PENGILLY – Jody Benolken has been rehabilitating injured and orphaned wildlife since she was a girl. In college, she studied wildlife management, but never went on to pursue a career in the field after developing rheumatoid arthritis. Nevertheless, she continued to work with animals and started a wildlife rehabilitation center called Dark Star Wildlife Nursery in 2007 on her home property in Pengilly.
“The hard work of taking care of (these wild animals) and keeping them alive (is worth it) when you release them,” said Benolken. “It’s the best feeling to watch them run or fly wild and free again. That’s the best part – knowing that you did something good and something good came of it.”
Along with rehabilitating these animals, as of 2012, Benolken has also been educating young children about how to respect wildlife.
On Thursday, Aug. 14 from 5 to 7 p.m., she’ll bring River, her river otter, and Todd, her red fox, to Tower’s Vermilion Country Charter School to teach the public about these animals and their habitats as well as Dark Star’s role in helping other rescued animals.
The wildlife rehabilitator said she’ll also host a summer day camp at her rehabilitation center on Aug. 16, where kids can go on nature walks and learn about the wild animals she’s preparing to return to the woods.
“I’m trying to get kids back outdoors and show them how fun it is,” said Benolken. “A lot of kids these days are obese and want to sit on their computers.”
Along with Todd and River, Benolken and the center’s 22 volunteers are currently nursing to health seven young raccoons, woodpecker chicks and a red-tailed hawk. On Monday, they were able to release an owl back into nature.
Todd and River, however, will never be able to go back to their original homes.
River, now a year old, was brought to the center by the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources (DNR) when he was three weeks old. The otter was suffering wounds after having been dragged out of its den near Grand Rapids by a dog.
Benolken said River was too young to know how to swim when he came to Dark Star, and so she had to teach him. This prolonged human interaction domesticated River, preventing him from having a future in the wild.
“Otters should normally be with another otter in order to remain wild,” she said.
To teach River to swim, Benolken would put him in the bathtub and use her hand to tow him around in the water.
“The mother (otter) takes him by the scruff and drags him into the water and swims with him,” she said. “I wanted to get him to know water is fun.”
Now, River is a swimming machine.
“It’s kind of like having five two-year-olds,” she said. “He’s got a lot of energy.”
Todd, on the other hand, isn’t quite as domesticated.
He was brought to Dark Star from the Deer River area when he was three weeks old with a broken femur in his right leg. The vet had to put a pin in his leg.
“The foot part never did heal right,” she said. “We’re not sure if it’s nerve damage or what. We were hoping that he could be released, but as of now, he’s staying with us until we can find a sanctuary.”
Fox need their hind legs to pounce on prey, especially in the winter when they jump into the deep snow to bring the mice to the surface, she said. And because Todd’s right foot has yet to fully recover from his injury, he can’t pounce properly.
“We won’t release him knowing that he doesn’t have the full ability to hunt,” she said.
Once four-month-old Todd gets older, he’ll be released into a wildlife sanctuary where he’ll be able to roam without threat of hunting or predation.
Although Dark Star has proved beneficial to the recently-released owl, Todd and River, many animals that are brought to the center would have been better off left alone in their environment, Benolken said.
“I get a lot of different wildlife every year where people take them as babies and assume they make good pets. And then they realize, after the animals get a certain age, that they don’t have a house left,” she said.
Not only do people take baby wildlife in as pets, but they also bring to Dark Star babies that show no signs of abandonment, injury or illness.
She wants people to know they should never remove a wild animal from its habitat without good reason.
She said unless an animal is showing signs of starvation or detrimental injury, has wilting eyes or its dead mother is nearby, an animal should be left in place. If a baby animal is found alone, this doesn’t necessarily mean it has been abandoned.
If people do decide to take in an animal, Benolken said they should immediately contact a wildlife rehabilitator and allow the animal some space in order to handle the shock of being taken from its habitat.
“Shock is the first cause of death because they’re looking at us like we might eat them,” she said. “If they’re quiet, it’s because they’re going into shock.”
Benolken recommends putting the wild animal in a box on top of a clean towel and placing the box in a quiet area.
She also said to never feed the animal before talking to a wildlife rehabilitator because wildlife aren’t accustomed to human food, pointing out that cow’s milk kills wildlife.
Once a wild animal is given to Dark Star, Benolken said it has a 70-percent chance of survival. Dark Star releases animals back into the wild in remote places with the help of DNR conservation officers.
Benolken welcomes any questions someone may have about rescuing wildlife. To reach her, call 218-256-3832. Other northern Minnesota wildlife rehabilitation centers are located in Duluth and Mille Lacs Lake. You can also find information and updates on Dark Star’s activity on Facebook.