Yvonne has been a wildlife rehabilitator and educator since co-founding Fellow Mortals with Steve Blane in 1985. She graduated from UW-Wisconsin Whitewater with a B.A. in English and an individualized minor in Earth Sciences. Yvonne currently acts as Executive Director, Director of Rehabilitation, Grantwriter, Social Media and Online Fundraising Professional and Advanced Wildlife Rehabilitator. Fellow Mortals has provided care for 50,000 individual wild birds and mammals to date. Her specialties are captive care of aerial insectivores, including common nighthawk and chimney swift, and the use of wild unreleasable birds for conspecific fostering of wild orphans, a field which she helped to pioneer with the late Marlys Bulander, of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
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Yvonne Blane has been a wildlife rehabilitator and educator, since co-founding Fellow Mortals with Steve Blane in 1985. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin, Whitewater, with a BA in English, and an individualized minor in Earth Sciences. Yvonne currently acts as executive director, director of rehabilitation, grant writer, social media and online fundraising professional in advanced wildlife rehabilitator. Fellow Mortals has provided care for 50,000 individual wild birds and mammals, to date. Her specialties are captive care of aerial insectivores, including common Nighthawk and Chimney Swift and the use of wild unreleasable birds for conspecific fostering of wild orphans. A field that she helped pioneer with the late Marles Bolender of U.S Fish and Wildlife Services.
Hey Yvonne, welcome to the program. Thanks for having me. I’m so excited to have you and I’m really excited to learn more about what you’re doing. So why don’t you tell us a little bit about you and how you came to be a wildlife rehabilitator and all the other amazing things you do? It’s definitely been a journey. So for me, I grew up in the country, in Wisconsin and I really didn’t know anything about wildlife, even though I had plenty of places to walk and to see birds and other wildlife. But I was so focused on my books and literature that I really didn’t pay attention to anything that was around me. And when I was in school, studying English, I was also a probate paralegal and a law office manager. My husband and I were managing a mobile home park for extra income, and I was mowing and I ran over a nest of baby rabbits. Oh, no. I was hysterical because, first of all, I didn’t know that baby rabbits have their nests in the middle of lawns. Had never encountered anything like that when I was mowing. And so I started to call for help from rehabilitators that were pretty far away. There really wasn’t anything in our area and the advice I got, ranged everywhere from let nature take its course, just leave them be, to don’t try to do anything because they’re not gonna live anyway. And yeah, it was morbid. It was and I also felt really responsible. So it really was my husband who said, we’re not gonna let them die. And we brought them inside and we took care of them and we raised them and we released them, and it was such a great experience. And I told everybody, I mean, I told everybody about it because I was so excited about it. And that meant that when this same thing happened to other people, they would call us about rabbits and we would take them and rehabilitate them. What I didn’t know is that what we were doing was illegal because you actually have to be licensed to work with wildlife. Doesn’t matter if it’s a baby bunny or if it’s a baby eagle or if it’s an injured deer or an injured squirrel. Everything comes under the purview of the State Department. Natural resources, and in the case of birds, The Fish and Wildlife Services has to license you.
So when we found that out, it didn’t stop us, we decided we’re going to get licensed and both my husband, Steven and I went through the process talking to a warden, at the time and getting permission, making sure we had the facilities. And so we kept taking animals in then legally and worked with rabbits and then with squirrels and then with waterfowl. And then the time came where we realized that we were taking care of a couple 100 animals a year, and I was still working full time and thinking about going on to law school. And we had to make a decision and we decided that we were going to build a wildlife hospital. So I quit my job in 1991 and shortly after that, we were hit with a crisis that we could not have imagined. And it was the case of lead poisoning in a flock of geese on Lake Geneva, that winter, 1991-1992.
So by this point, we had a federal permit and we got a call about one sick goose, down near the lake and it was brought in to us And then we got a call about another. And then we got a call about another and we realized that something bad was happening. So we went out to look at the lake in it, I will never forget the experience because there were literally hundreds of geese on the ice and the harking was a horrible, high pitched, haunting sound that was echoing across the lake. And these birds were all sick. So we reached out to our wardens. We reached out to Fish and Wildlife Service, and one of the first things that we needed to do was make sure that it was a disease, a zoonotic disease that could be passed to people. And so we sent bodies to the National Wildlife Research Lab, where they did necropsies and found it was lead poisoning. And at that point, we knew that we could act and many people thought we shouldn’t. They thought, What are you gonna do? Geese are common. Why are you bothering? But for us, what started Fellow Mortals and the Fellow Mortals name, comes because of my English literature background. It’s from a poem by Robert Burns to a mouse.
And what started our commitment to wildlife to begin with was the fact that we believe individual life is important. And so there’s no way we’re gonna look at those geese and say, Oh, they’re common, there’s too many. What are we going to do? We just did it and we involved people from the rehabilitation community, Elsewhere in State came to help us. The Audubon Society helped with the rescue. It was a wonderful experience in a very hard time, but we eventually did bring in 150 geese, over the course of a week. We worked with the Fish and Wildlife Service to collect evidence. When a bird died, we kept the shot that was removed from the gizzards. We learned to lavage on a large scale. We were lavaging geese for weeks at a time. Where you put basically a tube into the stomach to remove the lead shot, because that had to be removed so that they wouldn’t continue to absorb it into the bloodstream. I had to have medicine to chelate the lead out of the bone and out of the blood, and we used the pension plan, small pension plan. I have a law office, where I quit, to pay for those first drugs that we needed. And in the end we released 10 on Easter Sunday, the following year. It wasn’t that many, but every single one of them represented a triumph over, some of them had over 600 pieces of lead shot. But past that, what happened was that because we had worked with Fish and Wildlife Service, we were asked if we wanted to be reimbursed or if we wanted to help them pursue a case against whoever, whatever entity had caused these birds to be poisoned. And we said we would forego the reimbursement, but we wanted to help them to see that through. And as a result, it was the first case of a Superfund Effort under the EPA to remediate because of the loss of nonhuman life. And over 20,000 ton of contaminated soil was removed from the site, which was the old Playboy Club, near Lake Geneva. It was a skeet range, and so that was how the lead entered the environment. And in the winter months, when that water goes low and the birds are dabbling. And the birds, the geese, the ducks even, you know, your domestic birds, need grit to grind up the food that they take in. And it goes in their gizzard so these birds ingest lead shot accidentally. And that’s how they got poisoned. Yeah, all of them together.
So when that happened to us, we had just gotten our incorporation papers back. We were just able to take donations. We took in 600 animals that year, which was huge. That’s huge. Yeah, but I think it really tested our perseverance and our grit at a time, early in the organization because we’d only been around for about six years at that point, and we knew we were going to keep making a difference. And so when the place that we were managing, a mobile home park where we’re managing and it started, orders by accident, went up for sale, that’s when we started looking for a place where we could build a real wildlife hospital. And we found a place where we are today, near Lake Geneva . Wow! So somebody that was an English major that was going to go on to law school. Look at where you ended up. And I wouldn’t change a thing. First of all, I don’t think I would have been a very good lawyer because I’m pretty shy even though I have more to speak my mind over time. Because when you care about something, enough, you learn to speak up, you know it makes you uncomfortable. But also, I think here we can make a difference. And because we’re making a difference not just for the animals who are brought to us, but the people who find them that are just like I was. They didn’t know anymore, except that their eyes were suddenly open.
And for me, that was the thing about the rabbits. It was an epiphany, to really think about another species as being important. And in this world that I inhabited and thought that everything revolved around me. I really had never thought about little rabbits that way before. I tell you that the thing that really impressed me with them. when we first brought in the rabbits and they were small and they weren’t moving around the nest that we make for that. But as they got a little bit bigger, probably about 10 days old, so the eyes open at seven days, eyes have been opened about three days. We made a little box for them to live in, and they kept making a mess of it. And I would go to give them their food, and in that box, a dish that I put their food in, would be up against the door and there would be something like a carrot that was keeping it in place. And I realized they were thinking, they were making that decision to barricade their door, to create a safe place, in a human environment. Wow. 10 days old!. And so, yes, for me, it’s been, and it continues to be, just an adventure. You live among alien beings. I am so interested to it, in space travel, you know, life on other planets. But honestly, we have alien life among us. We don’t understand it.
Just a simple thing like that that really just set you down this path. So how do you go about learning? I mean, are you a veterinarian? Do you? How do you learn all these things to take care of the animals? So wildlife location is really a very young field and I equate it to when we used to have country doctors and people did the best they could. And then as people figured out that there were certain protocols that could be followed and resulted in our certain result, there became structure, and it’s the same thing that’s happening with wildlife rehabilitation. So when I ran over, that nest of baby bunnies, that was 1985 and rehabilitation really started in the seventies. So when we got involved, there wasn’t much there for us, for training, but we did reach out and find other rehabilitators who we could speak to. And there was a wonderful woman, who I didn’t know about when I ran over the bunnies, who lived nearby. And she worked only with . And she was excited that here’s this young couple that loved bunnies and could do these other animals because she was a teacher and she couldn’t do it all. And so she was really happy to have some help. And one of the things she told me, I’ll never forget, is that God doesn’t make any garbage, and that’s one reason why today we work with all species of wild birds, including a nonnative species that have been here for a couple 100 years. The English Sparrows, the European Starlings, the because they are life and they’re established. And when people find an animal in need of help, they don’t want to be told, “Oh, that’s not good enough for you to bring to us.”
So some of them are more specific to particular wildlife. Yes, so people do different things. And so as time has gone on and more people have learned about different species, than they can help other people coming up. And now, in 2020 we have symposiums and we have places where people can go for training. And in Wisconsin, because my husband and I saw the need for that kind of structure, we realized that some of what we learned would have been better taught to us by someone who had done the same thing before. We really were pro and helped to get the regulations in place for wildlife rehabilitation in Wisconsin. So today, if you want to be licensed, you first have to work with a person who has an Advanced Wildlife Rehabilitation Permit because that means that they have X number of years of experience, and they’ve gone through a certain training. And you need to work with them long enough to get the experience and hours on the species you want to be licensed for. A rehabilitator has to have a consulting veterinarian, to make sure that those animals are getting proper care and that drugs aren’t being used improperly, so that we don’t create the antibiotic resistance that, you know, everybody’s worried about. You need to be worried about, on a larger scale.
You also have to have specific facilities so that if you’re taking care of a species, you can show that you can take care of it, from the time it comes to you, until the time it’s released. The Department of Natural Resources inspects your facilities, so we do have oversight that way, and we have to take a test, and it sounds like maybe a lot. But the way that I look at it, these are lives, they’re important. They’re important to the animal. They’re also important to the person who brings the animal to a rehabilitator, and they should have some assurances that the animal’s going to get a better quality of care, than it would by someone who’s just doing the best. Right.
So how many wildlife rehabilitators are there? For example, in the state of Wisconsin? Right now, I believe there’s around 120 licensed rehabilitators in this state. And some of those people might take care of a couple of batches of bunnies a year, and that’s very important because that’s time-consuming and they’re very sensitive species. Some of those rehabilitators only work with birds, some only work with adult birds. Some only work with one species. There are a few, I would say, there are less than 10 larger facilities across the state, and they operate differently depending on their region. So some places, it works better for a rehabilitation facility to have volunteers to help him with animal care. Here in other places, it makes more sense to have a group of license rehabilitators work at a central location. But no matter how a place operates, or how many animals they provide care for, they’re still all doing the same thing. And so we’re a small community of very passionate, committed people.
Yeah, I love that, and one of things I think is really amazing, is you guys at Fellow Mortals, have provided care for more than 50,000 animals to date. Yeah, over the last, huge number, 35 years. That adds up. So that’s true. We take in about 2000 animals a year now. I think the most we ever took in is 2300 and one year it was only 1200. This last year was about 1800 so that reflects the variety of animals that we see. It also, unfortunately reflects the effect of a declining population of birds, and we’re definitely seeing that here. We’re seeing fewer Chimney Swifts and Nighthawks, American Castro’s. And so a big part of what wildlife rehabilitators do is also sound the alarm that, wait a minute, we’re seeing a problem with this population. What’s happening? Whether it’s West Nile virus or it’s an increased use of insecticides. Sure. I mean, we see all of those things, even nontoxic, quote unquote, deterrents like Tangle Front, which is a sticky substance that people put on their places, like boat docks, to keep the swallows from nesting, that doesn’t keep them from nesting, it kills them and then the babies die. So it’s a constant, you know, struggle to educate, to prevent the animals having to be brought to a rehabilitator, as well as providing care for those that there’s no way to keep them out.
Yeah, I was just gonna say, it sounds like a lot of your job is about education and prevention to try and keep the animals from coming in, in the first place. Absolutely. And every single person who brings us an animal gets individualized education about the animal. First of all, they go away from us with a copy of an admit record, that has a picture of their animal on it. It explains what the prognosis is. It explains what the injury is, if we know what the cause is and for those people, also, we want them to know what could have been done different, so next time, if anything, sometimes nothing. And they also learn about the species, and we usually try to also give that information on the phone, when people call in they’re getting some of that. We’re educating on our website, through Facebook. We do formal programs as well. So yeah, education. You can’t rehabilitate without education because you wouldn’t be making the best use of your time. I mean in an ideal world, we wouldn’t exist. The wildlife wouldn’t need us. But we’re not there.
Now, what types of animals have you had the privilege of helping over the years? So we didn’t really have a plan for building a facility and doing stuff in particular. We just wanted to meet the need and Cottontail Rabbits are by far the most common animal brought in to rehabilitators anywhere. And are followed, I would say, by squirrels, Grey squirrels and then by raccoons. And then, probably by various species of songbirds and raptors. While they capture the attention of the public most easily, they account for less than 10% of what comes into rehabilitators, anyways. So we work a lot with small mammals and what we found out early on, I mentioned too, one of the first rehabilitators who helped us, worked with raccoons, and when I would go to visit her and handle those animals and come back to feed the squirrels, they were very frightened. And because I am the one that was doing the care and we still do that, the rehabilitators care for the animals across the facility. We realized that combining predator and prey species at our location was not the way to go. And because prey species are by far the most common and most commonly coming for care, we focused on them. So today we work with any species of wild bird. From House Sparrow to eagle and with any species of predatory mammal. So that Summer mouse to beaver, we’re the only place that works with beavers in the state of Wisconsin currently. And we’re also the only facility that is equipped and licensed to provide care for injured and orphaned deer for the entire southern part of the state.
So now what are the common things that are bringing these animals to you guys? Yes, well, and coming back to rabbits again, very commonly, it’s the same thing that introduced me to the whole idea of wildlife. Having a right to share this planet and its lawn mowing or it’s a dog going out and discovering a nest by mistake, or it’s someone doing their yard work and raking up a nest. Or it’s a nest in the middle of a playground that people find. The wonderful thing about Cottontail rabbits is that because of their natural history, and the mothers only feeding them in the evening hours, the nest can be protected all day long from human activity. From domestic pet activity, even predators like crows and hawks that might take the babies by simply covering a nest. And as long as that cover has taken off at night, the mother can get that. She knows that they’re so you know, there’s common things with the fawns. The most common thing is just the fact that people see them alone. They’re fragile. It could be as small as 3 lbs. They’re curled up there, not moving. And they think there’s something wrong with them, and so they might get picked up, when they don’t need to be picked up at all. And so we really try to get ahead of all of these things before the season starts. Which for us, it’s gonna be early March, we start to get the calls. The more information we can get out ahead of time, the better chance we have people feeling comfortable that they can leave that animal there. And I never think a question is stupid because I know that we have very intelligent people, from the legal community, from the business community, from the education community or, you know, the medical human medical community, that don’t know the difference between a species. They don’t know the difference between a Goldfinch, say, and even a Robin or Hawk or a Heron. I know that that doesn’t mean that they’re ignorant. It just means they don’t need to have that information, and that’s why we’re here.
I love that. I think that’s just a smart philosophy. I mean, I always say, it’s just that they haven’t learned it yet, right? That’s right. I’m one of those people that believes that I could do anything, I just need the opportunity to learn. And I think that’s a very smart approach that you’re taking to non-judgmental because they just haven’t been exposed to that area of knowledge yet. That’s right. I feel the same way. I feel like the whole world is just, you know, how to choose. I remember when I was first in college, and I’m sure you do too and anyone. All of a sudden. It’s all choices to make go in any different direction. We can’t do it all, so you have to choose and that’s what we’ve done here at Fellow Mortals. We can’t do it all, not doing all and do it well. And what we’ve chosen to do is the species we work with, we built this large facility as possible. And that’s all due to the support of the community. I mean, we, no matter what our commitment or passion, we wouldn’t be here without the tremendous support and generosity of our individuals, businesses or foundations and they’re as much a part of Fellow Mortals as I am.
That’s really cool. And it’s really amazing to me, the journey like you said that you’ve had in the last 35 years. Sure, it seems like a long time. And yet such a short time at the same time. I mean, is this, is this really, really where you thought you were going to end up when you look back? No, no, I think the other part of it is I didn’t really have a plan. Maybe that’s a bad thing, but for me, it’s a good thing. I live in the moment and I think you have to. If you’re feeding baby bunnies for four hours in the morning and four hours in the evening, if you’re cleaning the same kennel cab day after day after day, for literally years, you have to find a way to enjoy being in a moment. And for me, what will make it all worthwhile is to have clean bedding, clean kennel cab, move in a possum, that’s seen as something that maybe isn’t the most beautiful animal. Maybe isn’t the most sweet-smelling animal. Maybe it’s covered with scabs and it then has parasites. Put that animal into a kennel cab. Watch him of his face on the cream bedding and you’re safe. That makes it all worthwhile for me. I mean, we work with eagles. Sure, that’s exciting. We have a permanent eagle here. We work with beavers, and they’re fascinating. But if tomorrow the only thing that I was allowed to work with was rabbits, I would be okay with that because it’s about us. When you really are working with animals, for the right reason, and you really are making a difference, you’re gonna do what is needed and you’re gonna enjoy it.
And that’s very well said. And I’m sure you’ve got some amazing stories and really understood the human-animal bond. And it’s more and more people become educated and experience it for themselves and connections that they have with animals you can have with animals. I really think it’s gonna make a big difference. I think so, too. And it all starts with one experience, which is why it’s so critical that we support people when they first have that experience and call us. One of the biggest frustrations some people have is that they call and get our answering machine. But the fact of the matter is we can’t afford to have a receptionist. We have a very small paid staff and because wildlife rehabilitation is still struggling to be seen as a field where professionals provide the care, there isn’t the funding for the staff, that would make it easier for us to respond immediately. It’s really for us to get the best advice to the public. It needs to come from a rehabilitator and I have experience and knowledge. So when people call us, they always get the machine because we are working with the animals. We’re here 7 days a week. I live on-site, so I’m here when an animal needs help in the middle of the night. But we always call back. We tried to do that within 1/2 hour, and we will always get back to people if they leave a message. That’s amazing.
This has been really interesting, Yvonne. I’m so glad you came on. And we’ll certainly direct everybody to your website, fellowmortals.org. Is there anything else you want to mention before wrap things up today? That’s a good question. I think the most important thing for people to think about is that every action of a human has a consequence, even if you can’t see it. And if we’re really going to be able to make this world a better place, is to be able to step back and think about what’s the consequence of my deciding to buy a case of bottled water as opposed to getting a water filter? What’s the consequence of my using a glue trap? Because I don’t want to have a mouse in my garage as opposed to the suffering that that animal is gonna go through. You know, we can’t remove animals from their environment because they have nowhere to go. So if you have a house that needs to be repaired because you have a squirrel in your attic, there are things you can do, like Sonics or other types of hazing to get the animals to move on their own. But you cannot remove an animal and drive 10 miles, anymore that you can take a person from their home and drive them 10 miles, drop them off in somebody else’s backyard and say, “Here you go.” This is like, yeah, it doesn’t work like that and what we need to stop being is so selfish. We don’t own the earth. We don’t really own our backyards. Where in the world are they supposed to go? And if we could just think about them. And yes, and animals prioritize because they have families, they can feel pain. They can feel hunger. They need a place to hide. They deserve to be safe. And we have to stop putting everything, that we as humans warrant, before what all the other species actually eat. I think that’s very well said, and I’m really glad that you came on to talk with me today. I’ve really enjoyed our conversation. Well, I really appreciate you choosing to speak with us. Thank you very much. Thanks, Yvonne.
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