Late night calls. Motion in the halls. Another animal in need. Something new, cold, dehydrated or injured and in need to feed; Trying to save this creature late into the night. Sometimes efforts seem futile when in the end you lose the fight. We see may things, those of us who answer the call, from birds to bats, and this is not just from spring to fall. From orphan bunnies who can’t take much strain, to an innocent pup or fawn or crane. We never stop caring nor … do we stop feeling the pain. We work together for the good of the creature, its health its mind and its survival in the future. The final release is our ultimate goal but the ones who don’t make it will never leave our souls. (Wildlife Poem by Tracy “Wildthunder” Belle.)

INDEPENDENCE - A new day dawns in rural Independence. Typically up by 5 a.m., Tracy Belle begins her early morning rounds; visiting patients, attending to all kinds of injuries and ailments, and doing what she can to comfort those in pain. Tracy is a healer with a special calling. She’s a wildlife rehabilitator who has been rehabilitating wildlife for the last 20 years. For Tracy, it is a matter of profound compassion for all of God’s creatures, and a perpetual labor or love … despite the fact it can often be a thankless task.

“Many times the animals in my care balk, bite, scratch and fight. They are scared, in pain, and have no way of understanding that I am just trying to help them, “ Tracy shared. “But when they are well enough to be released back into the wild, it’s all worth it.”

The goal of wildlife rehabilitation is to provide professional care to sick, injured and orphaned wild animals, so ultimately they can be returned to their natural habitat. It is NOT an attempt to turn wild animals into a pet. Patients are only held in captivity until able to live independently in the wild once again.

Fear of humans is a necessary survival skill for wild animals, so every effort is made to minimize human contact and prevent “taming” of patients. Rehabilitation is often an elaborate, expensive and time-consuming process, and for most rehabilitators it is an unpaid calling. Many expenses for care end up coming out of a rehabilitator’s own pockets.

Tracy is no exception.

“My husband is a precision sheet metal fabricator with IEP, and shares my love and dedication to wildlife rehabilitation,” Tracy says. “I am a studio photographer and artist who works from my home, often selling my creations to raise funds for wildlife rehabilitation. I paint, sculpt and make jewelry, and enjoy running a photography business on the side.”

Still, it’s hard to make ends meet, because most of their income goes to take care of the dozens of animals entrusted into their care.

“We don’t drink, smoke or do drugs. We raise a lot of our own food, as well as hay for the animals. We do without a lot of common luxuries, such as cable TV and propane. We have a wood burning stove, and cut the wood ourselves. Any extra income is utilized in the care of the animals.”

Like most rehabilitators, Tracy works with a veterinarian (out of Black Hawk County) to assess injuries and diagnose a variety of illnesses. Due to important differences between wild and domestic animals, rehabilitators need extensive knowledge about the species in their care, including natural history, nutritional requirements, behavioral issues, caging and more. They must also be able to administer basic first aid and physical therapy, and in Tracy’s case, have extensive knowledge of healing plants and herbs, which helps to offset cost of medications.

To work with mammals, reptiles, amphibians, wildlife rehabilitators must be issued special permits from their state wildlife agencies.

When it comes to birds, almost all species are protected by federal and state laws. Rehabilitators that wish to care for birds must also get permits from the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

First however, they need to meet special requirements like specialized training, participate in mentoring programs, and have to pass both oral and written exams. Tracy received her certification through the DNR, and is classified as a “Licensed Master Class Wildlife Rehabilitator.” She is certified to rehabilitate all animal groups, including birds, but her favorites are reptiles and amphibians.

“I love all animals but especially enjoy working with reptiles and amphibians. They were the first animals I worked with, through a wildlife rehabilitation group called ‘High Desert Reptiles,” when I lived out west.”

“The ironic thing is,” Tracy continued, “I used to be scared to death of snakes! But after working with High Desert Reptiles, I became fascinated by them, and eventually that fascination overcame my fears.”

Tracy currently has a number of snakes and other reptiles and amphibians under her care. Some will be adopted out (when well enough). Some will be re-introduced into the wild, and others will remain in her care indefinitely. All have interesting survival stories, like Elvis, a California King Snake that has been in her care for 12 years!

“He was found in Waterloo and brought to me by Animal Control. California King snakes are not native to the Midwest, so I have no idea how he ended up here. He was beaten with a shovel and left for dead by a guy that thought he was poisonous. They’re not. In fact this type of snake is typically non-aggressive. Elvis is a gentle creature, suffering major vertebrae damage, and for a long time was unable to move part of his body. Although he recovered somewhat, much of the damage was permanent, making him unadoptable and unable to return to the wild. The damage has taken its toll over the years, and he’s not doing so well these days. Chances are, he’ll have to be euthanized before too long, which is sad. He’s so gentle and sweet-natured. …”

Meanwhile, lots of other patients are also in need of care. Recently, two litters of baby raccoons were brought in. One came from Tama. A dog had killed the mother.

“They were so young, “Tracy said, “their umbilical cords were still attached.”

The other litter came from a Waterloo apartment building. The mother, was “relocated” by Animal Control. Her babies were discovered four days later; dehydrated and in pretty rough shape. The second batch was older, but unweaned.

“They have to be hand fed every four hours,” Tracy said. “Eventually, they will be released back into the wild. … I expect lots more raccoons to be coming in before summer is over, as well as opossums, squirrels and even skunks. … I have the formula down pat if I get sprayed, which truthfully, happens quite a bit. Forget tomato juice, we use a mixture of dish soap, peroxide and baking soda. It works great!”

Two bats are also being rehabilitated at the present time.

“They were brought in last fall. One has a hole in its wing, which is almost healed. And the other was caught in a sticky trap. They were brought to me to be over-wintered. Both are doing well and will soon be released.”

To protect themselves against rabies, both Tracy and her husband have received rabies vaccinations.

In addition to the snakes, turtles, lizards, coons, bats, deer, and rabbits currently in her care, Tracy and husband Scott have quite a menagerie of their own; including two dogs, a number of cats, chickens, and horses.

“Most of the cats were brought to us. Two litters of kittens came to us last year. They were also unweaned and needed bottle -feeding. We call them our box babies and bucket babies, because that’s how they arrived on our doorstep. Most are up for adoption, but several remain unadoptable because they have special needs. Anna, our St. Bernard was given to me, because the previous owner wanted to turn her into a show dog. Anna had other ideas. The owner said, ‘You can have her,’ and I took her. She’s been spayed, but is a very maternal soul, often nurturing the babies that come in. The kittens adore her and have become very attached to her.”

Obviously, caring for such a wide variety of wild animals, can be expensive, and as mentioned earlier, much of that expense comes out of Tracy’s own pocket, so donations of animal food, gift certificates to Petco, monetary donations for Veterinary care, old newspapers, and even building material like scrap wood, nails and screws for building cages are always welcome.

In addition, Tracy is also an award-winning photographer, talented artist, and makes unique jewelry designs.

Much of her artwork is for sale with proceeds benefitting animals in need. “Friend” her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/Wildthunderarts or give her a call at 310-961-3352.