EXCHANGE: Oaken Acres helping injured wildlife for 31 years

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SYCAMORE, Ill. (AP) — There's an injured baby raptor on the rural outskirts of the city.

But fear not, these aren't the clever girls from the 1993 movie "Jurassic Park." These are the owls and other birds of prey at Oaken Acres Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which has nursed injured wildlife back to health for 31 years.

Christy Gerbitz, director of operations, is in charge of caring for the animals in enclosures resembling their natural habitat outside, then taken inside the facility for proper medical treatment.

"These are outdoor enclosures where they're conditioned back to life before release," Gerbitz said. "I tend to a lot of their health issues, get them healthy, then get them back outside as close to their native habitat so they can start to develop their wild assets."

Oaken Acres has a baby owl, two baby raccoons, an adult northern flicker with a broken wing and several squirrels orphaned by last week's tornado.

It's just the beginning: May through July is the prime time for baby animals being born in the wild, and a busy time for Oaken Acres.

Mostly, Oaken Acres sees injured animals brought in by the public, Gerbitz said.

"We'll do 500 animals this year," she said. "Half will be birds and will be in May. Some of those little ones need care every 15 minutes of the day. That's why we need all hands on deck."

One issue Gerbitz said she sees with injured baby animals handed over to Oaken Acres is that they've been imprinted on by the people who cared for them. Hence, why Gerbitz currently feeds the center's owl with an owl hand puppet.

When coming across wild animals, Gerbitz said precautions should be taken - don't engage the animal immediately, watch and listen, assess the surroundings, then protect yourself and the animal.

"The best way to capture it is to put a box over the animal and slide a lid underneath it," Gerbitz said.

Amilee Maher of Cortland interned for a year at Oaken Acres before become a staff member. She said she hopes to one day finish her degree at Kishwaukee College and pursue a career in veterinary medicine.

It's a joyous experience when the Oaken Acres staff nurses a wounded animal back to health, she said. Most of the animal releases Maher has been part of have been raccoons taken to a nearby forest preserve.

"You just open the cages and see them cautiously peak their heads out," Maher said. "They'll run and climb up trees. It's really exciting to see they adapted so well from outdoor enclosures to climb trees."

Founder Kathy Stelford said Oaken Acres has grown from receiving 20 animals and $80 in donations a year to taking in 500 animals a year and enough donations to support that, Stelford said.

In 2007, Stelford published her book, "Every Live Matters: Inspiring Stories of Wildlife Rescues and Releases," which chronicles the lives of some of the animals that have gone through Oaken Acres.

"Sometimes, you get very attached," Stelford said. "You spend hours daily with certain animals in very serious condition. Even when it's hard, you know the reason you do it is to release them back in the wild so they can live a normal life. They're all special, but some tug at your heartstrings."

Stelford recalled a time about 20 years ago when a fox, dubbed Georgie Girl, was hit by a car and had stainless steel pins in both of its hind legs that eventually was nursed back to full health, and released.

"No one thought she would make it," Stelford said. "It was wonderful to see her run off."

Animals that don't recover are usually euthanized, and it's merciful when it does happen.

"Wildlife rehabilitation has one of the highest mortality rates of all the animal welfare jobs, because wild animals are not capturable unless they're in very critical condition," Gerbitz said. "We celebrate our victories from the mountaintop because with every victory we have, there's a number of losses we've endured, so those victories are made all the more sweeter."


Source: The (DeKalb) Daily Chronicle,


Information from: The Daily Chronicle,

This is an Illinois Exchange story offered by The (DeKalb) Daily Chronicle.

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