Episode 3 – Cassandra Pio-Stoflet

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In this episode, we talk with Cassandra who is a licensed animal wildlife rehabilitator.  Cassandra shares her story about her start in wildlife rehabilitation and discusses how rewarding it is to save animals.  Cassandra also explains how to get started as a rehabilitator so you too can save animals.  You can learn more about Fierce Hearts Wildlife Rehabilitation by visiting them on their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/fiercehearts/

Welcome to the Professionals in Animal Rescue podcast, where our goal is to introduce you to amazing people helping animals and share how you can get involved with animal rescue. This podcast is proudly sponsored by doobert.com. Doobert is a free website designed to connect volunteers with rescues and shelters and the only site that automates rescue relay transport. Now on with our show.

Hi, Welcome to the program. Today we’re talking with Cassandra Pio Stoflet.  She’s 27, and lives in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. She studied English and Environmental Education in Captive Wildlife before leaving school to pursue opening her own wildlife rehabilitation facility. Cassandra’s trying to provide exceptional care to the wildlife that is brought to her facility as well as compassion to the community members who find wildlife in need. This is Cassandra’s fourth year working in wildlife rehabilitation and her first year as an advance licensee under the Wisconsin DNR wildlife program. Cassandra is the founder of Fierce Hearts Wildlife Rehabilitation, which is now in its second year as a nonprofit organization serving the animals in the community where she lives.

Well, thanks so much for joining us today. Tell us a little bit about Fierce Hearts.

Sure. I started Fierce Hearts Wildlife Rehabilitation in 2014. We are located right in the middle of Wisconsin.  I started it because there was sort of a vacuum in the center of the state. There were a couple of home-based rehabilitators who do a really great job of what they do.  They only cover a few species so what I was hoping to do is create a central hub in the middle of the state that would be able to guide community members towards the help that they needed to get whatever wildlife situation that they found themselves in.

That’s really cool.  So you only started a couple of years ago?

Yes. This year, I was granted my advance license and you need two years of experience as a basic wildlife rehabilitation licensee before you get to advance. So this is my fourth year working in wildlife rehabilitation and we’ve been established for three now.

Wow. Congratulations on that. How exciting. Thank you. So how did you get into this? This isn’t something that you, as a kid, you went “Oh, my goodness. This is what I want to do with my life”.  Tell us how you got into this.

Yes, and it’s tough that I don’t have like a specific story. It sounds corny, but it almost feels like a calling. I don’t really imagine myself doing something else and I can’t really think about a specific instance where I realized like, “Oh, this is exactly what I want to do with my life”.  I was always the kid who was saving the baby rabbits from the barn cat and trying to feed birds that I really shouldn’t have been trying to feed.  I’ve always…  There’s that path where you’re wondering, “Should I have been a veterinarian or a technician?” I dabbled in English for a while.  It just seems like the best way that I could help animals do what animals they’re supposed to do.

That’s really awesome. So it was one day back in 2014 you went “Oh, my goodness. I need to establish this”. How did Fierce Hearts come about?

I was attending school at UW Stevens Point. We had a job there at one time and there were boots and boots and boots for forestry, water technician, and different DNR stations and very, very few for wildlife rehabilitation facility. There’s a few really established centers very far up north, and some really great centers very far south, and very far east we have the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary and nothing right in the middle.  I realized that if I wanted to live where I’ve always been living and stay in central Wisconsin, as well as just fill that space where there was just nothing, then I would have to do it on my own.

Wow, that is so cool. So is this your full time thing? Is this a passion project for you? Tell us more.

Some of both. We’re a nonprofit organization.  At this point, we are not quite at the stage of self-sustaining. We have heavier seasons, slower seasons, and baby seasons – which would be early spring to early fall, is our heaviest season.  During that period of the year, it’s my full-time job.  You’re up feeding at eight in the morning and all hours in between there. If you’re lucky, your last feeding is at eight at night. If you’re not lucky, you have two-hour feedings and you’re going throughout the night as well. So it’s a full time gig during baby season. The rest of the year, I work part-time jobs elsewhere to try to fill those monetary gaps but you go and try have two hours of life.  Yet during the year, the baby season section of the year is my full-time gig.

So what kind of babies? I was really fascinated when I looked at your Facebook page. You’ve got such great photos of all sorts of different animals that you’ve taken care of. Is there one particular kind that is more prevalent?

I focus on mammal rehabilitation. Hopefully, our eventual goal is to be able to do every mammal in the state of Wisconsin. Our big three are squirrels, cottontail rabbits, and raccoons. That’s a combination of what species are most common just in general, and what species people are most likely to encounter. If you live in the middle of town, you’re pretty likely to see a raccoon, but you’re a lot less likely to see something like a fisher or a pine marten. The raccoon is the one that someone is going to stumble across and try to find help for.

Okay.  Are there organizations like yours across the country? Tell us a little bit more. I’m not as familiar with the wildlife rehabilitation side of things.

Yes. There’s a lot of different rehabilitators scattered across the state. There are generally home-based rehabilitation and center-based rehabilitation.  The centers are the ones that have staff generally and hours that they’re open, taking hundreds and hundreds of animals throughout the year. Home-based rehabilitators are people who usually focus on a small number of species.  They take in generally less than a hundred of those species, raise and release them just like the centers would, but on their own or with a very small number of volunteers.  Across the country I’m not as familiar with. I know that every state has different wildlife rehabilitation laws that people have to abide by.  I’m very familiar with Wisconsin and less familiar outside of our state.

Sure. Tell me a little bit more about how does it work in Wisconsin?  You mentioned two different types. Are you more of a home-based or more of a center-based?

I’d say evolving from home-based to center-based. To have volunteers, you need to have your advance license.  This is the first year that Fierce Hearts could have off-site and on-site volunteers to assist. Last year we had around a hundred intakes and this year, with the extra manpower, we can take in that many more animals just through hours that you have to contribute to each animal. Just set the limit that you have. Right now we’re in the middle stage where we’re accepting more species. We added on five new species this year than last year so we’re kind of moving in the direction of center-based.

Yes, that’s really cool.  What is your goal? Like, what is your mission? What is your vision for this?

Yes, my goal is really just to create that central hub and able to take in as I said, all mammal species in the state of Wisconsin. I think there’s a lot of avian-based facilities.  Birds are fantastic but I think their niche is filled in our area. The mammals really need a lot more help and assistance throughout our county. I’m the only person accepting raccoon within a five-county region right now. I figure, really focus on the mammals and be able to accept more and more of them. We increased from one pre-release enclosure to six in the last three years. So really, we’re in a big growth and expansion phase, but yes, in a 10-year time, I hope to be able to accept as many animals that need assistance in our area.

That is really awesome for you to be thinking 10 years out.  Tell me a little bit about your facility. You mentioned some of the number of enclosures you have.  Give us a perspective and walk us through what your setup is like.

Sure.  It’s based around the need for orphan rehabilitation.  We accept orphaned, injured, imprinted, and ill animals.  Orphans are really the bulk of our patients. So you start out in our nursery.  We have two separate nurseries. One of them is our general, small mammal one.  We accept squirrels, woodchucks, muskrats, opossums, rabbits, and porcupines,  I’m probably forgetting one… in that nursery. Our other nursery is exclusively for raccoons.  That’s just to create a separation between any kinds of transmittable diseases.  From the nursery, we also have a quarantine section for any animal that are indicating that they have some symptoms that you don’t want spread out to everyone else.  Outside of that, you have your pre-release enclosures or pre-release conditioning enclosures. Those are one of the big stepping stones to creating a rehabilitation facility. You need those pre-releasing enclosures.  What happens in there… There are big cages.  You can usually imagine seeing just the high wall and lots of mesh.  Animals are digging, swimming, flying, and doing whatever it needs to do that it would typically be doing outside. What they’re in there for, is just to create that separation between the nurseries where they’re very dependent on human interaction. They watch the humans create the meals, interact very closely to a person, go out to that release-conditioning enclosure, and learn how to be a wild animal.  They’ll only see a person one or two times a day and they re-wire or re-learn how to take care of themselves. They’re a really, really important part of wildlife rehabilitation that people don’t normally think about, but it’s always there.

How big is your facility? You described a number of different enclosures and transitions. I’m just curious how much space do you have?

Great. So we have about an acre and a half.  Everything is just sort of first out to very carefully create separation between the other animals and all those people. Right now, as I said, we’ve got the two nurseries and six pre-release enclosures.  Every enclosure is sized differently to accommodate the animals that it houses.  Our raccoon ones are significantly larger than the squirrel ones.

So how many animals at any given time? Like, how many animals do you have right now?

Oh gosh I have to count.  It’s all in the paperwork, but off the top of my head… it changes so fast. Right now we have 18 raccoons in care, 8 squirrels, 3 opossums, 1 chipmunk, and 6 cottontails.

That is amazing. How do you even have time to be talking to us?

Very carefully about half an hour before we started, and I’ll feed them hour and a half after.

Wow, you must get no sleep at night. It’s a very carefully scheduled sleep.  As I said, I’m lucky right now. I don’t have any two-hour feeding animals. So everything is between 8 AM and 8 PM.

Sure. That is really cool. I just have to ask, why you are doing this, Cassandra?  What is it that motivates you to want to do this?

I know it’s hard to say day-to-day. Sometimes I ask myself the same exact question.  At this point, the number of animals that I have helped, I can project into the future how many animals I’m going to help.  If I weren’t doing it, I don’t know who would.

That is really cool, though, that you’re constantly looking to the future and saying, “What else can we do and how do we grow this?” I have to ask, how did the name Fierce Hearts come about? It’s a very cool name.

Oh, yes. Thank you. We had my first, very, very first intake to release a patient was a 13-lined ground squirrel who didn’t have a name.  Her intake number was nine, so she was nine. It shocked me what a tough little squirrel she was. She weighed under 20 grams. Just this tiny little thing that’s lighter than a bar of soap.  She was tough. If you put your hand on the enclosure, she would jump right on it and try to wrestle it. She attacked grasshoppers like a lion attacking an antelope. She was just shocking with how intense she was. There’s a Shakespearean quote from “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” – “Though she be but little she’s fierce”, and it just got stuck.  Though they be but little, they’re very fierce. I just wanted to convey that.  People look at bunnies, squirrels, and little ground hogs. They’re just cute little woodland creatures but they’re tough. They do what they have to do to get by in the world.

That is an awesome story. It’s such a great name to carry on what it is that you’re doing.  That’s really cool.  If somebody is listening, you kind of knew, as you said, it was like you’re calling.  But if somebody is listening to this, and they’re going, “Oh, my goodness, this is what I want to do, right?” Give us Cassandra… All right, here’s where you need to start. Here’s the lessons you need to learn.  Help somebody else to get started.

Yes, and that such a feeling everyone have to have their own individual path to getting started. As far as of boxes to check, I do think that people working in rehabilitation should have enough of a background in research and the ability to do research that they can do their own. As a founder, owner, and operator of a wildlife rehabilitation facility, you have to create your own protocols for how you’re going to treat animals and the medications you’re going to use. You have to be able to justify to yourself your method. You need to be able to go into the wide world of the Internet and find methods and agree to yourself whether or not they’re going to work. So you need to be able to understand academic papers. You need to be able to understand other people’s evidence for what they’ve done and whether or not you believe that that will be effective at your site. That doesn’t necessarily mean a four-year degree to me. I think a lot of people have an innate ability to look into research and understand it on their own. I’ve had highschoolers asking me what I would recommend. I think that a technical degree of some kind would benefit someone just as much as a four-year degree as far as getting into the field.  You would have to… and it depends on if you want to start your own facility, or if you want to work at an established one.  With every established facility, it’s going to have their own requirements for what they want an employee to have. As far as starting your own facility, if you want to go out and create your own hub for rehabilitation, you need to look into your state law initially, and find out what every state department is going to require of you. In the state of Wisconsin, you need to have a consulting vet who agrees to treat, care, and provide medication for your patients. You need to have a sponsor.  Somebody who’s worked in wildlife rehabilitation field and will agree to guide you through.  You need to pass an inspection through the state that’ll look at the facility that you’re going to hold an animal thing.

Sounds like a lot of work. It is a lot of work, and beyond that, I would say that you really need to look into yourself. Think about whether or not you can handle the ins and outs. There’s a lot of joy involved. There’s a lot of animals that you bring back from the brink. It’s very satisfying and fulfilling but you also have to breathe in a lot of heartbreak at the same time.

Yes, I can imagine. Is there a particular story that comes to mind? One that really touched your heart?

I’ve got a couple and I’ll start with a really bad one. I had a young man who found a gray squirrel in a trap in a ditch on the side of the road.  It was probably late at night, very early spring. It wasn’t his trap. It was on his property but it looks like it had been tossed from a vehicle.  The squirrel inside was very, very hypothermic and very, very still. It wasn’t reacting much to anything around her. He brought her in during emergency hours to try to treat her. Unfortunately, you know, you provide fluid therapy, you provide heat therapy, but she did not to make it through the hour. The best that we could do for her was provide her with as much comfort as we possibly could at the end of her life. There’s just heartbreaking things that you see people do that just really dig down deep into you. Unfortunately, she was also a nursing mother so somewhere out in the world, she had babies that were waiting for their mom to come home, and she never made it. Just heartbreaking things like that. But at the same time, you get to help people who deeply want to assist animals but just don’t know any other way to do that. We’ve had habituated raccoons, which is a raccoon that is typically raised alone. People find them on the roadside next to their deceased families, usually sole survivors of some kind of car interaction and take them in. If they don’t know where to go, they’ll raise the baby raccoon and their families. After a certain time, it becomes clear usually to people that the raccoon is not going to be a very good family member, and they’ll end up here. They will take in these raccoons who think that their people and have been raised with these really wonderful families who were just going to help, and it’s really heartbreaking. You’ll see people crying and just really loving this animal that they wanted to assist.  Being able to watch that animal go from a scared baby who thinks that its family just abandoned it, to a flourishing wild animal who learns how to be a raccoon from the other animals that we have. People will come back after bringing their animals here having been totally heartbroken.  That’s how it’s been when they see their animal actually interacting in the wild.

That has to be so rewarding. It is. Those were really great stories. I appreciate you sharing. I was looking at your website and I was looking at the “Frequently Asked Questions”. You talked a lot about where you get your animals from. More importantly, what do you do with them? Tell us a little bit more about what is your ultimate goal with these animals?

Yes, it really confuses people sometimes. If they haven’t personally brought us an animal where the animals actually come from and is orphaned, injured, ill, or imprinted, usually orphaned, and people will find them in all kinds of circumstances. Finding a baby raccoon alone on the road is very, very common. People will witness animals get struck by vehicles in front of their homes and days later find litters of baby animals. We get those guys in. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of pet interactions, pet dogs and pet cats will interact with a rabbit, and then people will find the baby animals. We’re just a compassionate solution. Rather than having to let nature take its course of people will say we enable nature to flourish under human care instead of failing as it would and just allowed to die. That’s where they come from. People just…  They just start finding… walking outside in their suburban neighborhood in city streets, people will find wild animals that just need help. People have always witnessed very, very cute animals flourish in the captive setting, especially wild animals. They’re just much wired to be outdoors and be living free lives. So the goal is always to get them back into the natural setting that they would normally live their life out in.

That is a really awesome goal, and it’s really amazing the work that you’re doing and the aspirations that you have for what Fierce Hearts is going to do. Thank you. You shared a lot and you shared some really great stories. Thank you so much. I appreciate your time.  It’s really amazing to learn what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Just to share some of the lessons and the stories that you’ve got and how people can get involved.

Thank you so much for your time. Thank you for having me.

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