RETURN TO THE WILD
The heartache and joy of the people who nurse Wisconsin’s wildlife back to health
by Emily Rohloff
“I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion
Has broken Nature’s social union,
An’ justifies that ill opinion,
Which makes thee startle,
At me, thy poor, earth-born companion,
Robert Burns, “To a Mouse”
In January 1992, a single call would forever change the lives of Yvonne Wallace Blane and her husband, Steve Blane, co-founders of Fellow Mortals Wildlife Hospital.
In the days after that first call, around 150 sick Canada geese would be brought to Yvonne and Steve’s home to be treated. There was no facility — only two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, a basement and a porch in their little log cabin home located in southeastern Wisconsin, in the town of Delavan.
Neither Steve, Yvonne nor their team knew what was wrong with the geese or if they had the finances to treat them. Fellow Mortals’ previous experiences treating wildlife involved dealing with fractures, head trauma, orphaning, starvation and dehydration, but they had never experienced this.
Today, 31 years after that winter of 1992, Fellow Mortals Wildlife Hospital is now in a new location near Delavan, in the southeastern Wisconsin city of Lake Geneva, and takes in about 2,000 injured or orphaned wildlife patients annually at no charge to the public. Yvonne and Steve, along with their team, have become the heartbeat of wildlife care, providing a place full of second chances for Wisconsin wildlife.
The nonprofit’s 52 acres and 10,000 square foot facility includes a state-of-the-art hospital, heated indoor habitats, large flights, a critical care wing and isolation wards. Fellow Mortals relies entirely on donations. The organization receives some of their funding through a monthly donation program called Team Hope. Through Team Hope, members can choose to donate anywhere from $1 to $500 a month. Donors for this program also receive quarterly email updates on how their donations are being used to provide direct care to injured and orphaned wildlife.
The Blanes immediately sent the geese to be tested by the staff at the National Wildlife Center in Madison, who confirmed the geese were contaminated with lead poisoning.
Yvonne, Steve and their team began treating the geese through lavages, which is the removal of lead from the gizzard, to try to save as many of the geese as possible. They also called for help from local and state federal agencies, such as the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Yvonne, still heartsick about the event, can remember dreading each morning having to walk in the cold over to the holding areas to collect the dead bodies of the geese and bring those dying inside her house for warmth.
The geese in critical condition stayed in Yvonne and Steve’s small kitchen and living room to keep warm next to the baseboard heaters. The other geese were kept in kennels, set up hastily in their backyard, tarped against the bitter cold and wind with bedded straw and heat lamps.
Today, it is the memory of the 74th bird, who acted as a totem for them during that horrible time, that stays with the Fellow Mortals’ staff. According to the Fellow Mortals’ team, he represented all of the birds who were rescued, fought to survive, and lived or died. The team was able to release him on Easter Sunday of that year, and with him, release the horror of those few months.
The state and federal agencies’ belief in the Fellow Mortals’ staff and their assistance with personnel, advice, caging and evidence collection is what help make their effort a success.
The cause of the sickness was not dealt with until several years later, in October 1996, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency began removing more than 28,000 tons of contaminated soils and sediments from the site where the Canada geese, and hundreds of other wildlife, had been exposed.
It was the worst case of lead poisoning in southeastern Wisconsin’s history, and it was the first time the EPA ever got involved in a case that resulted solely in the loss of nonhuman life.
“I think we had about 300 animals maybe that year,” Yvonne says. “Our numbers pretty much doubled overnight … So that was really the turning point I think for us where we knew, or we realized, we had to make a decision.”
And make a decision they did.
Gail Buhl, program coordinator for the Partners for Wildlife at the Raptor Center, located in Minneapolis, says Yvonne and Steve have brought high standards to the field of wildlife rehabilitation in Wisconsin by creating Fellow Mortals Wildlife Hospital.
“They have the best practices in mind all the time … Yvonne and Steve working together to design buildings, caging, or whatever it is, is magic to watch,” Buhl says. “And that partnership is what really built Fellow Mortals.”
Another large contributor to Fellow Mortals is Carolyn Uhen, who has been with the team for 22 years. Uhen is the first source of contact for people who call Fellow Mortals looking for wildlife assistance; she receives up to 75 calls a day, screens each call and makes sure they get the information they need.
Over the years, Fellow Mortals has accomplished many great feats, including public outreach, educational programs, and reaching grant and social media goals.
However, none of the achievements are as rewarding as seeing the animals who are brought to them get a second chance at life. The most positive experiences are the ones where the staff of Fellow Mortals can see the animals’ care come full circle.
“They heal very quickly and they have a great will to live,” says Dr. Scot Hodkiewicz, a volunteer veterinarian at Fellow Mortals. “The goal of all these animals is to be able to get released.”
Last October, a goose was dropped off at the Fellow Mortals facility. She had been shot, had a broken leg, and could not stand because of the tissue damage from the pellet embedded in her foot. However, she fought and fought, and she refused to give up. The goose accepted the care of the Fellow Mortals staff and eventually made a full recovery. The team was able to release her back into the wild, an emotional moment for all the staff.
“She gets out and she walks up to the water, she spreads her wings really big, she does a little tail feather wiggle, and she’s so happy,” says Jessica Nass, an advanced wildlife rehabilitator and wildlife biologist at Fellow Mortals. “Those are the little gems that keep us positive, keep us feeling like we’re doing the right thing.”
It is not just the Wisconsin wildlife who appreciate Fellow Mortals and their commitment to second chances. The Wisconsin public also appreciates the effort and education provided by the nonprofit.
Nass recounts how, in late September 2022, a gentleman brought in an owl to the Fellow Mortals facility after he’d been watching it sit on a log for a long time. The gentleman was nervous to help, but Nass and other Fellow Mortals’ staff talked to him on the phone and guided him through the process of how to safely capture and bring the owl into the hospital.
The man, upon bringing in the owl, explained to the staff that he had recently lost his wife, who was an avid lover of owls. He believes that the owl is her spiritual animal and his wife was trying to reach him.
“We, as humans, have the capability to interject ourselves into these things and do the right thing,” Nass says. “It means a lot to us that one life is saved, because it’s a life.”
The respect of wildlife and all living things is what propelled the idea of Fellow Mortals Wildlife Hospital to flourish.
The story dates to when Yvonne and her husband managed a mobile home park. As Yvonne was mowing the lawn one day, she accidentally ran over a nest of baby rabbits. Yvonne, upset and unsure of what to do, called several different animal hospitals, but none of them had a solution to help besides advising her to let nature take its course.
Unsatisfied with this answer, Yvonne and her husband took the baby rabbits into their home and cared for them, nurturing them back to health and then releasing them back into the wild.
“For me, it is mostly a matter of respect, appreciation and a feeling of duty that these other species that share our space are being impacted by human activities every single day,” Yvonne says. “They have no one to speak for them. They have no one to help them. They have nowhere to go. And so that’s really why we’re still here today.”
The difference Fellow Mortals makes continues to grow. Yvonne describes her dream of a future based on education and understanding. She and her husband want to convert Fellow Mortals’ 52 acres of land into a permanent home for wildlife that can no longer be released back into the wild.
They envision having local community, school and church groups come into a controlled environment and let them observe, interact with and learn about the different wildlife of Wisconsin, while making sure the animals still have their privacy and space to retreat.
Yvonne also hopes euthanasia as a management practice is ended and that providing care and education takes its place. The team at Fellow Mortals Wildlife Hospital is passionate and committed to helping the wildlife of Wisconsin, no matter the condition, size or species that comes to them.
“We really do run on faith and hope,” Yvonne says.“I sometimes say one promise, one purpose, one life at a time.”
Featured photo by Perri Moran.