Cec and Tom Sanders did not set out to become caretakers for Colorado's wild animals — but that is where they ended up.
For the past 35 years the husband and wife team ran a nonprofit called Wet Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation, nurturing animals in southern Colorado 30 miles west of Pueblo. The facility is part of the couple's private property where they care for bobcats, pronghorn and bears, among others.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife, the state's main agency for wildlife management, relies on a host of animal care facilities to help rehabilitate injured or orphaned animals. But when it comes to larger animals such as bears, mountain lions and deer, there are only a handful of licensed facilities capable of undertaking the task.
That is why Wet Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation is a crucial spot for Colorado Parks and Wildlife to be able to bring large mammals from around the state.
"That's the huge commitment of time and energy and money," Bill Vogrin a spokesman for Colorado Parks and Wildlife said. "They do a huge service to the people and the wildlife of Colorado."
For the Sanders, who are in their 70s, the dedication of running an animal rehabilitation nonprofit is a labor of love.
"It's a passion," Cec Sander said. "I can't imagine not doing it."
But what became an all encompassing lifestyle for Cec and Tom Sanders started as a sideline hobby. At the time, Cec and Tom were middle-aged school teachers helping another animal rehabilitator in Pueblo take care of smaller animals like birds and raccoons.
"We never had in our plans," Cec said.
"It just kind of mushroomed because at that time, there really weren't very many rehabilitators and we started taking the larger animals because we lived in a rural area where we could deal with them easily."
But 35 years later, there are still few facilities that accept large animals. One of the main obstacles is cost.
At Wet Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation has as many as 30 to 40 new animals come through the doors every year. With donations Cec and Tom are able to stay afloat but it is not always easy, especially in a year such as this when animal food costs are "ridiculously expensive."
"We've been fortunate to have good support, and every cent we get goes straight into food, maintenance and improvements," Cec said.
Most of the animals Cec and Tom work with are orphaned and need practice honing their instincts. So for Cec and Tom, that means making sure they keep human contact with the animals to a minimum so that the bears and other wildlife maintain their innate fear of humans.
"We want to restore their native fear of people so that they won't view us as a source of food and go into a house or anything once their released," Vogrin said. "So that's part of their job in rehabilitating them is to restore their natural fear of humans."
Volunteers will help deliver food and transport animals, but when it comes to on site interaction, it is only Tom and Cec.
While their work is one of love, it will not last forever.
"That's been one of our main issues is someone being able to continue what we're doing," Cec said. "I do have a rehabilitator friend that lives in a rural area, she takes smaller wildlife now, but is looking forward to being able to deal with the larger animals."
Cec and Tom started with a few small animals and grew their home into a refuge for animals across Colorado and they hope to pass the torch on just the same.