'Good experience': Students lend a hand at wildlife rehabilitation center

News-DemocratMay 30, 2013 

— Seventh-graders Tristen Johnson and Megan Lemons giggle as they hold 10-week old opossums and place them back in their enclosure at the TreeHouse Wildlife Center in Dow. However, Tristen receives more than she bargained for when one of the orphaned opossums excretes feces on her shirt.

TreeHouse intern Jennifer Yordy tells Tristen, "It happens all the time." That was no comfort to Tristen, who races to the bathroom to wash it off.

Tristen and Megan were among a group of eight seventh-graders from Belle Valley School in Belleville that traveled to the wildlife rehabilitation center Wednesday to volunteer their time.

The students were nominated for the excursion by staff members at the school based on their good behavior, according to Superintendent Louis Obernuefemann, who chaperoned the trip.

"I try to do things whenever possible with the kids, because I miss the classroom," he said on the hour and a half bus ride to the center in Dow, which is 20 minutes north of Alton.

Once the group arrived, Obernuefemann told TreeHouse staff members, "the students are here to work, and they will do whatever you like them to do."

And work they did. The students helped the center's interns perform daily tasks including cleaning animal cages, feeding the animals and maintaining the property.

TreeHouse is a wildlife rehabilitation center where injured or orphaned animals are cared for until they can be released back into the wild, intern Rachael Heaton explained during a tour of the facility.

A dozen outside enclosures at TreeHouse house permanent animals who can't be released into the wild due to the extent of their injuries. These animals include red and gray foxes, coyotes, red-shouldered hawks, red-tailed hawks, short-eared owls, long-eared owls, screech owls, barn owls, barrel owls, kestrel falcons, turkey vultures and bald eagles.

The students enjoyed when Heaton howled like a coyote, which made both coyotes howl loudly for several minutes. Seventh-grader Tamarcus Quilling kept trying to mimic Heaton's high-pitched howl to get the same reaction from the coyotes but with no luck.

Once the tour of the facility was complete, the students donned latex gloves and got to work. Four students cleaned cages in the center's rehabilitation center while the other half laid fresh rock in the coyote and fox enclosures.

TreeHouse intern Dillan Laaker showed Tristen, Megan, Tonya Henderson and Jessica Jaegers how to clean the cages inside the rehabilitation center without spooking the animals; and Heaton worked with Madison Eason, Michaela Wittlich, Makye Ott and Tamarcus outside.

"I'm having a lot of fun right now," Michaela said as she spread rock inside a coyote enclosure using a rake with Madison's help.

Tamarcus worked with Makye to load the fresh rocks into wheelbarrows. Afterward, Tamarcus said, "that was a lot of work."

"This is a good experience for them," Obernuefemann said. "They are not used to physical labor."

After the cages and enclosures were cleaned, it was feeding time. The first to be fed was an orphaned whitetail deer fawn. The fawn drank special formula from a bottle held by Laaker.

Next, Laaker cut dead chickens into pieces while the students helped pluck the feathers off. The students didn't seem to mind getting their hands dirty.

Once the chicken pieces and dead mice were loaded into a bucket, it was time to make the daily feeding rounds. The students were permitted to enter the enclosures and place the appropriate meat down for the predatory animals. Tristen was even lucky enough to remove dead fish carcasses from the bald eagle enclosure.

On the bus ride back to school, Michaela said she enjoyed learning about different species and how to protect animals. "I absolutely love animals and learning about them," she said. Michaela aspires to be a veterinarian.

Tamarcus also said he enjoyed getting to see different animals. "They were really beautiful," he said. "It was fun to go inside the cages and feed the animals."

This marked Belle Valley's first trip to TreeHouse, Obernuefemann said, but he plans to organize more trips in the future. In addition, he said he would like the students who participated in this trip to form a group charged with organizing fundraisers for the center.

Heaton said TreeHouse is a non-profit organization operated entirely on donations and is in constant need of volunteers. "We can always use the help," she said. "Usually, it's just a few people doing all the work."

Heaton explained the extra help allows the daily work to get done and more. "Projects are always building up," she said.

Contact reporter Jamie Forsythe at 618-239-2562 or jforsythe1@bnd.com.

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