‘Twas the night before Christmas at the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center. And not a creature was stirring.
They were shivering.
A deep freeze that swept the East coast over the holidays knocked out power for three days at the center, causing food bowls to freeze and heating pads to go haywire.
Fortunately, Santa would seem to be an animal enthusiast. A $35,000 helping hand came in the nick of time from an angel donor, allowing for electrical upgrades for parts of the facility, and bringing comfort and care back to the center’s current residents.
Still, say co-directors Susan Downing and Janine Tancredi, more work is needed.
The duo, who took over operations of the center in September, previously founded rehabilitation and rescue center Wilderz Wildlife in Willow Grove, PA. There, they assisted woodland animals in the Greater Philadelphia area.
Based on their reputation, they were approached by retiring Pocono Wildlife executive Kathy Uhler and ultimately agreed to take the reins of the 40-year-old facility.
It was a dream job for the pair. One where Downing and Tancredi could flex their unique approach to rehabilitation – and help many other animals in the process.
But it wasn’t without its challenges.
Prior to moving to the Poconos full-time, the team made regular commutes to their new digs – nearly a two-hour drive 4 days a week – while maintaining two rescue operations.
And while the new center – now rebranded as Wilderz at the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center – offers far more resources than the duo had in Willow Grove, a makeover is long overdue. Enclosures need expanding and weatherproofing, and the facility’s electrical infrastructure is in desperate need of a complete overhaul.
“We’re looking forward to just running this beautiful facility,” Downing says. “It’s one of the largest – if not the largest – of its kind in the state of Pennsylvania. We’re working with nine counties, and we may end up working with 11.”
The opportunities for building goodwill while giving animals a safe haven to heal are out of this world, she continues.
But first, the housekeeping.
“Because we’re a nonprofit, it’s constant money raising, money raising, money raising,” she says. “We need a huge upgrade. The center needs a lot of work. The infrastructure is not doing well at all. We’re hoping to raise the necessary funds to get things to where we need them, so we are no longer distracted and can concentrate fully on the animals.”
Baby season is coming soon, says Tancredi. April will be here before we know it, and so will new litters in need of formula, shelter, and more.
“It’s extremely helpful to have the community’s support, not only when emergencies like these arise, but also to maintain this amazing resource throughout the year,” Tancredi says.
The co-directors are also hoping another angel donor comes through, allowing for the construction of a medical treatment center, including an X-Ray room and surgical center. This would mitigate the need to send injured animals on their own commute for lab work and scans, eliminating the associated stresses.
The total for fixes runs six figures. It’s a steep tally. But the Wilderz crew has beaten the odds before.
Skin in the Game
Downing grew up on a farm where she fostered a passion for animals and their care. Later, she would discover a gift for Capture and Transport. Her status as a Reiki master – a healing technique based on the channeling of energy via touch – would prove invaluable when aiding wounded animals.
Previously a veterinary technician, Tancredi operated a 501 (c)(3) that rescued domestic animals for many years, before becoming invested in Capture and Transport, where she first met Downing.
The two quickly formed a bond and began working together.
“We became incredibly successful getting animals where we needed them to go,” Downing says. “And we thought, ‘Why don’t we go for our own permits?’”
So, she says, the duo studied their … tails… off, and following six hours of testing, received their permits from the Pennsylvania Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Council at the beginning of July.
Before long, word of Wilderz Wildlife and its helpers began to spread.
“We were making a great name for ourselves,” Downing says. Not only were the duo’s rehabilitation efforts wildly effective, but they were also having great success treating conditions that many people believed were beyond repair – or even hopeless. Things like fox mange – a horrible disease that Downing says is decimating the fox population.
“Mange is caused by a parasite,” Downing explains. “The condition eats away at the skin. It itches horribly and the skin gets almost armadillo-like. And eventually the debilitation can lead to death.”
The life expectancy for a fox with end-stage mange is negligible. But because of the team’s unique approach and protocols, foxes with severe mange were rehabilitated and released back into the wild within six weeks.
“We get them up and out,” she says. “We’ve even gotten to the point where our game commissioner will drop off a fox that he normally would have shot. He knows how successful we are with mange foxes.”
A Unique Gift
Raccoons, squirrels, and opossums. Snow geese, blue herons, and bald eagles. Groundhogs, beavers, and rabbits – oh my.
“You name it, and we’ve dealt with most of it,” Downing says.
“We haven’t treated a bear yet because we just got to the Poconos,” she continues. “But it will be very exciting learning about bears this season.”
The secret to successfully working with animals?
“I guess what it is, is the approach,” Downing says. “It’s keeping your heart rhythm low and approaching them in a soft manner.”
“Some people call it Woo-Woo science, but it’s proven,” she says. “I used to volunteer for hospice. Nurses would call me in when they had a restless patient. All it would take is a hands-on connection, and they immediately calmed down. Reiki is one of the best things for pain, and it works amazingly well on wildlife.”
A constant state of awareness is the key, Downing says – otherwise, you run the risk of a nasty bite.
“You have to constantly be in the moment,” she says. “No distractions. Phones off. These are wild animals who can go from being completely docile to aggressive in a split second. So, we approach all animals with an understanding that we’re there to help. We approach them in a very calm and very present state. You can’t be distracted by anything else because you will end up getting hurt.”
The Fine Line
Downing says one of the greatest challenges she and Tancredi face is making the difficult decision to euthanize.
“You must make sure that your heartstrings haven’t gotten so affected that you’re keeping an animal alive and suffering because of your personal feelings. You have to check your emotions and be objective enough to say, ‘OK, can they survive? Or am I doing this because I really want them to survive?’ That’s the fine line that we walk every day.”
Often when a citizen brings an animal in for treatment, they are already engaged and attached.
“And you want to save the animal for that person,” Downing says. “It’s the absolute hardest thing. They’re literally in the palm of your hand, and you have to be very conscious that you’re doing everything you can to save them while still being able to say, ‘Am I doing this for me? Are they able to be saved?’”
Needless suffering is the last thing the Wilderz team wants. Because of that, they’ve assembled a trusted team of wildlife professionals – including Pocono founder Uhler and co-clinic managers Kathryn “Kat” Schuster and Sharon Rose Wycoff – to help oversee each case.
“We always have four or five sets of eyes on an animal so we can say, ‘What are your thoughts? Can you feel his spirit?’”
Downing says there are some patients who you simply know are fighters.
“And that’s amazing,” she says. “Because 9 times out of 10, they end up making it – and you could just tell.”
The Greatest Reward
Another success story surrounded a mange fox that an entire Pennsylvania neighborhood rallied around.
“This Upper Orchard community loved this fox. She even had kits. But then she started getting mange. It got really bad. So, they finally trapped it, and we took it and rehabilitated it. Six weeks later, the whole community came together, and we released it back to the wild.”
Throughout the fox’s rehabilitation, community members would send care packages for their newfound friend, and the Wilderz, in turn, would post photos of her progress.
“Seeing this community come together for this little fox was so amazing,” she says. “It was just really wonderful to see an entire community support wildlife and raise awareness.”
That, Downing says, is the point: establishing a working relationship between the community and the great outdoors.
“People spend thousands of dollars to prevent squirrels from getting into their bird feeders. They shoot them with BB guns. We get those squirrels and they’re infected and it’s not a nice thing. Others give bubblegum and Alka Seltzer to groundhogs. They don’t see the results – but we do. And it’s devastating.”
But seeing an animal that arrives, almost dead, and nursing it back to health – and releasing it back to its natural home? There’s nothing like it, says Downing.
“Knowing that we’ve helped in that process. That we’ve helped to encourage them. We’ve helped with our energy and the medicines that we have. Seeing an animal released back to the wild is simply the greatest joy you can have in this business.”
Back to Nature
Many Pocono transplants come from New York City, Downing says. And that’s a different kind of wild, altogether. And many are unprepared for facetime with their new woodland neighbors.
“They’ll call the center and say, ‘Hey, your bear got loose and it’s in our yard.’ And we’re like, ‘No, that’s not ours. That’s just a bear that’s wild that’s in your backyard,’” she laughs.
“I think one of the things that has happened with everyone going online is that we’ve lost touch with what’s important,” she continues. “We need to have ties to Mother Earth. We need to have ties to the wild. And if we lose sight of that, it never works out well for society.”
And yet, despite a 24/7 connection to Google, Downing says it’s amazing how much apathy remains.
“The information regarding any wildlife you see in your yard is at your fingertips. But a lot of people aren’t aware of a lot of different things. Trapping laws are terrible. You’re allowed to torture wildlife and there are no ramifications from it… It’s too easy to turn a blind eye.”
At the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center, Downing and Tancredi’s biggest goal will be to create a harmonious balance between humans and nature that is cohesive, not combative.
“At some point, you have to be aware of the wild, because you live amongst it,” she says. “Even in the city you live amongst it.”
To donate, visit https://poconowildlife.com/donatenow/.