's in an area where surgery would be risky, and the bird is doing well," said Myer, co-owner of Hawthorne Animal Hospital in Edwardsville. "So we're hoping it will pass (the hook) on its own."

Helper needs help

TreeHouse is the only licensed hospital and rehabilitation center for injured and orphaned wildlife in the metro-east.

Patients range from owls to bobcats, coyotes to egrets, foxes to opossums, squirrels to turkey vultures. This year, spring rains brought a higher-than-normal number of fawns and ducklings displaced by flooding.

The birds and animals are fed, housed, treated and, if possible, released back into their natural habitats.

The mostly volunteer staff answers calls from local residents but also serves as a rescue squad for state and federal wildlife officials, veterinarians, parks and humane societies.

"These people refer everything to us," said Adele Moore, 59, of Collinsville, TreeHouse co-founder and former director. "They don't have the facilities or personnel to do what we do."

The non-profit center has quietly operated for 29 years on a limited budget, mostly from private donations. But the board feels its current situation is serious enough to make a widespread public appeal for financial help.

The tin building that serves as TreeHouse's hospital has fallen into disrepair after multiple additions and patch jobs. There aren't enough cages, and Moore is ready to proceed with her longtime plan of building a retirement home on the wooded site, which she owns.

Board members have been trying to obtain grants for a new $1 million complex on Great Rivers Land Trust property in Godfrey, but they've made little headway.

"If we don't have the money to get started on a building in one year, I think we will be closing our doors," Schreiber said.

Melvin McCann, 70, of Rosewood Heights, vows to fight for TreeHouse to the bitter end.

The retired grocer and school custodian has been volunteering several hours a week for the past 13 years. He's now a board member in charge of maintenance.

"It's so rewarding to come out here and take care of the birds and see the progress that they make," McCann said. "And then they get well enough to be released, and you take them out into the wild and see them take off and go back to the place they belong. It's just a great feeling."

Driven by compassion

Moore first recognized the need for a wildlife-rehabilitation center in the early 1970s after finding a rabbit hit by a car.

"It had a concussion," she said. "It was temporarily blind. It had some scrapes and a broken leg. I think in spite of everything we did, the animal survived and we released it."

Moore founded TreeHouse with veterinarian Richard Evans in a shed on her property in 1979. They built the hospital two years later.

Since that time, volunteers have rescued or treated thousands of birds and animals.

Schreiber remembers climbing up a chimney to retrieve a screech owl while the homeowner frantically covered her white carpeting and upholstery; building a ramp to help a beaver escape a water-treatment pool at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville; and trudging through wetlands in freezing weather to find an injured eagle reported by a hunter.

"The eagles are always the most fun to work on," Myer said. "They're just so big and beautiful. One bird had two broken wings, and we were able to rehab it and release it. That was pretty special."

One of TreeHouse's most unusual patients was an Arkansas armadillo that stowed away on a Wal-Mart truck seven or eight years ago. It wasn't discovered until the driver made a delivery in Sparta.

The staff eventually made arrangements for the armadillo to be returned to its home state.

"We go to great lengths sometimes to get animals where they need to be," Schreiber said.

Respect for the wild

TreeHouse is licensed by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Illinois Endangered Species Board. It handles 400 to 500 birds and animals a year, successfully returning 60 percent to their natural habitats.

The center is operated by a full-time clinic supervisor, Pam Lippert; two part-time employees, Schreiber and Executive Director Andrea Crabtree; and about 25 volunteers who feed patients, administer medication and clean cages.

One of McCann's first tasks in 1995 was releasing three young skunks near Woodburn. He got a little emotional watching them scurry to a hollow log, then go their separate ways.

"You've got to experience it to understand it," McCann said.

Today, the center doesn't accept skunks because of rabies risk. Also on the non-admittance list are raccoons, which can spread disease; songbirds; and rabbits.

"When baby songbirds come in, they have to be fed about every 20 minutes, 17 hours a day," Schreiber said. "And we just don't have the staff for it. But we do have volunteers who will advise people on songbirds. ... Rabbits go into shock almost the minute they are touched by humans. It's very difficult to keep them alive."

In some cases, injured birds and animals live through treatment but suffer disabilities that would keep them from surviving in the woods.

These patients become permanent TreeHouse residents. They serve as foster parents for orphans and educational tools during tours and open houses.

Cody the coyote had become too tame after living with a man who rescued it from the Great Flood of 1993. Elvis the bobcat lost an eye in a truck accident. Chuckles the fox suffered neurological damage when a dog shook it by the neck.

"We call him 'Chuckles' because he makes this noise that sounds like a laugh," Schreiber said.

Volunteers wear gloves and take other precautions when handling birds and animals, but they still get scratched or bitten occasionally. One was mauled on the arms and legs by a coyote.

The staff avoids talking cutsie or otherwise treating patients like pets.

"Even if we have had them for a long time, they are wild animals, and we respect that," Schreiber said. "They're not lovable, cuddly creatures."

Looking ahead

If built, the new TreeHouse complex would separate facilities for rehabilitation and education, as required by state law, with a total of 45 cages.

The education facility would include a small pond and walking path. The hospital would house a nursery with incubators, an examination room, kitchen, butcher shop, exercise room, shallow pool for waterfowl and laundry that could be converted into an isolation unit for victims of oil spills.

"Oil spills don't happen that often, but when there is one, you can get 50 ducks with a toxic substance on them," Schreiber said. "We're supposed to dress in special clothing and gloves. The oil can't even be disposed of in the sewer system, and you have to use very, very hot water to get the oil off the feathers of the birds."

The TreeHouse board knows $1 million sounds like a lot of money but insists the development plan isn't extravagant, considering long-term benefits and special needs.

If the center closes, Schreiber expects more Southwestern Illinois residents to try caring for injured wildlife on their own.

"It's bad for the animals because they need to be on special diets," she said. "If they aren't, they will probably die. But it's also a risk to humans. If we have someone call and say, 'We have an injured bobcat in our yard,' we will go out and get it. We have the leather gloves, the nets, the cages. We have the proper equipment and the expertise to know how to handle it."

Moore is cautiously optimistic that TreeHouse will be able to raise the money for a new complex if people know what's at stake.

"I have great faith in this community," she said. "They have kept us going for all these years."

How you can help TreeHouse

Become a member: The $15 fee includes a periodic newsletter, TreeHouse Droppings, and an invitation to the private summer open house.

Adopt a bird or animal: Costs range from $25 for a fox squirrel to $50 for a barred owlet, $75 for a a bobcat to $100 for a bald eagle.

Support a fundraiser: Visit the TreeHouse booth at Collinsville's Italian Fest in September or attend the fall open house.

Contribute to the building fund: Send a check to TreeHouse Wildlife Center, 1825 Fosterburg Road, Brighton, IL 62012 or go to the TreeHouse page at www.justgive.org.

Information: Call the center at 372-8092, send an e-mail to [email protected] or visit the Web site at www.treehousewildlifecenter.com.


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