After two decades of taking in injured birds, bears, bunnies and other animals, White Pine Rehabilitation Center is calling it quits.
Owners, John and June Owens say they didn't get state funding and donations have been low.
The Owens’ weren't going to close for a few years, but they say they just can't keep up anymore.
"It was a natural, purely by accident, but a natural thing for us to go into," owner June Owens said.
John and June Owens have been animal lovers from the start.
"We both came from farm backgrounds so we've been around animals all of our lives," she said.
Twenty-one years ago they're love for animals became their life's passion when they opened White Pine Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
"Everybody always asks us ‘what is your favorite animal?’ Our favorite animal is the one we're taking care of right now," June said.
The Owens’ say their job for the last 21 years hasn't been 24/7. It's been 36/8 as they say. The animal lovers have dedicated everything they have to their animals.
"We have always put the animals first, always have done that. So if we had a critter that needed something we took care of that first," she said.
But after two decades of total devotion they say they just can't do it anymore.
"We're out of energy. We've lost our heart to it and financially we certainly can't do it anymore," June said.
"Quite frankly one of the major problems is we're burned out. You can only work that many hours a day for so long and it gets to you," owner John Owens said.
After John was diagnosed with prostate cancer two months ago, the Owens’ say they needed more time to live because people never know how much time they'll have together.
"We have loved it. We have put our hearts and souls into White Pine and everything we've ever owned has been White Pine. But there comes a point when you have to look out for each other," June said.
While they say the decision hasn't been easy, they're confident it was one they had to make.
"As much as we're gonna miss it, and the transition we're gonna have is not gonna be easy, but we just have to do it. It's just the way it is," June said.
The Owens’ say they will nurse the birds and animals back to health until this fall.
In September, the animals and birds will be sent to a new home or released into the wild if they're ready.
BREAKING NEWS: White Pine Wildlife Rehabilitation Center is closing. DNR says it's a huge loss for the area because there are no other services like it nearby.
The founders say they don't want to talk about it today. They say they are not accepting new animals as of right now, but will keep the animals they do have until they can be released.
June and John Owens tell WEAU 13 News they're burned out and have gone through all available funding sources. June Owens says like all non-profits, funding is hard to come by. She adds that they are drained after 21 years and cannot financially, physically or emotionally do it anymore.
Ed Culhane with the DNR says there are not a lot of options for injured animals as White Pine Wildlife was the only nearby facility. He says Barron County has a wildlife rescue operation, but it only takes certain species.
We'll continue to follow this story and bring you the latest at 5, 6 and 10.
INFORMATION FROM THE DNR:
EAU CLAIRE – After 21 years of taking calls at all hours and coming to the rescue of injured or orphaned wild animals and birds, John and June Owens have come to the end of the line.
The White Pine Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Fall Creek has closed its doors.
“We are no longer physically, emotionally or financially able to continue to operate White Pine,” the Owens said in a letter to supporters and others on their mailing list.
The Owens will no longer admit animals or take wildlife calls. They will continue to rehabilitate the animals already in their care until they can be released. They will then dissolve their non-profit organization, surrender their licenses and distribute their equipment to other non-profit operations. The center has survived all these years on donations, fund raisers and bequests. They receive no state funding.
The closing of White Pine will leave a void. The Owens are the only licensed rehabilitators in this part of the state. They have been serving 22 counties and caring for 800 to 1,000 animals and birds a year.
People who come across injured or orphaned wild animals in west central Wisconsin in the future have limited options. The only other licensed bear rehabilitation center in Wisconsin is located in Minocqua. There are no other wildlife rehabilitators at all in Eau Claire County or any of the surrounding counties.
The DNR web page – http://dnr.wi.gov/org/land/wildlife/whealth/rehab/directory/ – has a map listing the licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Wisconsin. Individuals can call the DNR Call Center and staff will attempt to provide advice or find contacts. People can also call their local DNR warden or wildlife biologist, but the reality is these individuals will not be able to physically respond to most calls.
A “great run”
After two decades of pouring their energies and personal finances into this labor of love, the Owens finally reached a point where it is not possible for them to go on.
“We have enough money to close White Pine,” June Owen said. “We don’t have enough money to keep going.”
Closing the doors at White Pine saddens the Owens, but they had a great run. It all started when John Owens, who was hunting rabbits, came upon a bear cub “sitting on its butt and howling.” He left it alone, but when he returned at the end of the day, the cub was still there, in obvious distress. After conferring with a conservation warden with the state Department of Natural Resources, John and June obtained formula from a veterinarian and then kept the cub warm and fed until a DNR wildlife biologist picked up the cub the next day.
People knew about the bear cub and began calling the Owens when they came upon other wild creatures in trouble or bringing injured wildlife to their door.
“Once you’ve had a bear, you become a wildlife expert,” John Owens joked.
A DNR warden advised them to obtain the proper licenses if they intended to provide rehabilitation services.
“We thought it would be fun to have 15 or 20 animals a year,” June Owens said.
Little did they know. Fifteen or 20 became hundreds of animals and birds and it quickly became a full-time operation. They burned through their savings. Eventually, donations and fund raisers allowed them to expand their services and a bequest provided a meager salary of $10,000 a year for John.
They formed close working relationships with DNR wardens, biologists and wildlife technicians. When they visited the DNR’s Eau Claire office with this news Wednesday, it was a bittersweet farewell.
“We’ve been fortunate to have you two,” warden supervisor Bill Schwengel told the Owens. “It’s going to be a big void without you. I’ve been amazed that you’ve been able to keep doing this as long as you have.”
White Pine received the 1994 Wildlife Award from the Eau Claire County Land Conservation Commission, the 1995 Earthgreen Award from the Chippewa Valley Group of the Sierra Club and the 2001 West Central Region Natural Resources Award from the DNR.
John Owens said it was hard long hours and it cost them, but looking back, they have no regrets.
“We got to do stuff most people never even dream about,” he said.