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Hotline hopes to answer calls of the wild(life)

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 27, 2011 - Most people don't know what to do when they find a squirrel in their attic, opossum in their trashcan or a coyote going after the family cat; but a brand new, non-profit is looking to educate callers on just what actions to take in those kinds of situations.

"Our hope is the hotline will cut admissions [to rehab centers] in half," said Angel Wintrode, founder of Bi-State Wildlife Hotline. "We'll be able to answer the phone 24 hours a day to say, 'Put that bunny back in the hole'."

"All of these babies are so cute, and we agree, they're cute," Wintrode said. "But they're so cute, that people want to save them."

Trying to save them, however, doesn't usually work out well for the bunny.

Wintrode has also worked at the Humane Society, where she said there was nobody to refer wildlife calls to. Most wildlife rehab centers are usually only open during minimal hours, are understaffed and underfunded; making a volunteer's jobs all the more difficult - especially during Spring.

"By the time they call you back, the 'finder' has already done something wrong," she said.

Government agencies like local Animal Control and the Conservation Department also fall short, Wintrode said. Government agencies seldom respond to wildlife calls. Most funding to Missouri and Illinois counties has been cut, and the Conservation Department usually advises shooting or otherwise killing the animal.

"There is no government entity that will help you get rid of an animal that isn't hurt and isn't sick - you just don't want it there," she said. "People think that Animal Control will just come out and pick it up, and it's taken care of, but that's not true."

"That's definitely where we're stepping in," she added.

The hotline services the state of Missouri as well as southwestern Illinois, and currently has a workforce of 12 volunteers. The volunteers all sync their phone numbers into the group's Google Voice account. When someone calls the hotline, all phones that are synced to the account ring, and the first to answer gets the call.

And those who answer are experts in the field of wildlife rehabilitation, and have experience in educating callers on what to do during their encounters with native fauna.

Beaver In The Bathtub

One such volunteer is Debra Hilburn, a 21-year veteran in the wildlife rehabilitation field.

Two decades ago, Hilburn, who lives outside Kansas City, found a fox she thought was dead on the road. Not wanting to see the animal crushed, she went to move it off the road, only to discover it was alive. Trying to find it help, she said, was not easy

"I found the only nature center in the area, Lakeside Nature Center, and found they needed more volunteers," Hilburn said. "They've been stuck with me for 21 years now."

Hilburn herself is a pioneer in wildlife rehabilitation in Missouri. For years, she was the only person in the state rehabilitating beavers and aquatic mammals. It all started when Lakeside got a baby beaver, and Hilburn took it home to take care of until it could return to the wild.

"It's amazing what men will do to get a beaver out of the bathtub," she said. Her husband soon built her a pond on their property.

"Being out in the country and having the only water mammal setup for years, I got to rehabilitate the first river otter baby in Missouri," Hilburn added. "[I] got to reintroduce the first ones."

Hilburn and Wintrode met when the two centers they volunteered at started working together over the phone on beaver rehabilitation. The two have, on occasion, "relayed" back and forth between Kansas City and St. Louis.

Both also find their work with the hotline and wildlife conservation rewarding.

"I'm not a super religious person, but as far as I'm concerned this is my calling," Hilburn said. "The people that come out of the woodwork are amazing. I truly believe I'm blessed tenfold. "

'Going To Be An Experience'

While the hotline is new, Wintrode has already noticed a pattern in calls. The phones ring between 10 and 12 times a day, but almost double on days where it's nice out and quieter on weekends.

The staff has also recently received a number of "attic calls;" after residents find critters hunkering down for winter, Wintrode said.

Wintrode expects a surge in calls once Spring arrives. When people start going outside to enjoy the nicer weather, wildlife will be there to meet them, and the animals will have adorable offspring.

"This will be our first Spring for the hotline. We're a little scared, I'll be honest," Wintrode said. "It's definitely going to be an experience."

Ryan Schuessler, a journalism student at the University of Missouri Columbia,  was a summer intern at the Beacon. 

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