GARRISON -- For 11 years, Garrison veterinarian Debbie Eskedahl has been dreaming of a Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, a place where injured and orphaned animals could be taken to heal and grow healthy before they are released back into the wild.
Eskedahl, along with dedicated volunteers from the non-profit Wild and Free Wildlife program, have been taking care of these animals, from injured chipmunks to orphaned black bears, in the back of the Garrison Animal Hospital that she owns. The black bears -- right now there are three -- live in cages on a 38-acre wooded site in Garrison where Eskedahl hopes to build the center and add walking trails so community members can enjoy it, too.
Thanks to the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe, the wildlife center likely will be built as early as this spring.
Last week the Mille Lacs Band donated the first of two $12,500 grants to the building fund. The second $12,500 grant will arrive in November, said Don Wedll of the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. The Band's Department of Natural Resources/Environment also gave the Wild and Free program a $5,000 grant.
These two black bear cubs found in the Pine River area this summer after their mother was killed by a car likely will be allowed to return to the wild this winter, said Garrison Veterinarian Debbie Eskedahl, who is also executive director of the Wild and Free Wildlife program. The program is the only licensed facility in the state allowed to rehabilitate black bears.
"This is such a shot in the arm, you have no idea," Eskedahl said about the donations.
So far Eskedahl said the program has raised approximately $14,000 from T-shirt sales, brat sales and other donations to build the $88,000 building. The Weyerhaeuser Foundation gave $5,000 this year.
Eskedahl said the $88,000 price tag reflects projected costs that the program received a few years ago from an architectural firm so board members need to get up-to-date estimates on what the building will actually cost.
With the band's much-needed donation, Eskedahl said the Wild and Free Board of Directors likely will begin making plans to construct the building this spring. They are hoping the seed money from the band will encourage other area businesses and private citizens to donate additional funds to make the building a reality. Currently an old trailer sits on the site where the center will be built and is used to store the program's paperwork and supplies and food for the animals. Wal-mart in Baxter donates its ripped dog food bags once a week for the bears and other wildlife.
The Wild and Free program helped 250-300 injured or orphaned animals last year, said Eskedahl. It is the only facility licensed by the DNR to rehabilitate black bears. Right now they have three bears, a yearling and two cubs, who are being cared for by Wild and Free volunteers.
The yearling is considered to be too tame to be returned to the wild and is on a waiting list to be released to a zoo. The bear was found by a family in northern Minnesota as a cub and left chained to a doghouse. It played with the family's children and their dogs for weeks and is too accustomed to human contact, said Eskedahl.
The two bear cubs were found this summer in Pine River after its mother was killed by a car. Fortunately, the two pudgy bear cubs are now hissing at human visitors and will be able to be released back into the wild this winter. Eskedahl said the DNR will sedate them while they are hibernating and place them in an artificial den in the woods in northern Minnesota this winter.
Eskedahl said her goal in the near future is to build one-acre secured pens for the bears on the Wild and Free property so they have more room to roam and play.
The program also cares for injured turtles, hawks, loons, eagles and other native wildlife.
"I think the clinic has worked very well with the band and has helped us many times," said Wedll. "That whole concept of helping the bears is a key element for the band."
Last spring Eskedahl and her volunteers rehabilitated and released 34 injured and orphaned fawns. It was a draining experience, said volunteer Vivian Clark. Volunteers had to "nurse" the fawns by holding onto two large milk buckets with several attached synthetic nipples as the fawns suckled, drinking goat's milk. Ten fawns at a time were able to be fed this way, said Clark.
To learn more about the Wild and Free Wildlife program, check out its Web site at www.wildandfree.org or write to the program at P.O. Box 160, Garrison, MN 56450. Or call the Garrison Animal Hospital at (320) 692-4180.
The organization has an adopt-an-animal program and is always looking for more members.
According to the program's recent newsletter, items on its wish list include: construction materials, including 2-by-4s, plywood and linoleum; a wheelbarrow; Rubbermaid containers of all sizes; garbage bags; old towels; postage stamps; paper towels; heating pads; and tarps of all sizes. All donations are tax-deductible.
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