NEW PHILADELPHIA, Ohio – A happy, healthy baby boy sucks eagerly on a bottle of milk. His name is Skeeter, and he is Mommy’s favorite.
Perhaps it’s because just six weeks ago, the little raccoon was on the verge of death and had it not been for his “mommy’s” intervention, he likely would be just another dead raccoon on the side of the street.
Ten miles away, Skeeter suffered from puncture wounds in his stomach, likely from a dog, maggots swarmed his eyes and ears and his fingers were severed.
It took endless hours and antibiotics, but now Skeeter’s getting along just fine, thanks to a woman who dedicated her life to saving animals.
Lesli Humphries is the “mommy” to many animals, most notably to the orphaned and injured wildlife she rehabilitates in Tuscarawas County.
With Humphries’ state license, her home is a safe haven for orphaned and injured squirrels, skunks, red fox, chipmunk, beavers, possums, rabbits, raccoons and other animals.
Nursery. The sign on the door says, “QUIET. Baby Coonie Nursery.” But the noise coming from the room is anything but quiet. Incessant chatter from behind the door signals feeding time for six baby raccoons.
It’s wildlife season, which means Humphries’ spare bathroom is now home to two cages of baby raccoons.
Although Humphries takes in injured animals all year long, the infants are born – and orphaned – in spring and summer, marking this as the busiest time of year.
Last year, 12 skunks, 21 raccoons, 39 squirrels, 17 possums and one Florida alligator passed through her rehabilitation center.
Humphries has 11 subpermittees who work off her permit, and she often lets them rehabilitate and release the animals, too.
Work, work, work. The washing machine runs night and day here at the Humphries house. There are never enough rags and receiving blankets. She buys bleach by the gallon.
Milk replacement powder costs $20 a can and she goes through 12 cans a month.
Most telling of all are the 30 pet carriers in her house and garage.
Saving the lives of animals doesn’t come cheap. And the money comes directly from Humphries’ pocket. She accepts donations, but they’re never enough.
In addition, Humphries is so busy feeding, cleaning and rescuing animals, it’s a full-time job – a nonpaying job. Although her husband Harry doesn’t take care of the animals, he helps pay for their care and Humphries says he supports her efforts 100 percent.
‘Cute and cuddly.’ Although she calls herself Mommy and speaks of her animals as affectionately as one would talk about a child, Humphries makes no mistake about it: No matter how attached she gets, she will release them when the time’s right. Not only is it illegal to keep wildlife as pets, but “all animals are cute and cuddly when they’re little. Then they grow up.”
Although it’s easy to tell Humphries treasures the purring and nuzzling after the coons are fed, she is not disillusioned.
“You can’t take the wild out of wild animals,” she says as she burps a coon named Wheeling. Humphries names each of the babies.
Since she spends so much time nursing the babies and raises them for several months, not getting too attached is easier said than done. It requires a certain degree of separation and Humphries draws the line at carrying them around the house and letting them sit with her while watching TV.
The less she handles them the better – not only for their benefit but also for hers. That way she isn’t too attached and they aren’t too tame.
Months of care. Laws require her to keep raccoons at least 63 days to safeguard against rabies. But Humphries typically has the babies in her care for four months.
These months are filled with tedious effort, ultimately teaching the raccoons to successfully survive in the wild.
Humphries spends the first days of their arrival treating them for dehydration and starvation and cleaning them. At this point, some of the babies are just days old. Humphries has even had to rescue babies the day they were born when the mother was killed.
Despite the odds of taking in newborn wild animals, injured animals and sickly animals, she estimates that she rehabilitates and releases 98 percent of them.
Growing up. This high success rate stems directly from Humphries’ dedication.
In those earliest days when an animal first comes to her home, Humphries feeds them every couple of hours, mixing and warming milk replacer and feeding each of the babies with a bottle.
As they get older and healthier she doesn’t have to feed them as often and begins introducing them to food like berries and crawdads, which they will eventually find themselves in the wild.
She keeps the babies in her home until they are able to completely eat on their own, at which time she begins keeping them in cages on her wooded property.
Letting go. Eventually it’s time to let them go. Like with all the other processes, Humphries starts slow. Taking them to the location where they will be freed, she starts by opening the cage door and letting them out for a little while at a time.
As they grow more accustom to the outdoors, they venture farther and farther away.
“Sooner or later they leave the cage and don’t come back,” Humphries said with a bit of regret.
Yet, like any good mother, she always leaves the door open for them to return, however in this case, it’s a cage door.
“The pen is always there so they can come back if they feel threatened,” Humphries explained.
Although there are undoubtedly feelings of sadness after releasing an animal she spent months nursing to health and adulthood, it’s also rewarding, Humphries said.
The reward is her certainty that if it wasn’t for her care, those animals wouldn’t even be alive to release.
Why the effort? The biggest question to Humphries’ story is why she devotes her life to saving wild animals that most people don’t even think twice about.
It’s not their fault they’re coming out of the wild and being found orphaned in people’s yards, she explained – it’s encroaching urbanized areas that push the animals out of their own territory.
But that’s not the only reason, it’s also because she has an idiosyncratic passion for wildlife.
She calls her love of animals a rebellion from her youth when she wasn’t allowed to have any pets.
As a backlash, Humphries now has six boxers, three parrots, a canary, 13 cats, a pet fox, chickens and a lamb. This is in addition to the raccoons camping out in her spare bathroom and the baby skunks in her garage.
The animals are a culmination of her days as a humane officer, working in a vet’s office and being a licensed wildlife rehabilitator for 20 years.
Falling in love. A simple drive down a Florida highway two decades ago sparked Humphries’ ardor for wildlife.
A kitten was curled up in the road and looked like it might still be alive. Humphries’ heart felt a tug, and as she made a closer inspection, she realized the kitty was actually a baby raccoon.
She took the coon and immediately looked into how she could legally care for the desperate animal.
After years of rehabbing animals and partnering with a volunteer wildlife organization in Florida, Humphries moved to Ohio and took the three-day course in Massillon to legally care for wildlife.
But after completing the course, she still had to work as a subpermittee for two years before applying for her own permit through Ohio Division of Wildlife.
Now, she also counts on the help from two vets, Terry Owens and John Center, who give her advice, medicine and medical care when needed. With her permit, Humphries can administer penicillin and amoxycillin and even set legs in casts. In addition, she is certified to euthanize animals.
She also works closely with the county wildlife officer.
Tale of its own. Just like Skeeter’s tale of being possibly attacked by a dog, each baby in Humphries’ “nursery” has its own tale.
As she bottle feeds each chattering baby, she tells their story.
There’s a little one who was found in the road, nursing on its dead mother. It had pneumonia. Now its eyes are bright and it’s sucking eagerly on a bottle.
Next is a baby who was found in a groundhog hole. Its mother was killed by nearby traffic. The baby was starving and dehydrated. Now its eyes are bright and it’s sucking eagerly on a bottle.
Now it’s little Wheeling’s turn. A couple found it curled up on a road in the cemetery, soaking wet. They took it home with them to West Virginia, realized it was illegal and brought it to Humphries. Now its eyes are bright and it’s sucking eagerly on a bottle.
Within months, they all will be “wild” animals again, thanks to Humphries.
(Reporter Kristy Hebert welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 23, or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
What to do if you find a wild animal
NEW PHILADELPHIA, Ohio – One of the biggest mistakes people make when they find wild babies is assuming their mother left them, according to wildlife rehabilitator Lesli Humphries.
If the babies look healthy, she encourages leaving them for a day to see if the mother returns. The mother may have just left to find food, she said.
And despite tales that mothers will abandon their babies if they smell a human scent, Humphries says this isn’t true. As long as she is alive, she will return to the babies, regardless of the scent, the specialist said.
Getting help. If a wild animal does need rescued, Humphries recommends contacting a wildlife rehabilitator as soon as possible.
“Lots of people want to keep the animals and help them themselves when they’re young and cute,” she said, cautioning that this is illegal and often detrimental to the animal.
“Instead you have to call someone who knows what they’re doing,” she stressed.
Keeping a wild animal can result in significant fines and jail time.
In the meantime. Until a rescuer arrives, keep the animal in a quiet, dark, warm space. And definitely do not feed the animal.
People usually give animals the wrong kind of milk, which causes diarrhea, cataracts, rickets and calcium deficiency. Diarrhea especially can be dangerous to an already-sick animal because it dehydrates them.
Humphries also cautions to keep children away from wild animals because they carry parasites.
To locate a rehabber. For more information or if you find an injured or orphaned wild animal in your area, call your local police department to get the name of your nearest wildlife rehabilitator.