BACK TO THE WILD

story by KAETLYN JEFFRIES photos by ALLIE HENDRICKS illustration by MADALYN STACK
Lori Dawson gets the majority of the fawns she cares for in June because of the deaths of their mothers. Once they are ready to be on their own, she’ll leave the gates open to let them wander out, and she leaves food out because they will return for several weeks. This year she had about 20 deer.

Around 10 years ago, Lori Dawson didn’t know that her dog’s squirrel chase would begin her path as an animal rehabilitator.

She noticed the suffering baby squirrel and immediately tried finding a place that would care for it. After finding out the closest facility was two hours away, Dawson took it upon herself to learn about caring for the helpless animal. Dawson’s friends took notice of her ability and began finding more squirrels who needed her help. At one point, they had 20 squirrels, Dawson said.

There is a cost to caring for animals and Dawson needed donations to keep her budding wildlife rescue center alive. She was certified as an animal rehabilitator in 2015 by the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, after taking classes in medicinal practices and habitat care. With license in hand, Dawson created the non-profit wildlife rehabilitation center Wild 4 Life with the intention of nursing animals back to health to release them back into their habitat. A member of the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources visits Dawson once a year for a routine inspection to renew her license.

Dawson said it takes a lot of time and money to care for the animals properly. She spends roughly $10,000 to $15,000 on food and medicine per year.

Spanning across 50 acres of land in Bowling Green, Wild 4 Life cares for almost 400 wild animals a year. Each animal has a designated enclosure and is cared for individually. Dawson continues to care for squirrels as well as possums, raccoons, rabbits, beavers, groundhogs, and Dawson’s two favorites, foxes and deer.

Dawson said that state police, and the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, community members and those on the Wild 4 Life Facebook page reach out to her. Dawson keeps the community informed about caring for wildlife in Kentucky and has held educational programs for the Warren County Humane Society and schools like WKU.

Informed community members report injured or sick animals, and Dawson comes to the rescue. She normally works 25 to 30 hours a week and almost 40 at the peak of her season. Dawson said it gets frustrating at times, and nothing is ever easy. The future lives of these animals is what keeps Dawson passionate.

“I love getting to see them live on, knowing that because of what I do, they can be wild,” Dawson said.

Lori Dawson uses a syringe to feed a watered down formula to a baby squirrel because it was struggling to eat on its own. She also injected the squirrel with fluid afterward similar to getting an IV. This allowed the squirrel to absorb the formula without having to use any energy. The rest of the squirrels live in a cage outside and are there for about 14 weeks.

Passion is what led Jan Trabue, a wildlife photographer who volunteers at the nonprofit, to Dawson. Trabue has always loved animals, especially photographing them. When she heard about Dawson and her selfless devotion to animals, she knew she had to help.

Trabue said there is something very special about caring for both the fox and the deer. She loves the personality of the foxes, and said they are curious, smart, fun and goofy creatures.

Trabue, now in her third year of volunteering, has learned to stay alert when caring for the animals. One day when she and Dawson were moving foxes into a pen, one escaped and ran away.

“I was trying to keep the rest from escaping while she searched for him,” Trabue said. “She finally found him in a sinkhole below a tree hollow.”

Dawson reached in and grabbed the feisty fox pup.

“I’ve had to learn that determination from Lori,” Trabue said. “She’s so passionate about caring for these animals.”

Over the past years of working together, Dawson and Trabue have learned many things about caring for the animals. Caring for the deer is another one of Dawson and Trabue’s favorite activities on the property.

“She can bottle feed four deer at one time,” Trabue said. “I’ve only mastered three.”

While there are many fun moments spent with the animals, Dawson is responsible for the care of injured animals and nurses them back to health. Dawson recalled a gray fox that had been injured by a car and was in bad shape.

“It had a broken scapula and many open wounds,” Dawson said. “I really didn’t think it was going to make it.”

After several trips to the vet and lots of patience and hope, the fox could finally be released.

At one point, Dawson said she had to bring a deer into her house because it was so badly hurt. A brutal dog attack left it with visibly broken bones and torn flesh, and it needed constant care.

She said caring for a deer is not like your normal house pet. It was kept in an extra-large dog crate with plenty of standing room and had to be fed four times a day. After 24-hour care, the deer was released.

Lori Dawson uses goat formula in the bottles of milk she gives the deer because it is the closest match to the milk their mothers would give them. They started with five bottles every day and weened down over time. She also feeds them a variety of grains.

Fellow animal rehabber Kristin Allen, who runs Nurture to Nature, a rehabilitation center in Owensboro, is a good friend of Dawson’s, and they’ve been able to assist each other over the years. Allen said she and Dawson communicate often, and if one gets overwhelmed, they can always come to the other for support.

“We all have our strong points,” Allen said. “If I ever get a fox in, I’ll send it to Lori.”

Allen said you must be strong, resilient, sympathetic for the harder times and, no matter what, love what you do. She said Dawson possesses all of these qualities.

Work hits the hardest from March to November, Allen said, as mating season and migration leads to many injured animals traveling the roads. Dawson said it is hard, but it’s the rejuvenation of life that makes them go back to work each year.

“You have to see the light at the end of the tunnel and know it’s your calling,” Allen said.

Dawson has grown up loving and caring for animals and knows that seeing them at their worst point is something she has to be able to handle as she leads them on their journey back into the wild.

Some releases can be more difficult than others. Trabue said that one day after some deer had been released, one came back and was waiting by Dawson’s front porch.

“It didn’t want to leave Lori because she had been taking such good care of it,” Trabue said.

Dawson does not keep any of the animals and always looks forward to the day she gets to release them. She said it’s her favorite moment to experience.

“Once they’re ready to leave, all I have to do is open the door,” Dawson said.

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