HAWLEY – Nurse Jennifer Kleinpeter’s patients have gone from having two feet to four.
They also often have tails.
Kleinpeter is the founder and director of the Big Country Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which is permitted by the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to rescue and rehabilitate native wildlife in the area.
“Our mission is to provide excellent care for all wildlife so they can be returned back into the wild where they belong,” Kleinpeter said. “It’s our wildlife that maintains a healthy ecosystem for all living things.”
Those living things include people, she said, so educating the public is a central activity. too.
“Fifty percent of my job is to rehabilitate animals. The other 50 percent is education − community outreach and community education,” Kleinpeter said.
The center based at her rural home also offers children’s camps and is present at Taylor County Expo Center events to educate the public on the value of a balanced ecological system and what to do when encountering native wildlife. Information is also available on the center’s website bigcountrywildliferescue.org and Facebook page.
“We actually can live safely with these animals in our backyards,” she said.
The need for wildlife care
More than 300 orphaned and injured raccoons, opossums, foxes and other small mammals have recovered at the center since the baby season started in the spring.
“Last year it was 150,” Kleinpeter said, the increase due to growing awareness of the center and the heatwave.
She also has rescued a bobcat, armadillo, rabbits and other critters since becoming a subpermitted rehabilitator two years ago through another provider in Weatherford. She received her permit in April 2021, and the center that operates on her property earned nonprofit status in September.
The critters come from private individuals, game wardens and area animal control and law enforcement officers.
It was a batch of baby skunks from a friend who set her on the wildlife path.
No place to go
In high school, Kleinpeter aspired to be a vet. She grew up on a small family farm in Alabama with several animals, and her mother rehabilitated squirrels.
“But then when I went and shadowed a vet clinic, I said, ‘Absolutely not.’ With the dogs and the cats biting and scratching and stuff, I said, ‘No,'” Kleinpeter said.
She retained her love of animals but became a nurse 11 years ago, specializing in cardiac care. In 2019, Kleinpeter moved to Abilene to help start minimally invasive structural heart programs at Hendrick Health, she said.
A friend whose dog killed a mama skunk called her about four orphaned babies. In researching resources to care for the skunks, she learned the Abilene Zoo focuses on birds and raptors, and that the closest small mammal rehabilitators are in Weatherford and Lubbock. She transported the babies to a facility in Amarillo that had an opening.
She decided to become a permitted TPW rehabilitator to fill Abilene’s void.
The center has grown quickly, with six subpermitted rehabilitators now working with her, plus additional volunteers. Kleinpeter is shifting to a part-time, non-patient care role at the hospital while continuing to recover from two surgeries after she broke her neck when she fell off a horse.
The fledging nonprofit gained additional traction by participating in this year’s Abilene Gives marathon fundraising day coordinated by the Community Foundation of Abilene. Donors contributed $9,925, well surpassing the $2,500 goal. Kleinpeter said the foundation’s nonprofit training classes were also beneficial to running the wildlife center.
She also works with veterinarian Celeste Hill, who is on the rescue center’s board, and attends in-person and online training programs through the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council. Her nursing experience also helps with carrying for the animals and operating in an organized manner, she said.
How wildlife rehabilitation works
Orphaned or injured animals are assessed, vaccinated and treated in a converted garage room at Kleinpeter’s house.
The neatly organized room has metal cages, medical equipment and other animal care necessities. Outside are additional enclosures for stabilized wildlife that are being prepared for a return to the wild.
In the garage facility, “we will interact with them, and that’s OK. They’ll have plenty of time once they are outside to wild up,” she said.
Animals can be anemic, underweight and have internal and external parasites, such as fleas, which are addressed. Severely injured animals whose pain cannot be controlled and animals showing signs of rabies or distemper are euthanized.
Once animals are transitioned to outdoor enclosures, “we don’t talk with them. We don’t interact with them. We just provide them food and water,” Kleinpeter said.
Animals must meet four criteria before they can be released: they fear humans, are able to reproduce, can catch prey and can defend themselves.
“A tame coon is a dead coon. If they walk up to somebody’s house, they’re gonna think rabies and shoot to kill them,” Kleinpeter said.
Wildlife rehabilitators are also selective about where wildlife are released with landowners’ approval. Animals are released on no-hunting lands with an adequate amount of acreage, natural trees and other vegetation and water from a creek or tank, Kleinpeter said.
“We’ve got so many people that actually appreciate these species and don’t mind them being released on their property,” she said.
Skunks are my favorite
Animals that are not fit for release are referred to other rescues for permanent housing or can be trained for educational programs, Kleinpeter said. She takes her descended skunk Ruby to educational presentations.
“Skunks are my favorite. I love skunks. I’m very passionate about skunk,” she said. “I don’t know why but when you get into this field, you’re going to have one species that you just have that connection with, and skunks are mine.”
Ruby was about 3 weeks old when she was found alone in a field, she said.
“What’s weird about her was she never wanted to be with the other skunks,” Kleinpeter said.
The skunk also refused to share her cage with skunks.
“It’s like she didn’t want to be a skunk,” Kleinpeter said.
Ruby never progressed in skills to live in the wild, so she was descended and conditioned to be comfortable around humans and other animals. The skunk is litter-box trained and roams the house with Kleinpeter’s two dogs and cat.
“She’s been a great asset, for sure,” Kleinpeter said.
Ruby replaced Gage, a skunk struck by a vehicle in Abilene.
“He looked like roadkill peeling off because the car bumped him in the head and he hit the pavement,” Kleinpeter said.
She brought Gage back to health, but he suffered a traumatic brain injury and had to be handfed. He was an educational animal for 13 months until March, when seizures began and other complications and he refused to eat. She had to euthanize him.
What to do when you find an injured animal
Kleinpeter is often called by people who find baby opossums, raccoons and other baby animals. Her first advice is to reunite the babies and mother by making a nest.
“Mamas will come down and retrieve their baby,” she said.
If reunification does not occur, the next step is to wrap the baby in a blanket, bring it inside and contact the rescue.
“We definitely don’t want anyone to feed these animals because they require specific nutrition, and sometimes feeding them will kill them,” Kleinpeter said.
She also said that seeing a skunk or raccoon during daytime does not automatically mean it is sick.
“You’re going to see them out in the day during the spring and summer months because they are raising their young so they have to feed themselves to produce that milk. Or they’re also going out catching food for their babies. Foxes as well,” Kleinpeter said.
And, if you get sprayed by a skunk, which has happened to her more times than she can count, she recommends making a paste of Dawn soap, baking soda and a little water to remove the offensive scent.
“You make it like a paste, a nasty paste, but it works, because tomato juice is just a myth,” Kleinpeter said. “… You’ll just smell like tomato juice and skunk. It’s so gross.”
Laura Gutschke is a general assignment reporter and food columnist and manages online content for the Reporter-News. If you appreciate locally driven news, you can support local journalists with a digital subscription to ReporterNews.com.
“Keep Wildlife Wild” Children’s Camp
What: Presented by Big Country Wildlife Rehabilitation Center for children ages 3-13
When: 10 am-1 pm, Oct. 1
Where: Clearfork Baptist Church in Hawley
Cost: $30 (lunch is provided)
Activities include building a nest and bird feeder, identifying animal prints and poop, meeting a skunk and opossum and game warden presentation.
Preregistration required by emailing Jkleinpeter220@gmail.com to register.