Kelly Osborn

Photo by Kelly Osborn

When discussing the environment in our state, everything ends up feeling like a call to arms or an us versus them. It’s easy to feel that those who don’t agree with you on everything won’t stand with you for anything. But when the rhetoric of politicians with cheddar-stained pockets is ignored and good-faith ecological studies are upheld, even the most disillusioned skeptic finds allies across the aisle.

Still, the ecologist showing how some of today’s luxuries and comforts come at the cost of tomorrow’s environment can feel analogous to explaining to your dog why a Mounds bar isn’t a good option for dessert. In my conversation with wildlife rehabilitator Kelly Osborn, two things made themselves clear: a one-size-fits all solution is not a mindful solution and the only right solution is the mindful one.

Kelly wants to change our behavior when it comes to removing animals from, say, our attics. Many might start thinking about hiring a trapper or exterminator, but contacting Wisconsin WildCare, a sort of coalition of rehabilitators founded by Kelly, or a rehabilitator in your area is almost always a better starting point. You’ll not only save hundreds of dollars, but you’ll also create a solution that’s beneficial to both you and the animal.

One example Kelly describes is when hiring a trapper to get a racoon from your attic, it’s better to ask yourself why the racoon is there in the first place. If it’s around springtime, it’s probably a mother finding a place to have babies. Where a wildlife rehabilitator will get the raccoon to go to its backup den (they always have a backup den), a trapper may capture and kill it only for you to later realize there are babies still up there.

Photograph provided by Kelly Osborn

As more people move into areas where wildlife exist, it’s important to develop a nonhostile relationship with local fauna. “There are a lot of people that are moving into areas where wildlife were,” she says. “And they’re people who aren’t used to that. They’re used to living in the city and not seeing coyotes in their backyard.” Kelly, herself, grew up in Chicago and now lives on a 20-acre farm.

“I moved up here; went to school in UW–Madison; and met my husband, who’s a farm boy. He owned this property long before I met him.” But she didn’t come to Wisconsin to spend her spare time as a wildlife rehabilitator. With an undergrad in political science and masters in urban and regional planning, she wanted to make an impact on energy policy. The push came when “I was out [on the farm] and I heard this animal crying for an entire day, and then the next day, it was still going.

“Typically, I’d think, ‘Oh that cat’s got a bunny, and I don’t want to see it.’ So I walked along the edge of the woods until I found it. It was a poor little fawn. He was only less than a week old. I picked up the fawn, carried him back. His dead twin was right next to him, so I knew he needed help. There wasn’t a mom around. I spent the entire weekend, it was Memorial Day weekend, trying to find somebody to help.”

After calling the DNR and her vet, she found a woman in California, Marjorie Davis. Marjorie, who was in her 80s at the time (she turned 101 last November), is the founder of Fawn Rescue of Sonoma County, and she walked Kelly through what she’d need to do to find local help. That’s when she met one of the most influential people to her in her rehabilitation work, Pat Comfort, founder of Dane County Humane Society’s Wildlife Center. “He encouraged me to get my wildlife rehabilitation license, and that was the beginning of 20 years of this.”

Photograph provided by Kelly Osborn

What Kelly has learned over the years is that her work really involves a lot of communication. Not just being clear with her words, but reaching out and having discussions with people she might normally avoid.

“Growing up in Chicago, [my mom] didn’t drive, so we took the bus everywhere. I would get annoyed with her because she’d always talk to everybody who’s all around, and it didn’t matter who they were. I’m glad she did that because it taught me not to be afraid of talking to anyone. When you’re in wildlife rehab, I get calls from people who normally I would never associate with: hunters and trappers. One of my favorite rehabbers is about as politically opposite me as we could possibly be, but we get along because we have this common bond.”

Kelly co-founded Wisconsin WildCare, which specializes in rehabilitating small mammals, in 2011. “We started with like 12 people at a meeting at a coffeeshop in Madison. Cargo Coffee at Park Street. Now there’s over 60 volunteers, and Wisconsin WildCare helps over 1,000 animals every year.”

Through her work as a wildlife rehabilitator, Kelly finds she’s sometimes learning things about different animal species that go beyond what’s understood in the field. “There’s so much we don’t know,” she says. “Granted they’re in captivity when they’re with me, but I really watched [squirrels] in my yard. Then I picked up a book written by a wildlife biologist about squirrels, and a lot of it was just like—that’s not true; they don’t do that. They are social. They will share nests with their siblings in the winter.”

Experience is a heck of a teacher, and even in the most urbanized areas of the state, we have ample access to nature. Kelly wants those with the most experience in nature and those involved in nature’s silent sports to be heard. With so much work to be done ecologically in our state, it’s important to recognize that the likes of Aldo Leopold weren’t asking us to live in his shadow, but to stand on his shoulders. Kelly says, “We have the power, and we have the responsibility.”

Kyle Jacobson is lead writer and senior copy editor for Madison Essentials.

Photograph by Barbara Wilson