Wild at heart: Black Forest woman maintains a dream, caring for orphaned and injured critters

July 28, 2013 Updated: July 29, 2013 at 7:41 am
photo - An orphaned deer from black forest fire licks Rachel Garcia's nose during formula milk feeding at the Wild Forever Foundation's wildlife rehab center in Black Forest, Friday, June 28, 2013. The rehab center has received two deers from the Red Cross by the end of the Black Forest fire period. Garcia is a Pikes Peak Community College student who is currently interning at the Foundation.  Photo by Junfu Han. The Gazette.
An orphaned deer from black forest fire licks Rachel Garcia's nose during formula milk feeding at the Wild Forever Foundation's wildlife rehab center in Black Forest, Friday, June 28, 2013. The rehab center has received two deers from the Red Cross by the end of the Black Forest fire period. Garcia is a Pikes Peak Community College student who is currently interning at the Foundation. Photo by Junfu Han. The Gazette. 

The fawn rose on trembling legs, staggered a couple of feet across the hay and collapsed in the corner, exhausted.

That was good enough for one day. At least the pitiful creature still had some fight. It just might live to adulthood.

"Attitude-wise, eating-wise, he's doing great," said Linda Cope, who has been changing the fawn's bandages and feeding it with a bottle since it was found tangled in barbed wire, abandoned by its mother and only hours from death by exhaustion or coyotes.

Out back was another fawn whose mother was hit by a car; the young deer suffered a nasty bump to the head. Two other healthy babies were found after the Black Forest fire, their mothers dead or chased off by the flames.

Summer at Cope's home in Black Forest means caring for the fawns. And birds. And foxes. And porcupines. Every year, it's the same story. Sometimes it's even the same stretch of road producing the orphans.

"We've changed the planet so much that all the things we've done present new hazards," said Cope, co-founder of Wild Forever Foundation. "These guys don't learn about roadways in 100 years. Foxes don't learn you shouldn't cross the asphalt."

For 17 years, she has been taking in the broken eggs from the omelet that is modern society, as one of 85 licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Colorado. It's unpaid, expensive, time-consuming work, with animals incapable of returning her affection. In fact, success means they grow up and disappear into the wild without a backward glance.

Each year, it gets a little tougher. Volunteers drop out because of the time and money commitments. The price of food rises. State regulations get stricter.

And always more fences. More roads.

More fawns.

* * *

Wild Forever Foundation was born one night in 1995 on the road home from Denver. Cope noticed cars swerving to miss something. When she saw the porcupine, its back leg nearly severed, trying to drag itself from the road, she stopped.

She picked up the porcupine by the armpits to avoid the quills and drove it home. She bandaged the wound and stayed up most of the night, but it was dead by morning.

She didn't get pricked, but still the porcupine's quills embedded in her heart.

"It just struck me that somehow we care very much for our domestic pets, but we aren't seeing that wildlife is being destroyed," she said.

"I think wildlife needs to be treated humanely, especially when it's an injury due to humans."

The next year, she co-founded Wild Forever Foundation on her 20 acres in Black Forest.

State wildlife officials have long been hard-pressed on what to do with injured wildlife. Often, a bullet on the side of the road was considered the only humane solution. But many Coloradoans live here for the natural setting and wildlife, and some took it on themselves to try to help the animals.

Over the years, state wildlife officials have enacted stringent regulations on who can care for wild animals. So Cope had to take classes and get licensed, which took a year. There are inspections, endless forms, a mandatory apprenticeship.

"Our job is to make sure that wildlife are receiving proper care and to make sure they're taken care of as best as possible. We don't allow just anybody to do it," said Brett Ackerman, regulations manager for Colorado Parks and Wildlife.

Cope turned her barn into a care facility. She built pens for the fawns. A fox den and enclosure. A porcupine paddock.

She doesn't know how much of her own cash she's invested, but suffice to say, it's a lot.

* * *

The geese were just "yellow, fuzzy little babies" when they came to Cope from Fountain Creek. One had a broken leg. Another had swallowed a fish hook.

It's not just cars and deer that keep Cope's life busy.

"Constantly we get ducks and geese with fish line wrapped around their legs, hooks in their beaks," she said.

In the wild, they wouldn't have had a chance. But because they're young, Cope likes their chances and hopes to release them back to the watershed soon.

Caring for wildlife is a balancing act. You have to help the animal get strong enough to leave without becoming too familiar with humans. The fawns will graduate from being bottle-fed to eating grass in their open-air enclosure. Then, if all goes well, after fall hunting season ends, Cope will release them within a 10-mile radius of where they were found.

It's hard for Cope, releasing them into a world full of peril. But it's not a petting zoo, and these animals don't belong caged.

In fact, said Ackerman, unless special approval is granted, animals are required to be released or euthanized after 180 days.

"This is in no way intended to be a long-term care facility for animals. Rehabilitators take a lot of care and effort to not let animals imprint on them." he said.

* * *

Cope hears the frustration all the time from people who find an injured animal. The state has limited capacity to care for them, with only one facility, reserved mainly for endangered species.

"By the time they've finally reached one of us, they've probably had a couple hours on the phone. People get frustrated," she said.

In the case of deer, she suggests people contact Colorado Parks and Wildlife first, only because so many people see a lone fawn and assume it has been orphaned. Mothers often leave their young for long periods, so unless there's a dead doe or it's been several days, help likely is not needed.

If an animal is hurt or orphaned in El Paso County, people can contact Cope or the Ellicott Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.

Every rehabilitator specializes in different animals, and it's a tight-knit community, so Cope usually can help people find the right person.

Cope dreams of the day when rehabilitators can band together to build a central facility, a one-stop location where people could bring injured wildlife. But, for now, it's a disjointed, poorly funded system. Cope gets donations of food or buys goat milk by the gallon for the fawns, in hopes she gets reimbursed by donations.

"You still pay a lot out of pocket," she said.

"I don't think we're ever going to get control of this with our growing population of humans until we have a central location that everybody in the community knows about."

* * *

At 59, Cope can envision a day when she no longer has the money and energy to continue.

A decade ago, she had a dozen volunteers caring for animals in their homes. Now it's just her, another woman who takes birds and a summer intern.

The Black Forest fire made this an especially stressful summer, having to evacuate and find new homes for the animals, the uncertainty of knowing if her home would be salvaged, the orphans adding to the usual traffic casualties.

"I want to help. Sometimes physically it gets exhausting and depressing because these things still happen," she said.

It's the love of the animals that keeps her going. They aren't endangered species, but it's not about making sure there are enough mule deer in Colorado. It's about treating them with dignity.

"They're a very common species, but there's something you learn with rehab: No matter how much I work with any animal, I'm more amazed at their ability to survive this world because you stop and think about every hazard they have," she said.

"These numbers aren't going to make any difference at all (in their population). It's just people learning to respect wildlife for what they add to our lives. And without them, oh my gosh, I can't imagine that.

"I can't imagine life without them."

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