What is your job with the UI, and how long have you worked for the university?
I’m a secretary in the veterinary/biosciences department. I’ve been in this department for five years, but I’ve been with the university for 16 years. I take care of graduate students, keep their records and charts, and enter grades in Gradebook.
Have you been an animal lover all your life?
Yes. One of the professors started calling me ‘Ellie Mae,’ like the character on the TV show ‘The Beverly Hillbillies.’ I said, ‘Oh, she’s my idol!’ And he was surprised it didn’t make me mad. I wanted to be like Ellie Mae when I was a kid and have all those critters. I have a lot of critters, just not the same type she had, and I don’t have a ‘cee-ment pond.’
That’s also how I got the nickname the ‘Critter Lady.’ A co-worker there just started calling me that because I sometimes had boxes of little animals under my desk. And the name just stuck. So I use it to sign my e-mails.
How did you get started rehabilitating wild animals?
The Wildlife Ward at the UI takes in orphaned and injured wild animals. Then rehabbers like me take the animals when they’re medically sound and raise them until they’re old enough to take care of themselves in the wild. At first, the Wildlife Ward asked me to help them on my lunch hours. Then they helped me get my license to rehabilitate wild animals. I can’t keep any of them; I have to release them in state-approved places.
What did you have to do to get licensed?
I got training through the Wildlife Ward. I learned how to tube-feed and bottle-feed the animals and all the care that an orphaned animal needs. I learned how to mix up formula for them, how much each one needs depending on its body weight and when to start putting them on solid food.
Every year, I have to submit a form to the State Conservation Department telling what animals I had and where and when I got them. I also have to state what happened to the animals: whether I released them and the location or if the animals died or were euthanized. Based upon that form, they decide whether or not to issue the next year’s license. It’s against the law to keep wild animals without a license, and people don’t realize it.
Where do all the animals come from?
The Conservation Department gives my name out to people who find animals, as does the sheriff’s department, the Humane Society and local veterinarians. I also get animals from the UI Wildlife Ward.
What types of animals and how many do you take care of?
I think the most I’ve had is 453 in one year. That was a little too many. I’ve had rabbits, squirrels, raccoons, a few birds. I used to take opossums, but I don’t anymore because they carry a disease that’s dangerous to my daughter’s horses. I got three little chickens one time that someone had left in a cage under a bench at the bus station. I’ve gotten pea-hens [female peacocks], and I got four ducks that someone had bought as pets for their kids. I also get calves and lambs from the university that need to be taken care of.
How many animals of your own do you have?
Two horses, three dogs, three cats, a cow, probably a dozen or more chickens and ducks, a pea-hen and the Nanday Conure [a member of the parrot family]. We get pigs in April to raise to butcher and that’s what we’ll do with the cow. Some people think that’s a little contradictory that I raise livestock to eat when I’m helping save the wild animals.
How do you find the time to take care of all these animals?
It keeps me busy, and my daughter and sons help out. I used to keep all the animals in the house. We’ve even kept the lambs and baby pigs in the back room of the house. The raccoons are the hardest to raise because they have to be taught how to fish so they can catch their own food. We get a little wading pool and some goldfish, and by playing in the water with them they eventually learn how to fish.
Where do you get the food for all these animals?
I try to get feed companies to donate because I don’t get paid for any of it. It’s all out of my pocket. The payoff is to see the animals living. Some of the big feed companies will help out and donate feed.
What do you enjoy most about taking care of all these animals?
I know some of the babies aren’t going to live because they’re so tiny, but I try. I like nursing them to health. It’s worth it when I can finally take them to be released into one of the approved places.
We had 26 baby raccoons one year. They’d follow us around like children and squeal when someone came in the door. It was total bedlam, especially at feeding time when we’d be propping nipples up everywhere trying to feed 26 squalling babies. That’s when I realized that 453 animals that year was too many.