Wildlife healer loves animals, sets them free

July 26, 2004|JULIE McGLOTHLIN

Tracy Cole sits alongside the horse ring at the Garrard County Fair, bottle feeding a small blanket-wrapped infant. She is the image of maternal love as she rocks the small child.

But this is no human baby. He is a six-week-old raccoon.

Cole, of Garrard County, is a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator. For the past 13 years, she has been caring for injured and orphaned animals brought to her by the Humane Society, local vets and area residents. Right now, she has nine baby raccoons and two baby deer at her 450 acre farm.

"There are very few of us around," she says. "It takes somebody special and a lot of patience, but it's very rewarding."

Although she refers to the tiny raccoon as "my baby," she is quick to point out that these are not pets. "You have to understand they are wild animals. When they get to a certain age, their wild instincts come out. You have to treat them differently, more cautiously."


Caring for the animals is time-consuming. Many of the animals come in wounded, especially the deer, and must be nursed back to health with the help of a local vet. The infant raccoons need to be feed bottles of goat's milk and baby cereal on a regular schedule.

"We go through lots of cereal. Captain Crunch Berries is their favorite. And stuffed animals. They love stuffed animals," Cole says smiling.

To accommodate their constant needs, Cole takes the baby animals with her wherever she goes, including to work at C&H Cattle in Lancaster. "I have one at home that won't take a bottle from anyone else," she says.

Her children, Michael, 16, and Megan, 13, help out with the time-consuming task of minding the animals. Megan wants to be a vet when she is older.

Once they are grown and healthy enough to fend for themselves, the animals are released onto the land surrounding Lake Herrington. Even this liberation process takes time, as some of the animals return to Cole's farm and have to be weaned off civilization a second time.

"The most rewarding part is seeing them alive and playing, seeing them scamper off and make it," she says.

It's hard to let them go

After investing so much time in an animal, Cole says she gets attached. Releasing a healthy animal into the wild is rewarding, but it is also hard to let them go.

Some never quite make it back to the wild. While the goal is to rehabilitate and release the animals, some must remain in captivity. The younger animals, especially those who come into Cole's care with their eyes still closed, imprint on humans. These animals relate more to people than to other animals, making it almost impossible for them to survive in the wild.

Others are prevented from returning to the wilderness by their injuries. One deer Cole treated arrived with her front hooves cut off. Although she eventually recovered, the deer is now unable to provide for herself and will remain on the farm with Cole.

In addition to the raccoons and deer, Cole's farm houses sheep, horses, cows, llamas and game birds. "I plan on opening up a petting zoo in the fall," says Cole. The game birds include 2,000 baby quail that her husband Robert is incubating to supply the hunting preserve they also run on the farm.

"I grew up on a goat and dairy farm. I've always had that love of animals," Cole says. "That's why my kids are being raised on a farm. I wouldn't have it any other way."

Over the course of the past 13 years, Cole has cared for countless animals. The most unusual was a coatimundi, which is related to the raccoon and lives in the southwest United States as well as Central and South America.

"I do this because I love animals," she says.

"And there isn't anyone else to do it."

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