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Every day different for ‘master rehabber’

By Heidi Lake

Brainerd Dispatch

GARRISON, Minn. — Deb Eskedahl never knows what she’ll face when she goes to work each morning. She could be giving a puppy its first shots or performing surgery on a black bear.

Eskedahl, a veterinarian and owner of Garrison Animal Hospital, also is co-founder of the Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Program. Eskedahl is a master rehabilitator, meaning she has the needed permits to legally rehabilitate any species of animal that can be found in Minnesota, except skunks. Skunks are excluded because they run a higher risk of being rabid.

Last year, Wild and Free volunteers cared for more than 350 orphaned or injured animals, which are brought by members of the public or the state Department of Natural Resources.

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In most instances, injured animals come to Wild and Free after suffering human-related injuries — animals are shot, hit by cars or lawn mowers, birds fly into windows.

"Our motto is if someone cares enough to bring it in, we’ll feed it," said volunteer Katie Baratto.

Baratto, a third-year student at the University of Minnesota’s College of Veterinary Medicine, has worked at the Garrison Animal Hospital since she was 16. One time, someone brought in baby mice after their mother was killed in a trap. The mice died, but, Baratto said, most orphaned or injured animals brought to Wild and Free are released back into the wild when they become healthy enough.

"We let everything go," Baratto said. "We usually try to release them where they were found."

Baratto, one of about 60 Wild and Free volunteers who treat animals, plan fundraisers or do general rehab.

Baratto said it’s important to limit human contact with wild animals so they can eventually be returned to the wild and be able to care for themselves. Wild and Free volunteers use a raccoon puppet to bottle-feed baby raccoons, and a bucket with makeshift nipples is placed under a deer decoy to feed fawns.

Each year, about 10 to 15 animals aren’t able to be set free because they become too tame.

"We very rarely have problems with them letting go," Baratto said.

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Animals not able to be returned to the wild usually are sent to a zoo, or a breeding project in the case of an endangered animal.

Most animals successfully make it through the Wild and Free rehab program, but about 10 are euthanized each year.

Wild and Free is a volunteer program funded by donations. Baratto said donations are used for medicine, food and cages for animals. Last summer, an animal rehab building opened on a 10-acre plot of land near the Garrison Animal Hospital, and volunteers hope to soon get new outdoor cages for the animals.

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