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Nursing nature: Carlson stepping aside after decades of wildlife work

Northwoods Notebook

Wildlife rehabilitator Phyllis Carlson of Quinnesec prepares to send Skadi — a female snowy owl — back into nature on Jan. 1. After several decades of volunteering, Carlson will be stepping away from wildlife rescue work. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

It might have all started with a baby blue jay.

When Phyllis Carlson was about 8 years old, a nest blew down in the yard at her home, spilling its occupants into the grass. Carlson said she collected the surviving chick and set it up in a box she placed outside her window.

She then watched the adult jays come in to feed its nestling.

Over the years, she continued to pick up baby birds and fuzzy squirrel kits found on the ground way too early. “I’d bring them home and try to nurse them,” Carlson said, adding, “My mother probably wound up taking care of them.”

So Carlson’s roots as a wildlife rehabilitator run deep. But she’s decided it’s time to step away.

Wildlife rehabilitator Phyllis Carlson dubbed these downy barred owls “Darryl and his other brother, Darryl.”

The federal permit that allows Carlson to take in wildlife expires in March. She did not opt to renew it.

It will bring to an end at least three decades of making her home a haven for area animals injured or too young to survive on their own.

Though she has been taking in animals since the mid-1980s, Carlson said she got serious about being a wildlife rehabilitator when Michigan Department of Natural Resources wildlife biologist Bob Doepker in 1992 brought her a couple of downy barred owls she dubbed “Darryl and his other brother, Darryl,” after the characters on the “Newhart” television show.

When the pair successfully fledged and were released, “word got out and animals started showing up,” Carlson said.

A neighbor who was a conservation officer advised she get a federal permit, so she went to the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary in Green Bay, Wis., for training and regularly volunteered at the North Woods Wildlife Center in Minocqua, Wis., for experience.

Carlson got that first federal permit in 1994, giving the region a reliable place to turn with an animal at risk. For awhile, she was the only person in the Upper Peninsula to have the federal license.

She figures she’s raised a few thousand baby squirrels, red and gray, plus flying squirrels for the first time in 2020. She used to take in raccoon kits until she discovered a child in her backyard, sticking his fingers in the cages, and decided her home in the suburbs was a risky place to have babies that could bite.

Carlson once accepted fawns, too, including a pair born so tiny they “could put a hoof on a penny and it would barely cover.” Both made it, though she had to keep them through the winter.

But she hasn’t had fawns in years, even before they became problematic with the emergence of chronic wasting disease. Fears of rabies took bats and baby skunks — “they were fun, playful, like kittens” — off the list for rehabilitation as well.

Carlson occasionally has had foxes brought to her, usually with a bad case of mange. A rehabilitator in the Marquette area has specialized in predators, so they go there now, leading Carlson to focus on more birds and small mammals.

Some of her more unusual guests have included a surprisingly responsive and “fun” porcupine and a great blue heron that required snaking a tube down its long, serpentine neck to pump in some fluids.

The permit requires she keep up with education on caring for wildlife, usually through national or regional conventions where she would get useful information on topics such as wound management or fluid therapy.

Carlson was able to put a more recent seminar to good use locally with wood ducklings, a variety that used to make her wince when she’d get called because they were notoriously difficult to raise. Wood ducks nest in tree cavities or boxes, so their ducklings are hard-wired to jump soon after hatching so they can follow the hen to water. This instinct continues in captivity, with the little ducklings ignoring food while trying to jump out until they succumb to exhaustion, Carlson said.

The seminar advised that wood ducklings taken to a water source known to have nesting hens often can manage to call in a hen that will take the entire group. Carlson said she’s used the practice several times now with success.

“That was the best class I ever took,” she said.

But being in wildlife rehabilitation also requires the steel to deal with an equal measure of grim failures, Carlson said. If a wild animal is docile and slow enough to be captured, usually “it’s in shock; it’s dying.”

Whether caused by injury, illness or starvation, its condition may be beyond what she can treat, except to draw a syringe and put the animal out of its misery.

The ones that are able to put up a fight usually do, Carlson said. She’s been bitten, clawed, pecked and punctures by talons, leaving battle scars.

“Wild animals,” she advised, “don’t know you’re trying to help them.”

Taking on the responsibility means having outdoor pens and flight cages where animals can recuperate, not being away from home longer than a few hours because young babies need regular feedings, and watching online for the next sale on frozen rodents to restock the freezer.

Carlson tells with a chuckle of the time when her husband casually asked if she’d taken out some rats to thaw. She had — and the cats had swiped them off the counter and deposited them in their bed.

Having a tolerant spouse who can help is crucial. Calls to go chase an animal regularly seemed to come at dinnertime, Carlson said.

“I never thought of it as work,” husband Walter Summers said. “I’m proud of her for doing it.”

But when Carlson retired as a Dickinson County Sheriff’s Office dispatcher in March 2015, she set the clock ticking on her wildlife rehabilitation work as well, deciding this would be her last permit.

She did try in 2017 to recruit someone to replace her, organizing a program at the Dickinson County Library in Iron Mountain with other licensed rehabilitators and a representative from the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary. The session drew about 30 people, with a few going on to take classes at Bay Beach, Carlson said.

In the end, none sought a permit. Yet Carlson has decided to stick with her plan and reclaim her summers. She will go back to taking camping trips, kayaking and generally getting outdoors.

“Being able to take off in the morning, and not have to come back until evening,” she said.

The region won’t just lose her services, either — wildlife rehabilitator Diana Allbaugh of Kingsford had been working on Carlson’s permit to care for the smaller songbirds, letting Carlson concentrate on raptors and other larger birds, along with the mammals. She will be shutting down as well, Carlson said.

The Upper Peninsula still has several licensed rehabilitators, along with DNR staff to call if an animal is found, she advised. The DNR has a directory online at https://www2.dnr.state.mi.us/dlr/.

And she’ll continue to have Journey, her great horned owl, for educational programs. Too injured to release after being struck by a vehicle, the owl has been at Carlson’s home for almost two decades under a different permit, she explained.

But Carlson said she will miss the successes, like those two barred owls,

“I hope,” she said, “I helped a few things out there.”

Betsy Bloom can be reached at 906-774-2772, ext. 240, or bbloom@ironmountaindailynews.com.

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