By Emily Stonehouse
We’re always running. Setting alarms on our cell phones and scheduling meetings to catch up. It’s a time where we hear “I don’t have the time” daily, and priorities are jumbled like word searches.
But all around us, animals exist. They thrive in nature, living at their own pace, recognizing their needs, and creating this ecosystem we all need to exist in. “We are so lucky to have the animals we have in Canada,” Monica Melichar, founder of Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary, told me as we swatted at mosquitos on a sunny July day, “it’s all so wild here.”
Monica had invited me out to visit the sanctuary, tucked into the heart of the infamous Blairhampton Triangle in Minden.
As a lifelong animal lover, I thought it would be a day of petting baby critters and feeding teeny tiny birds.
But it was more than that. It was a day that was bustling and busy, a day of mixing up raw foods, and checking on animals that may not survive. It was a day of learning, of observing, and above all, witnessing selflessness. I walked away with my mind swirling with facts, figures, and ideas; a thirst for learning more, and an ache in my heart for the impact humans have on the natural world.
The early days
When asking Monica when the concept for Woodlands started, she laughed and started with, “well, when I was born…”
I had just sat down at the patio furniture outside the rehab centre; where four volunteers were bustling about, intaking a new bird and finishing up the morning feedings. Monica had checked on a few animals before running through the plans for the day, and then joining me outside.
“I was born to work with animals,” she told me, referencing times that she would try to help baby birds who had hit buildings when she was growing up in Toronto. “I just needed to save the lives that were harmed by human intervention.”
That passion carried on through her upbringing, which led her to study zoology at university before becoming a foster parent with the Newmarket Humane Society. Before long, Monica opened her own pet store in Keswick, where she focused on both domestic and wild animals. “I was just kind of the local animal go-to person.”
On top of the zoology degree, Monica learned about wildlife rehabilitation simply through trial and error. “I have learned a lot from my mistakes,” she said, noting that wild animals are significantly different from domestic animals. “It’s a constantly evolving learning experience.”
In the 1990s, she became an authorized wildlife custodian, which formalized her training in working with wild animals. After rehabbing creatures for nearly 30 years, Monica and her husband moved up to the Haliburton Highlands. “We had no intention of opening a rehab centre here,” she chuckled, “we tried to come up to relax, but there was such a need for it when we arrived.”
In 2010, Woodlands Wildlife Sanctuary opened as a registered charity, and today, has grown to accommodate a base of nearly 30 volunteers, 45 acres of land, and over 800 animals treated each year. “We usually admit around three or four animals each day,” she shared as she sipped her tea from her travel mug, a Woodlands sticker on the front.
As we were chatting, a young robin settled near our table. “Hi Robbie,” Monica said, in a tone that was lulling and calm. “How do you recognize each animal you’ve treated?” I asked, genuinely curious. “It’s like a baby crying or a dog barking,” she told me, “you just know.”
All in a day’s work
Once Monica and I wrapped up our chat on the history of the facility, I was led inside to meet the volunteers. At this point, the morning feeds were wrapping up, but the buzz from the volunteers was still alive and well. Questions were called back and forth about how the foxes were doing, how the seagull was managing, and how Bailey was eating today (I learned later that Bailey was a porcupine). The word “mealworm” was tossed casually into conversations, and I heard it more in those five minutes than in the 31 years prior to that moment in my life.
I was introduced to Christina Carere, a veteran of Woodlands. She was eager to take me alongside during her rounds of the property.
The common denominator for each volunteer with the facility is compassion. A love for animals, and a belief that every little life is worth saving.
But there is also an air of reality to the rehab centre. “The nursery is like a hospital,” Christina said, as we started our tour, “we are not a tourist destination.” She shared that there is an MNR regulation in place that states that if the animal shows no signs of surviving on its own outside the facility, (eg., if birds cannot fly again or ground animals cannot gather food), then Woodlands is mandated to humanely euthanize the animals. The centre is designed strictly for rehabilitation and education, not as a farm or petting zoo.
Christina shared that with me right off the bat. It’s not always easy. Like anything in the natural world, where there is life, there is death. “But we always have to try,” she said, “they all deserve a second chance.”
We jumped right into the turtle corner of the nursery, where three young painted turtles had just had their shells glued back together. While the injuries are raw and rough, the turtles must be kept on a close watch to be mindful of bacteria, but there was one turtle who was missing a small chunk of his front left leg. The wound had completely healed, and the turtle was walking on it. “We are going to call his finder today,” shared Christina, beaming.
“Finders” are the kind folks who find the animals; whether they be injured, abandoned, or sickly, and bring them to Woodlands for that second chance. If the animal is treated and deemed healthy enough to join the wild once again, those finders are contacted, and tasked with returning the critter where they were found, ready for a fresh start.
Christina walked me through the bird section, where I met a crow with a broken leg, a kestrel with a spinal injury, and a yellow-bellied sap sucker who was found abandoned, but has discovered a particular affinity for mixed berries during his stay at Woodlands. Christina greets each animal by calling herself “Auntie Chris is here to say hello!” before checking their food, clean water, and bedding.
We met three young skunks, who were discovered in the Minden Home Hardware parking lot. Despite how cute they were, I was nervous to go near them. “Don’t worry,” Christina said, “skunks give lots of warning when they are about to spray.” She noted some signs were stomping, followed by raising of the tail, and then the final sign: when you see both the raised tail, and eye contact from the skunk. They can’t spray without looking where it’s going.
Beside the skunks was a tiny opossum, tucked into a handknit nest. He was discovered inside the pouch of his mother, who had been killed on the road. While opossums are not native to the area, Christina said that they often curl up into the bottom of trucks and end up accidentally relocating as the truck moves. “When we release this guy, we will bring him back south, where they belong.” she said. While they are often seen as pests, the marsupials are helpful as their diet consists of ticks, which run rampant in the area.
Each critter has a little clipboard by their crate, which indicates where they were found, when they were admitted, and some details on whatever ails them. As we visited each animal, Christina checked each clipboard to make sure she was up to date on each and every visitor to Woodlands.
After saying hello to two tiny snapping turtles, who were over a year old and fit into the palm of my hand, we moved outdoors.
While we began to visit the outdoor animals, Christina taught me to knock on each door, and always locate each animal inside their enclosure before setting foot inside. “They’re still wild animals,” she reminded me.
Our first visit was to a porcupine and her baby, known as a porcupette, which in my humble opinion as a lover of words, is one of the cutest words in the English language.
The mother was discovered recently hit on the side of the road. Upon admission to Woodlands, it was noted that she was producing milk, which meant that there was a baby out there somewhere. For four days, the finder of the mother scoured the same length of road where she was found. Finally, he discovered the baby, hiding in the woods, waiting for her mother to return.
The finder brought the baby to Woodlands to join the mother, who, after being previously lethargic and unwilling to cooperate, cheered up at the sight of her baby. The two are on the road to recovery now, and Christina shared that the finder will be contacted soon to return the duo to the wild.
I went on to visit a young fisher, six fox kits, a family of hawks, a Canada Goose named General who trains all the goslings how to swim, one particularly vocal red squirrel, another porcupine named George, and Marsha, a young fawn who was born in a swamp, and her umbilical cord had gotten infected, resulting in her being abandoned. She was getting her second chance to grow at Woodlands. They all were.
With over 200 animals onsite that day, Christina shared that summer is their busy time. “This is when all the babies come in,” she said, noting that over the fall and winter, it’s more about injured animals, than raising young ones who have been abandoned or orphaned. This is why at the beginning of each summer, Woodlands is actively looking for volunteers to join their team, and tend to the increasing needs of wild animals in the area.
Because it takes a special person to care about animals. About the miniscule pink mice whose parents were killed. About the tiny squirrel with a broken leg. About the scrappy fox with wild in his eyes. About the turtle who looks too far gone to ever recover.
“There’s no such thing as a pest,” said Monica, “every life matters, and every life has a purpose for our balance in this world.”
The majority of the animals at Woodlands are there as a direct result of human interference; whether that be cars, destroying of habitats, or the insane concept of capturing wild animals to tame as domestic pets, before noting that they were too wild, and abandoning them in the woods to fend for themselves. Several animals, including a fox, had been found wearing cat collars or had indications of being too socialized, and were struggling to survive in the wild.
While humans may be the root to so many of these problems, they are also the reason that the sanctuary exists in the first place. The kindness and selflessness from volunteers, the dedication from the finders, the hope and belief that every little wild life matters.
So maybe we should all take a break from always running. From setting alarms on our cell phones and scheduling meetings to catch up. Maybe, while we watch these animals get their second chances, we should take a note from them; to live with a purpose, at our own pace, while respecting and truly appreciating the natural world around us.