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Published: Monday, 3/28/2005

Way station treats injured wildlife

An eagle takes flight at Back to the Wild rehabilitation center, as staff member Melissa Plummer watches. An eagle takes flight at Back to the Wild rehabilitation center, as staff member Melissa Plummer watches.

CASTALIA, Ohio - The animals here don't have names. Visitors can't feed them; indeed, much of the time, visitors can't even view them.

But while that may not be the way to run an ordinary animal preserve, it is exactly the way Mona Rutger needs to run Back to the Wild, an Erie County rehabilitation center for injured wildlife. About 2,000 winged, furred, and scaly creatures cycle through the center in a year's time, and the human caretakers must avoid bonding with any of them. If they did, the animals would never be able to go back to the wild, and that is the nonprofit center's purpose.

Founded and run by Mrs. Rutger, the shelter houses a range of animals, including bald eagles and barn owls, foxes and bobcats, tortoises and snakes. The sheer diversity of species makes feeding times lively, and ensures that Mrs. Rutger and her assistant, Melissa Plummer, spend plenty of time on their feet. Bill Rutger, Mrs. Rutger's husband of 33 years, also plays a crucial role, doing anything required to support the center.

"It's an unusual turn in our lives, but I've never been happier," Mrs. Rutger says. "Not many people get to do their passion."

With spring under way, the center will soon see a surge in animals, Mrs. Rutger says. People bring in nests of rabbits and other creatures, often unaware that the youngsters' mothers are simply out foraging for food. Others rescue the injured, transporting them in bags and buckets to the center.

"Police departments, sheriff's departments, people in cars bring us wildlife," Mrs. Rutger says.

Rehabbing an injured animal can take days, months, with some requiring more than a year. Helping the animals is costly; the center depends on donations of money from visitors and services from veterinarians.

Wildlife center founder Mona Rutger treats a duck in preparation to return it to its habitat. Wildlife center founder Mona Rutger treats a duck in preparation to return it to its habitat.

"We can't exist without them," Ms. Plummer says.

The center does take in a few creatures that have no place else to go; such animals are often used to educate visitors. They include a Saharan tortoise that was fed dog food and has a severely deformed shell as a result, and a traumatized hedgehog rescued from a bar in Toledo.

"Some guys were throwing him back and forth and taking bets if people could catch him without gloves," Mrs. Rutger says of the prickly mammal. A woman walked into the bar, saw what was happening, and "waited till he hit the floor and rescued him while they were looking for him."

She shook her head. "He had fractures," she says sadly. And although the animal's bones have healed, its spirit has not.

"That's why he's terrified of people," Ms. Plummer says, watching as the baseball-sized animal refuses to uncoil from the protective posture hedgehogs adopt when facing a threat.

But other animals have to be euthanized. "We have to focus our efforts on the animals that can be saved," Mrs. Rutger says.

"We get a lot of animals that don't make it," Ms. Plummer says. "You have to accept that."

The work never ends, and is not for everyone. In her former job as a secretary, Mrs. Rutger never had to contend with a shopping cart full of slowly thawing dead rodents in her office; now it's a daily occurrence. The animals must be fed, and the center goes through nearly 300 rodents a day doing so.

"They need a natural diet," Mrs. Rutger says. "We can't just give them a bowl of kitty food."

The other part of the center's mission involves educating visitors. Last year, some 53,000 children and adults learned about wildlife and environmental conservation either at the center or through the programs the Rutgers and Ms. Plummer do off site. The response from children particularly gives the three hope for the future.

"It's neat to know there's so many good kids out there," Mrs. Rutger says.

"I love it when you can see the kids make a connection," Ms. Plummer says. "You can see their eyes light up."

But the best moments for both women come from returning their charges to the wilderness.

"The releases are touching," Ms. Plummer says. "That's where they belong."

Contact Vanessa Winans at: vwinans@theblade.com or 419-724-6168.

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