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Longtime wildlife rehabilitation center in Ellicott closing

May 15, 2017 Updated: May 16, 2017 at 6:14 am
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photo - "Nate," a rehabilitated red-tailed hawk, lands on his perch behind Donna Ralph as she talks Monday, May 15, 2017 about having to close the Ellicott Wildlife Rehabilitation Center that she and her husband own and operate. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
"Nate," a rehabilitated red-tailed hawk, lands on his perch behind Donna Ralph as she talks Monday, May 15, 2017 about having to close the Ellicott Wildlife Rehabilitation Center that she and her husband own and operate. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

Not until late April did Donna Ralph realize that the Ellicott Wildlife Rehabilitation Center wouldn't make it through the summer.

"I think some of us - that would be me - were in a little bit of denial," said Ralph, the center's executive director. "By the end of April, we were like, 'OK, we have no money in the bank, and there's nothing really coming, so this might be a good time to think about exit planning.'"

The center will close by the end of June.

Staff had warned for years about the dwindling resources, especially after the Waldo Canyon and Black Forest fires and the closing of other Colorado rehabilitation centers.

But it was the record number of animals they took in last year that drained their finances.

The center, which Ralph set up in 2000 with her husband, Phil Carberry, relied on donations. In recent years, taking care of 2,000 to 3,000 animals cost at least $30,000 a year, Ralph said.

"Last year, it just wiped us out - absolutely just wiped us out."

The board decided in March 2016 that the center would only take animals from El Paso County, but that was easier said than done.Last summer, a group of tough-looking teenage boys showed up with a baby bunny in a paper cup.

"They were like, 'Oh, we just didn't know what to do.'" They had spent most of their money on an Uber from Littleton and said they could only offer her $3.

"Are you going to turn these guys and their little bunny down when they spent almost their last dime to get here? That's what we experienced the last year and really, the last several years as facilities filled up," Ralph said.

Because few places now take wild animals, unknowledgeable people might care for them improperly or expose the animals - or themselves - to disease.

"In terms of, 'Where are people going to go?' there really isn't any place for them to go. The remaining few . . . they're going to fill up very quickly, and then they aren't going to be able to take anything."

Ralph often was on the phone, helping people decide whether an animal needed to be rehabilitated. They fielded about twice as many calls, 5,000, as animals they took in.

The center stopped taking animals in late April. Many of the remaining 30 or so have been released back into the wild. Some still are completing their rehab, and several foster and teaching birds will be sent to other facilities over the next several weeks.

"We're 20 years older; we're 20 years more decrepit," Ralph said, laughing. "It's a lot of work. I mean, we've been doing this around full-time jobs, and this is a full-time job too. . . . But it's been good."

Ralph and Carberry cared for animals in their Littleton condo for three years before moving to Ellicott in 2000 and setting up the center, which was incorporated in 2002.

When Carberry retires from his job at King Soopers, the couple hopes to move, Ralph said.

"When you do what we do, this work for all these years, you don't get days off because there are always animals. We've missed out on a lot of family stuff - we've missed births and deaths and graduations."

They were licensed for most animals - "except for the ones that can kill us."

A baby badger named Gus brought in last summer was one of her favorites.

"I know badgers get to be mean and nasty, but when they're little fluff balls of babies, they are adorable," she said, smiling.

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