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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Keeping the Wild West Wild

Wet Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation Center keeps Colorado’s wild animals wild

Tom and Cecelia (Cec) Sanders.
Photo by Bill Vogrin/Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Nestled in the foothills of the Wet Mountains west of Pueblo, CO, Cecelia and Tom Sanders have spent a large portion of their lives dedicated to an unusual occupation. The couple rehabilitates sick, injured and orphaned Colorado wildlife including large predatory mammals such as bears and mountain lions. Former schoolteachers, their second career in wildlife rehab started small - squirrels, bunnies and raccoons - while living in Pueblo where they taught. They eventually earned a rehab license from the Colorado Division of Wildlife in 1984 and began taking in larger creatures.

“We have always loved wildlife,” says Cecelia or ‘Cec' as she's known. She and Tom have been married for 46 years. 

Wet Mountain Rehabilitation Center is one of only three rehab facilities in Colorado that work with large predatory mammals. These animals receive veterinary treatment and the best nutrition the couple can afford. The animals are kept on the couple’s secluded property near the town of Florence where sick and injured animals can recover and orphaned animals can learn to live on their own. Most all are released into the wild when they are able. Their first large mammals were an orphaned Pronghorn and Mule Deer fawn. Cec says they received no formal training.

“At that time rehab was a ‘we trust you’ kind of business, but eventually we had to be licensed by the DOW [Department of Wildlife],” she says. “Since then rehab has been very regulated. We have had great relationships with veterinarians who have done much research for treatment of wildlife. We built our facility around the animals that were brought to us.”

When they started, Cec and Tom lived in Pueblo. Cec taught physical education at Highland Park Elementary and Tom taught Science at Central High School. Back then rehabbing animals was more of a past-time until they were officially licensed. The Sanders had a large corner lot with a tall cedar fence. They build another enclosure inside their property that was very private. They rehabbed the Pronghorn and Mule Deer who were successfully released in the fall of that year. While still in Pueblo, they were given a bear cub and an injured mountain lion to care for with their neighbors none the wiser. Cec says the mountain lion was released into the wild after it had healed and the bear cub was sent to a different facility that could handle him.

Bear enclosure at Wet Mountain.
Photo by Bill Vogrin/Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The Sanders then made an important decision. If they wanted to continue wildlife work, they needed a larger, more private location, but still close to Pueblo where they taught. They found that location in near Florence in 1986.

“From then on things just happened,” laughs Cec.

At their new location they were brought many different species of wildlife from birds to elk, deer, and bear. Cec says they have migrated to the larger animals because there are so few Colorado facilities that can handle them, while there are many that handle the smaller mammals and other facilities that specialize in birds and waterfowl.

“That has taken a lot of pressure off of us so we can focus on the large animals.”

Colorado Parks and Wildlife (CPW) officers deliver most of the animals and the department has worked with the Sanders for over 30 years. Cec says they occasionally get animals from the public, but bears are always handled by CPW. The center currently has 12 bears, one of the largest groups they have ever had. It has caused quite a strain on their budget.

The Sanders operate Wet Mountain as a non-profit and accept donations for supplies, however, they don’t publicize their work and pay for many things out of pocket. Unfortunately, 2017 has been a difficult year. According to the CPW, late Spring freezes along Colorado's Front Range resulted in fewer acorns that bears need to sustain themselves. A lack of their natural food source caused many bears to venture into cities and foraging in trash cans and garages. Bears in urban areas are dangerous. They can get hit by cars and will be euthanized if they threaten any humans. Often these conflicts leave orphaned cubs behind. Cec says the bears they have been caring for will be placed in artificial dens by the CPW in early January. From there the bears can either stay or choose to leave. Cec says most are now capable of finding their own dens.

The center also had 14 fawns over the summer. She says donations of dry dog food and produce from grocery stores help to reduce costs, but they still have to spend their own money. That is why earlier this year, the Colorado Park and Wildlife office wrote about their plight in the department’s September 2017 newsletter. Shortly after Walmart and Big D’s Superfood in Canon City donated tons of produce. Because of the CPW story, monetary donations also poured in. Cec says each donation they received contained a thank you note for what they do for Colorado beras, which left her overjoyed. Cec wrote in her own Winter 2017 newsletter that without this support, they would have had to sell their house.

Cec putting out food for bear cubs.
Photo by Bill Vogrin/Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
The couple divides the animals in their care between them so there are animals that only Tom cares for and animals that only Cec cares for. This keeps human contact to a minimum. Cec cares for the youngest animals by hand and even though she is allergic to raccoons, she had to bottle feed three raccoon kits this year. There was also an orphan badger, however, Cec says those are her favorite. This particular badger had an eye infection that required twice daily eye drops, which the creature was not thrilled about receiving. Once the animals were healthy, She moved them outside to a larger enclosure. As the badger got older, the eye drops became more difficult. He also returned to his nocturnal habits.  By August, Cec says the badger tunneled out of his enclosure and returned to the wild himself, but not before trying to play with Cec the day before. Cec believes the badger was trying to say thank you and goodbye before he left.

The bear cubs began arriving in May. The first were twin bears rescued after their mother was shot by a person who said she charged at him while walking his dog. The cubs were fifteen pounds each upon arrival. Later that summer another bear arrived after his mother was found dead in a residential back yard. A week later they received triplets along with other cubs here and there. By summer’s end, they had 10 bear cubs. Then in October, they received two more. When they receive bears that small, they are put in separate enclosures because they are too small to interact with bigger bears, However, the Sanders keep family units together. As the cubs get bigger and stronger, they are moved into groups in larger enclosures.

Bears at mealtime.
Photo by Bill Vogrin/Colorado Parks and Wildlife.
Cec mentions a unique item that helps these young bear cubs adjust are a number of real fur coats she has collected over the years. She uses them for any young mammal, from raccoons to cubs, and often they bond with the coat until they are old enough to be on their own. She says the real fur gives them comfort. The Sanders also do all the work at the center themselves because the fewer humans these animals come into contact with, the better it will be for them. Therefore, there are no volunteers or other staff onsite. However, Tom adds that they have people/friends that will make food runs and other errands to help them out.

Something Cec would like to let the public know is that when encountering a  young wild animal, especially deer, while the animal may look alone, often it is not.

“People assume that a fawn without the mother is an orphan and needs to be ‘rescued’,” she states. “Many of the fawns that we get should never have been picked up. The mother hides the fawn from predators, but stays in contact with them by using low pitched vocal calls.” Cec also says that deer imprint very easily and they have to limit human contact with them except for feeding or medical attention. They also have two “volunDEER” from the previous season that hang out with new fawns and keep them company.

Centers like Wet Mountain are becoming fewer and fewer in Colorado. Ellicott Wildlife Rehab near Colorado Springs closed last June. According to a Gazette newspaper report, the organization simply ran out of money.

If you would like to help Wet Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation Center continue the important work they do to keep the Rocky Mountain’s wildlife wild, send a tax-deductible donation to 743 Crestview Drive, Florence, CO 81226.