The Best Teachers

by Jennifer Howard

As a very young child, my parents introduced me and my 5 siblings to wildlife. Learning to respect, watch from a distance, and do nothing to stress them out in any way. Learning that they were here first and they shared their space with us. We would take wildlife babies that were in need home; my mother would fix them up and we would set them free. That was all we could do back then. Today we are so fortunate to have wildlife rehabilitation centres to care for our wild friends, and it is extremely important that they go to these centres for care, for their safety and ours.

We raised three baby raccoons that were orphaned, keeping in mind I was about 4 years old and there was no such thing as wildlife rehabilitation centres way back then. They had their own indoor/ outdoor enclosure outside, not in the house, complete with a pond. They would pick my brother’s pockets when he went in to see them, causing havoc when we all got blamed for taking his stuff, only to be found by my mother while cleaning their enclosure, tucked nice and neat in a corner. They were amazing. But even watching them grow from eyes closed babes we were always reminded that they were wild animals. They were not indoor pets. We knew never to approach raccoons in the wilderness. To watch from a distance and never feed them. We respected them. We had very special lives growing up and very special teachers, the wildlife, oh and my parents of course.

But those raccoons eventually had to be turned over to the Riverdale Zoo. You see, they couldn’t go free; they would not know how to survive and they had outgrown their enclosure. It was not fair to them. We did what was right for them. It was after all their lives. And they had a massively huge enclosure at the zoo. Today it is so much better, and you should never, ever keep a wild animal, they are wild, not pets and we do have someplace to take them. In addition, it is now illegal these days for the public to keep wild animals in captivity. We are so lucky things have changed to have places to take them and care for them.

Jennifer pictured here with her grandma.

My brother once caught a largemouth bass while fishing, the hook hurt its mouth. He brought it home, put it into a 50 gallon aquarium and dug fresh worms for it every day until it was healed. Then back to the lake it went. Because it looked like it was always smiling, “might have been all those extra big juicy worms”, he named it Happy. And happy it was. My other brother found a carp in a flooded field, he brought it all the way home keeping it alive by putting it in every single puddle along the way. It was pretty much the same size as he was. It got put into the kiddy pool until my Dad got home and they took it back to the lake. He made it into the local newspaper with that one. I was not born yet for that adventure. But the story was frequently told. This is what my home life was growing up. Never a dull moment. I had a brownie camera around my neck at the age of 3 sitting with my grandma, she lived with us for a while then went back to England. Sadly, I never saw her again. I was about 6 when she passed.  I was destined to be a photographer but did not know it until later in life. My grandma was a photographer and had her own darkroom back in the day. I wish I still had that brownie camera. It held a lot of memories.

I had many adventures in the woods, when my parents moved to a concession road near Mount Albert from Toronto. At the age of 12, I had my first owl encounter. A great horned owl, silent in flight, the owl almost took me out while walking in the woods. I looked up and there it was, absolutely magnificent, I dove for the ground as it swooped over my head. Being the city kid I was and never actually seeing an owl before, it gave me quite a start.  Gone in seconds, we figured I must have been near its nest given the time of year. We had a snapping turtle come to lay her eggs at the side of our pond every year, great blue herons sat on the riverbank fishing. I would wake up early mornings to see whitetail deer grazing with my horse. We had 5 acres of rich wildlife property. And all were welcome. Fox, coyote all came to visit or sung their songs nearby at night. Northern lights would gently paint the night skies, sometimes accented by the songs of the wilderness. It did not take long for this city kid to become a country lover.  It is not like that there now sadly.

From left to right: Jennifer, her mom and her two sisters Anne and Vicki.

In my 20s I spent a lot of time in the forest, listening, watching. Hiking and just sitting for hours, waiting in case something would venture by me. I sat watching a wetland as it started to rain. I noticed a spider near me. As the raindrops hit its web, it slowly started to take every strand in, and proceeded to hide under a dry leaf. Right beside me, I had never seen this behaviour before or since for that matter. When the rain stopped, it put its web back out to gather food again. Oblivious to its human company nearby. Camera in hand, I did not take even one photo. I was so keen on watching this tiny little spider that I totally forgot I had a camera! But then when you think about it, I probably would have missed so much. Taking photos is not always the way to go. That will be in my mind forever. As vivid as the day I watched it.

In my 30s I travelled. I could not go anywhere without wildlife being my main attraction. I have been to so many exotic places, I have seen monkeys, whales, sharks, manatees, fish, birds, lizards, bears, big, little creatures and in between. I have enjoyed snorkeling, hiking, snowshoeing, etc. My son and I did the sled dog adventure which was fabulous.

Now, Algonquin Park is one of my favourite places to go and get away. Not often do you walk a trail and look at your photos later to see you passed by a tree with a bear presumably sleeping in one of the trees you walked right beside. I need to start looking up as well. I had taken some shots as I approached the area, then later I saw that the bear was in those photos too! Totally amazing. We had a good chuckle over that one. I should look up more often. Then there was the time l told my friend, who was driving, to turn around out of the blue because l thought l saw an “ear.” We drove back to see a mother bear walking up a hill from a river to a tree, look up and call to two of the tiniest bear cubs you ever have seen. Then we watched them as they came down and ran head over heels after their mom into the safety of the forest. My life was always revolving in one way or another, bound to wildlife.

Many years ago, my oldest sister founded The Six Mile Lake Conservationist Club which consisted of my two sisters, myself and my son. This group was established since there were so many issues with wildlife and habitat there and they both needed our help. So, help them we did, we were strong willed and hard working. A lot of the local cottagers joined, we did nature walks, surveys, workshops, benthic studies, moved rattlesnakes safely from their cottages following MNRF guidelines and educated many, installed beaver baffles to help save species at risk nesting areas, a reptile tunnel and fencing were installed into a new road running through sensitive areas working with MNRF. It was a lot of work but very rewarding. Now we are older we no longer do all that. But we sure made a difference and an impact while we were able.

I have volunteered for many biological surveys where a team, each with his or her expertise, goes out into the field identifying all living things. This experience led me into turtle monitoring, enticing me to write my first book on none other than our 8 native turtles for children; adults love it too! I have reported turtles to the Toronto Zoos Adopt a Pond programs, turtle and frog watch, for over 20 years. I did a presentation there one year and jokingly said I should write a book. Julia, my contact at the zoo, said you should, we will publish it. Next thing I knew I was writing that book. It came out last year, in November of 2020. There was a lot of cutting it back and editing it due to keeping the cost down due to covid-19. But low and behold after going back and forth a few times, the final draft was done, and they did a great job of the finished book. I am donating a portion of it back to their program to help them to keep helping our turtles. A true win-win situation. You can order a copy by contacting the Toronto Zoo Adopt a Pond at aap@torontozoo.ca, but of course, I also have copies. Turtles are very dear to my heart; I have rescued many and moved so many more to safety. They are one of our species who grounds us to Mother Earth; they are so precious to me.

I have received two education awards on my photography’s educational values, from Lake Simcoe Region Conservation Authority in 2011 and the other from Ontario Nature in 2016. l have been published in many magazines and newspapers and been on TV. I used to write articles for various small newspapers. Most no longer exist anymore. I have had a very rich life doing what I love. I am really lucky to have had this life, to still have this life.

When wildlife started coming to me when it needed help, I became active in my community, helping birds, foxes, raccoons and squirrels. I was like a magnet. I have never turned down an animal in need, and if I couldn’t help it, I would find someone who could help me to help it.

I have met the greatest wildlife rehabbers/ rescuers/ volunteers. I have truly been blessed in that field. I have been taught by the best. Six years ago, I noticed three fox kits with severe mange near my home. Because I had been watching the foxes here for 30 years generation after generation, I knew their routine, and within 5 days, was able to capture them all, with the help of my good friend who rescues wildlife as his job. He taught me well. They all came home after rehabilitation, three months later beautiful, healthy and anxious to go free and I had the honour of releasing them.

I rescued a porcupine off the road 5 minutes from my house on my way home from a few days in Algonquin park. She was in shock and clearly had been dragged many feet. Never drive over an animal thinking you can clear them. Even a big snapping turtle, who cannot tuck its head in, will reach its head up getting badly injured or killed out of fear; this happens a lot. Road collisions with wildlife are responsible for inflicting serious injury or death.  The porcupine spent the night with me secured in a big rubbermaid tote with air holes all around the top and lid secured tight. I called my friend who does wildlife rescue right away. We went over its condition and he gave me instructions on what to do. Since it was extremely late at night, first thing in the morning we took her to rehab. One month later she surprised everyone with a healthy and extremely lucky baby porcupette. When the time came, I got to monitor mom and baby in a soft release into the forest, situated by the roadway where she was hit. We provided food and water, with cameras set up, to keep them safe and monitored; this with permission from the landowner, of course. Perfect release. Beautiful experience.

Every single animal I have rescued has a story.  And I remember them all. Every single life was special but not every life survived. And that hurt, it hurt a lot. But I got stronger and told myself that I still saved that life. I saved it from any more suffering.

What brought me to Procyon was a young raccoon, it was curled up on the neighbour’s front lawn. It was clearly in distress. When I was able to locate a trap, I got the little guy in there and called Procyon and spoke to Crystal. Then there was a herring gull I found by the waterfront in distress, a badly injured and sick squirrel, more raccoons; the list goes on. I have been a part of loon rescues, swan rescues and more. One thing led to another.

Speaking of “lead” we also did a lead exchange on Kempenfelt Bay years ago to exchange lead for non-lead fishing gear. It was great to see the number of fishermen who took place in this event. If we could only control the fishing line issues, I set up a rescue for a loon that could no longer dive or eat in November 2004. It was successful. Examples of injuries; as a gull was flying by, its wing was caught on a cast out fishing line and lines hanging in trees have killed kingfishers and screech owls. It is horrifying to see and all avoidable.

All these tragedies and lives tore at me and I had to get involved. When things happen in the wild it is a natural occurrence, but many of the wildlife injuries with which we deal, for the most part, are created by nonother than humans. We have taken away their habitat and we continue to do so. Loss of habitat forces these animals into close contact with us and our pets.

Fireworks kill wildlife out of pure fear, separating moms from babes, and terrify our pets as well. I have seen things I will never unsee and those things made me more determined. I am older now and have some health issues, but I will never quit helping our wildlife in any way I can. It is what keeps me strong.

Over time, I started using my photography skills to document what goes on in a wildlife rehabilitation centre by photographing the tiny orphans, the sick and the injured. Every life matters no matter what it is. And everything is done to save them, but sometimes their only saving grace from their pain and suffering is being put to rest. Procyon runs solely on volunteers and donations. It becomes a booming crazy place during baby season.

I was very lucky to have been able to trap a couple of mangy foxes recently. It has been an incredible experience to have been able to be a part of their care and watching them heal. One in particular, is a little girl from my fox family here where I live. It was her mother that I caught six years ago, with mange so severe that she had open wounds and could no longer catch her food. She was skin and bones with eyes crusted shut.  Now her kit from last season is with us. Soon to come home healthy and strong again. They passed by the side of my house many times, and still do, as I was able to watch them hunt and grow. I noticed this little one’s sparse tail early on, as seen on my trail camera, which put me in alert mode. I captured her within three days with the help of a community member, who actually called Procyon for help. We then worked together.

As you know, I now write monthly articles for the Procyon Post, and decided this month, since things are a bit slower before the rush hits us again, that I would tell my story of how I got into this field of wildlife rescue and rehabilitation and release. I love what I do.

Procyon Wildlife is a wonderful Rehabilitation centre that is growing into one of the largest Ontario centres, as we speak. It has great volunteers, who are hardworking and caring. Everyone is pulling through the challenges and strict protocols of this pandemic. Soon our overwintering animals will be able to go free back to the wild.

Earlier in my article, I told you about two mangy foxes, well, I just released my fox near my home in an area where it was born, being familiar to it for food and shelter. A day, we and they wait for. It was a perfect release. I am one of the phone volunteers and I make photo cards of the animals in our care as a fundraiser. These photo cards are available at the centre and are suitable as wonderful mementos and gifts.

Hopefully, this year all will go well, with this pandemic ending, so that we will be able to get back to our usual photo fundraisers. Until further notice no one from the public is allowed inside the centre. We are very grateful that those who have brought us animals have been generous in donating something. Everyone has been great. Every little bit helps; we cannot thank you enough for your support during these difficult times.

I have led an amazing life and could write a very, big book about all my wildlife encounters and all my adventures. But one thing will never change in that world I have had. Respect. Every life I have ever photographed has my full-on respect whether it be at Procyon or in the wild. My wildlife friends in the wilderness have taught me a lot about themselves, and a lot about myself too. I have learned how to read them and to familiarize myself with certain species before I go out where I may run into them. They are wonderful teachers. The best. I have sat for many hours, even years to get a photo of some of them. And for as long as my health allows me, I will continue to do so. Animals are the best therapy anyone could ever have, whether they be your pets or our wildlife that surrounds us. There is something about them all that allows me to tune everything else out, to breath in the stress-free air and take in the silence. I may not see them when I am sitting or walking silently in the wilderness, but I can tell you one thing. They see me, they know I am there. To be a part of helping an animal in need and watching it run free again is who I am. I am full of incredible memories, and those memories are forever. And you never stop learning. Or trying to teach others. I have had the best teachers I could possibly have, in both worlds. Life is good.

Jen Howard

Volunteer/photographer

Procyon Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre