The phone rang.
It was a Littleton woman who said her kids' candy had been disappearing.
Jack Murphy smelled a rat.
He fired up the Dodge van and headed over.
"I get under the sink and look under there, and there was really no place where the rat could go," he remembers. "All of a sudden, I see this little pile of sawdust. He had chewed a hole through the cabinet and got out."
Jack set out some cages, but they came up as empty as the kids' candy boxes.
Then one morning, the woman called again: "I just saw a tail going into the sofa."
So Jack fired up the van and had another look.
"It was this big, old hide-a-bed," he says. "Man, we took this whole hide-a-bed apart and still couldn't find him."
Jack scratched his head for a while. Then he told the woman, "Let me check the other sofa."
He walked over and moved a second sofa away from the wall. "And there's this little rat sitting there looking at me," he recalls, "so I said, 'Howdy.'"
Then he got a broom, chased the rat around like a character in a Tom and Jerry cartoon, and captured him.
"Man, he was angry," Jack says. "Jumping up and down in the net and screaming. But then I put him in this little cage, and on the way back in the truck, he was, like, sitting up on the side and looking out the window like, 'Wow. This is cool.'"
Now the rat lives with Jack and his wife, Penny, at their place -- where there's no room for a sofa.
Their Aurora home is the headquarters for Urban Wildlife Rescue, the nonprofit center they started almost a decade ago to nurture sick, injured and orphaned animals and eventually return them to their habitat. "Basically, this is a four-bedroom house that has become an efficiency apartment," Jack says. "We do all our living in the den. Everything else is for the animals." The living room is the admissions area/research center; the bedrooms are the intensive-care unit, bat room and quarantine area; the back porch is a triage unit; and the backyard is for recovery. "The neighbors are really cool about it, and so is the city, which inspects us once a year," he adds. "We do try and set aside days to clean dirty cages, but then we'll get a dozen calls about baby squirrels in the attic and we'll have to drop everything. We try to plan things, but there's a lot of improvisation involved."
With Jack working in the field and Penny working out of their house/headquarters, they've rescued thousands of sick, injured and orphaned animals, everything from bats to coyotes. And now that spring is here, that number increases by the hour. The only animal rehabbers in the area, they work fourteen-hour days, seven days a week, all year long. They have virtually no staff (except for a part-time worker and a pool of volunteers), make virtually no money (Jack earns $13,000 a year, Penny works for free), and fund their $100,000-a-year operation with donations, grants, Saturday-night bingo and whatever they can scrounge from recycling piles.
But mostly, Urban Wildlife Rescue is supported by their love of animals. When the Murphys realize a creature is in trouble, they are no longer a couple of middle-aged suburban vegetarians. They are Coon Papa and Bat Lady -- names bestowed on them by their friends.
"We were meant to do this," Penny says. "This was meant to be."
"I was thinking of it this way," Jack says. "I don't like to ski, I don't play golf, I don't play drums anymore, and I'm not really into video games, so I've got to do something while I'm sitting around waiting to die. At least with this, there's never a dull moment."
THE INFAMOUS BOWL OF GUTS
(A MINOR MIRACLE)
Jack once took a call from a woman whose boyfriend had been hunting near Aurora and shot a pregnant coyote. After he tracked down the dead animal, he noticed that her belly was moving, so he cut it open.
"And out came seven premature baby coyotes," Jack says.
The girlfriend didn't know what to do, so she brought the pups to Jack and Penny, who swaddled them in warm blankets and then called practically every veterinarian, university and wildlife rehabber in the country. But no one had handled coyotes that young before, so Coon Papa and Bat Lady were on their own.
"We just had to go on instinct," Jack says.
From the length of their teeth, Penny and Jack determined that the coyotes were five days premature. For the next two weeks, they bottle-fed them critter baby formula every two hours. "And it took an hour and a half to feed them," Jack recalls. "So by the time you'd get done, you barely had enough time for a cigarette and then you had to start over again. Man, it was brutal."
But effective -- the pups pulled through. And as soon as they opened their eyes, Bat Lady became their surrogate mom. She fed them, washed them and even wrestled with them. "I'd howl with them and everything," Penny says. "And they don't need a reason to howl. They definitely have a language. I don't know what it is, but it entails a lot of yipping, yapping and howling. They'd bite me like a mom, too. Little love bites. If anyone else came near the cage, they'd run and hide."
To make sure the coyotes didn't become dependent on her, Penny broke contact when the pups were old enough to be placed in the backyard pen. And that fall, six months after they'd arrived at Urban Wildlife headquarters, Jack took them off in the van and released them.
"If the hunters would have left the mother coyote alone and she would have given birth, it would have been very lucky for two of the pups to make it," Penny says. "With us, all seven lived."
"I'd say it was a minor miracle," Jack adds. "Everything went really well."
Unless you count the infamous bowl of guts.
"We actually had to go out and buy guts," Jack recalls. "You know, like guts? I don't know what kind of guts they were, but they were guts of some sort. And Penny and I are vegetarians! You had to kind of age it to make it ripe, and the smell! So, yeah, one morning I was out feeding the coyotes, and I threw up like three times. I'd be trying to get these guts on the spoon and they'd be slithering off and it was like, 'Awww, man!'"
"The way Mom does it," Penny explains, "is to go out and eat something and then come back and throw it up so the puppies have warm regurgitated meat that just knocks their socks off."
"But we're not that dedicated," Jack says. "We use a Cuisinart."
CIGARETTES AND TOFU
(A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN)
Jack grew up in south New Jersey, where he spent much of his childhood playing in the woods two blocks from his home. "My dad was really into camping, hiking and canoeing, so we were always outdoors," he recalls. When other boys would head off into the suburbs on their paper routes, Jack would walk into the forest with a set of fur traps. "I was brought up thinking that animals didn't have feelings, can't feel pain and don't know what's going on," he says. "When we saw an animal, we either wanted to catch it or kill it. I did this basically until the age of reason -- thirteen or fourteen -- and after that, I saw how some animals struggled before they died, and it was like, 'This is not good. This is cruel.' So I stopped."
By the time he turned sixteen, Jack had traded his traps for a pair of drumsticks and joined a string of rock bands. After high school graduation, he tuned in, dropped out and let his hair down. "I went to a Catholic school, so I always had to keep my hair really short," he says. "When I got out, I grew it for like eight years. I eventually had to cut it because it was getting caught in my belt. So, yeah, I was a hippie."
In September 1971, Jack hit Denver on his way to Los Angeles. The sky was overcast and gloomy when he pulled his VW van into Daniels Park. But the next morning, the sun smiled down on the Rockies like a Coors commercial. "Once I saw those mountains, it was like, 'Man, I'm staying,'" he says.
At 49, Jack is laid-back and gregarious, with receding hair clipped far shorter than it was in his Catholic school days and a voice as rough as a cat's tongue. His round face is weathered, ruddy and framed with a beard that fades from brown to white. On this day -- on most days -- he wears blue jeans, a T-shirt and black work boots.
While he talks, which is a lot, Jack absentmindedly thumps a beat on his thigh, sips black coffee and exhales white clouds of cigarette smoke out the front window. It was his idea to plaster the van -- a newer Dodge, not the old VW -- with this bumper sticker: Save Prairie Dogs/Gas Developers. "You know, when you get frustrated, you just put up a good bumper sticker and it makes you feel better," he says.
Penny was born in Socorro, New Mexico, but spent most of her childhood bouncing between Kansas, Nebraska and California, where her family owned farms and ranches. "My mother was a wanderer," she recalls. "We'd just drive around the country. And I loved it." As soon as she was old enough, she followed in her mom's footsteps and traveled from place to place, working as everything from a waitress to a bill collector. But the jobs she liked best -- veterinarian technician, pet shop manager -- involved working with animals. "I've just always preferred to be around animals," Penny says. "When I was little, I'd find a squirrel and make it my friend, and when someone brought an animal to the farm that was supposedly untouchable, I'd walk up and pet it. I've always been like that."
At 51, Penny is warm and gentle, with a thick gray-and-auburn ponytail that dangles halfway down her back. She wears a pink sweatshirt with bats on the front, a bat pendant and bat earrings. Ten years ago she suffered a painful spinal-cord injury that restricts her movements, so she often settles behind a broad wooden desk cluttered with loose papers and figurines of skunks, foxes and raccoons. It was her idea to hang this sign on the front door: Bat Crossing. "I consider it an honor to be the Bat Lady," she says, exhaling her own cloud of smoke out the window.
Penny and Jack met 23 years ago at a Howard Johnson's salad bar in Colorado Springs. She was waiting tables, and he was doing a gig at the nearby Hilton. "I thought he was kind of weird," she recalls, "but nice. Now we talk about everything under the sun. We smoke the same brand of cigarettes, BVs, which are the cheapest thing in the world. We like a lot of the same foods, like spinach and tofu. I would say he's my soulmate. Except for Frank Zappa. He loves Frank Zappa, and Frank Zappa drives me crazy. But Jack did channel my love for animals into a productive outlet."
That outlet was Urban Wildlife Rescue, which the couple founded in 1991. They'd gone to Nucla to protest a prairie dog shoot and met a professional wildlife rehabilitator there. "We never knew anything like that existed," Jack says. But after touring her place, they decided that was what they wanted to do, too. So Penny gave up her odd jobs and Jack gave up his odd gigs; they stocked up on pet food, built a few cages behind their house, secured official rehabbers' licenses from the City of Aurora and the Colorado Department of Wildlife and got their wildlife-rehabilitation service listed in the phone book.
"It was that simple," Jack says. And at the start, it was also slow -- which gave them time to learn their new profession. "You'd get an animal and you wouldn't know what was wrong with it, so you'd get on the phone and figure it out," Penny says.
"There'd be times when we'd get an animal and I'd have to run out back and make a cage for it," Jack says. "We just didn't know."
But it didn't take them long to learn. They devoured textbooks like World of Bats, Animal Behaviors and Mammals of Colorado, attended wildlife workshops, soaked up information from veterinarians. "The more we learned, the more questions we had," Penny says. "But once people realized we were going to follow through and do what the animals needed, they'd teach us anything. And after nine years, we've learned so much that some vets call us and say, 'There's something wrong with this raccoon. What do you think it is?'"
"We started out just wanting to help animals, and now we get almost 5,000 calls a year," Jack says. "It used to be just old ladies in tennis shoes doing this, but now there are symposiums. As the population of Denver grows, our phone calls increase mathematically. It's been like a snowball rolling downhill. It just keeps getting bigger and bigger."
Some days it's rats in the sofa, other days it's Wild Kingdom.
"Something dug a hole under my porch," a man from the suburbs reports. "What is it?"
"A skunk," Jack replies.
"What's a skunk?"
True story, Coon Papa says.
"Some people have no idea," Jack says. "It's just mind-boggling. One guy thought a skunk was a cat. He was going to go outside, pick it up and throw it over the fence, but his girlfriend grabbed him just as he was bending down to get it. Yeah. Good move."
Although it would come as a surprise to many residents, Denver is still very much the wild, wildlife West. There are bats in Cherry Creek, foxes in Civic Center Park, raccoons in LoDo, coyotes at DIA. And when people spot them, they want them gone. That's when they start dialing the phone until they reach Coon Papa and Bat Lady.
"Normally at this time of year, we'll get maybe five or six calls a day," Jack says. "But now we're getting twenty or thirty. It's like this non-winter we had that's running into spring, and it seems like everyone has an animal living in their yard, and they're all freaking out. It's just bizarre, man. A real weird time."
But weather isn't the only reason their phone is bleeping off the hook. The biggest reason, they say, is man himself. "This whole area used to be short-grass prairie," Jack explains. "But people of European ancestry don't want to live in places like that, so they plant non-native trees, non-native bushes and non-native grasses. Then they build canals and storm drains to water them. Then all of a sudden, they've turned the short-grass prairie into a riparian wetland. So all the animals in riparian wetlands move right in."
And the next thing people do, Jack says, is stock that habitat with tasty tidbits. "Anybody that lives several blocks from a stream or a creek -- natural or man-made -- is going to have wildlife," he points out. "Raccoons love storm drains. They can pop up on any street, hit a couple of dog food bowls, knock over some trash cans, get back inside and be back at the creek by morning.
"Some animals survive better around us. In nature they'd be digging under rocks, but here they're tipping over trash cans. If a skunk lives fifteen feet from a dumpster, he sits back and you bring him the food."
Man not only feeds the wildlife, he houses it. "If you take a hollow tree that a raccoon uses in nature and then duplicated it, you'd have a chimney," Jack says. "And when people leave the chimney cap off, a raccoon comes by and goes, 'Wow! This is perfect!'"
Most homeowners don't realize that they're creating the ideal conditions for their own Wild Kingdom episode. "People see an animal, they'll call up and say, 'I live in a residential area with children, and we have a raccoon. I want you to take it where it belongs,"' Jack says. "So I have to explain, 'Well, the animal is where it belongs.' If a raccoon is living in the neighborhood, that's because the habitat is good. If it weren't, the animal would leave. It's that simple."
COON PAPA TO THE RESCUE
Jack and Penny are specialists.
They don't do pets. No chihuahuas, no ferrets, no tabbies.
They don't do exotics, either. No hawks, no pythons, no alligators. "It's like I told the guy who called up about the alligator in Wash Park," Jack recalls. "'Yeah, it's an alligator. And I have no idea what to do with it.'"
But if a raccoon gets hit by a car, they'll fire up the Dodge faster than you can say "roadkill."
"We've gotten good enough to where most of the time we can just look at the animal and know if we can save them or not," Jack says. "If there's any doubt, it's worth the drive to the vet. They've got the drugs and the X-ray machine."
If the injuries are not life-threatening, they will haul the animal to headquarters, where it's cleaned, bandaged and given a place to heal. Depending on the animal and its injury, it might even receive massage, range-of-motion therapy and acupressure. "Anything that works for a human being works for an animal," Penny says.
The saddest cases involve what some humans have done to animals. Penny and Jack have seen raccoons riddled with air-gun pellets. Bats doused in hydraulic fluid. Squirrels with the hair plucked from their tails.
A tree trimmer once brought over two baby squirrels he'd discovered on a job. If the animals had been newborns, the trimmer said, he would have simply tossed them into the tree shredder. But since they were "cute," he brought them to Jack and Penny. "He neglected to mention that he had hit them with a chainsaw," Penny says.
Another time, a chimney sweep evicted a mother raccoon with a broom, then left its babies in a box outside and told the homeowners that the mother would return that night to get them. But the injured mother never came, a neighborhood dog snatched at least one baby, and by the time Jack and Penny got to the rest, they were suffering from hypothermia. The chimney sweep subsequently billed the homeowners $575 for solving their "raccoon problem."
"Ninety percent of raccoons we get are deliberately orphaned, either by chimney sweeps or by pest-control companies," Jack says. "Last year I had a record number of dead babies I pulled from chimneys."
Jack and Penny know their tenants won't be staying permanently, so they're careful not to cross the line between helping a wild animal and making it dependent on humans. They limit personal contact with the animals, and remind volunteers that squirrels, raccoons, foxes and coyotes are not scruffier versions of dogs and cats. "These are definitely not pets," Jack says. He and Penny also supplement the animals' diets with food they're likely to find outdoors, such as pine cones, fresh branches and roadkill.
After stays ranging from six weeks to six months, the animals are set free. Known orphans are released in mountain areas, prairies and greenbelts miles from the nearest cul-de-sac or strip mall; other animals are returned to the areas where they were found injured. With some, such as raccoons, the release can be as simple as opening a cage. But with others, like coyotes, it takes several days before they are acclimated to their new surroundings.
Before any animal is freed, Jack and Penny scout the area to ensure that there's adequate food, water and shelter. They also keep an eye out for potential predators -- be they ranchers or dogs. And if the land is privately owned, Urban Wildlife Rescue asks the owner's permission before releasing an animal there. Most of the time, landowners are happy to have the new residents. Cemeteries, for instance, can't get enough squirrels.
When an animal finds a good home, "I'm happy for them," Penny says. "I picture them running around, frolicking, mating, that sort of thing."
"Not me," Jack says. "I always picture them getting shot by rednecks."
Most rescues are not as lengthy -- or involved. Many of the calls coming in involve not injured animals, but pesky ones that have wound up in the wrong place.
Over the years, Jack has rescued baby foxes trapped in pits, porcupines trapped under cars, bats trapped in hallways and a squirrel trapped on the eighth floor of an office building. "I still have nightmares about that one," he says. "I do not like heights. But I got him."
And get them he does. "I have a whole bunch of equipment, and I always bring all of it," Jack explains. "Nets. Catch poles. Gloves. Blankets. Everything. I'll run out there with a whole armful of junk, determine what I need and then go for it."
But there are some things he won't do. He won't trap -- trapping puts animals at risk of injury -- and he won't use poison, not even for mice and rats. "I do not believe in hurting other living things," he says. "I'll admit it, mice are pretty dirty little guys. They pee everywhere and poop everywhere and really wreak havoc. But if you use poison, the mice are going to die. And they're going to die where they live. And if they live in your wall, you're going to have walls full of dead mice, which is a whole new problem."
So instead, they use ultrasonic equipment "with high-pitched sounds that make it very uncomfortable for mice," he says. "Generally, that works. So does peppermint oil. Mice hate peppermint, and if you take some oil and spray it around, that sometimes works as a repellent. If you do those things -- and patch the places where they're getting in, which is the most important thing -- it should work fine."
If it doesn't, only then will Jack consider live-trapping the animals and relocating them. But it almost never comes to that. Jack usually figures out the reasons why the animals might be there in the first place, then eliminates them one by one. Sometimes that's as simple as removing dog food from the back porch, cleaning a barbecue grill, securing trash-can lids or putting steel mesh around attic holes.
"Most of our calls are solved over the phone," Jack says. "We've become really good at talking our way out of work. This stuff is not rocket science."
Rabbits in the garden?
"Fertilize with blood meal," Jack says. "Since rabbits are low on the food chain, when they smell all this blood, it's like, 'Whoo! Something must be dying around here.' And they split."
Raccoons on the roof?
"Spray them with a garden hose or use cat and dog repellent."
Squirrels climbing the bird-feeder pole?
"Spread Vaseline on it."
Skunks under the porch?
"Soak a ball of rags in ammonia and toss it inside."
And if none of that works, Jack offers this suggestion: Take a radio, place it where the animal is hunkered down, then tune it to a talk-radio program. "Preferably Rush Limbaugh," he says. "That clears the room real quick."
BAT LADY: PRETTY ON THE INSIDE
Jack and Penny squeak open a door near the back of the house where the walls are draped with bedsheets, the tables topped with aquariums and the aquariums fitted with glowing red heat lamps.
"If you don't say anything, you'll see more," says Penny. "They get afraid when they hear a new voice."
She reaches into a cage, then gently opens her hand to uncover a tiny brown bat, which lifts its pug nose and sniffs the air.
"And Sassy Bat is a sweet little bat," Penny says. "I raised her from a baby, when she weighed about three grams. Now she's a fatso and weighs about 25 grams. She's about four years old and in good health, other than being overweight, and her life expectancy is thirty years. She should only weigh like eighteen grams, but, oh, well, she's a sweetheart."
Penny plucks a plump white mealworm from a plate and dangles it before the bat's twitching snout.
"Will you eat?" she asks. "Ooh, yeah, I guess you will."
The bat inhales the worm with loud crackling noises.
"Yummy, yummy," Penny says. "Delicious-looking bugs. As you can see, they're really loud when they eat. And they don't like the food touching their lips, so when they're done, they wipe their mouths on the cloth. They're much cleaner than people think."
The bat swallows another bug.
Penny became the Bat Lady about nine years ago, after a woman found a bat lying in the street and called Urban Wildlife Rescue. Penny wasn't sure what to do with the creature, so she phoned a bat expert in Atlanta and read every bat book she could find.
"The more I learned, the more fascinated I became," she says. "They're very difficult to treat because they're so small and intricate. And although their reputation is aggressive and dangerous, they're actually quite the opposite -- very gentle."
Peggy has treated more than 300 bats, most of which were released after a short stay. Sassy Bat, though, is a long-term rehabilitation project. She landed here three years ago, after ingesting pesticide as an infant. Her wings are deformed, and she can fly only a few feet at a time.
"Watch," Penny says, plucking another worm from the glass. "She'll spit the heads out. They don't like the heads. And they love their ears scratched. Just like dogs."
"Then we should teach her how to fetch," Jack laughs.
Today Penny is considered an authority on bats. She has studied state health-department guidelines, received rabies vaccinations, memorized the warning signs for diseased and injured bats, and worked hard to counter misconceptions. "There are indeed some rabid bats, but the actual statistics are one-half of one percent of the entire bat population," she explains. "And bats are not carriers of rabies. They contract it, as any mammal can, and can pass it on to any mammal, including humans, but the chances of that are slim to none. They've gotten such a bad rap. Oh, they're ferocious. Really something to be scared of."
To reinforce that message, Penny often livens lectures by presenting her collection of "touchy-feelies" -- dead bats that have been frozen, dried, sanitized and stuffed.
"Kids love it," she says. "Especially when I let them feel the teeth. Because they're not as sharp as everyone imagines."
On cue, the little bat sniffs around for worms.
"Here, Pumpkins," Penny offers. "Only two left. Want a drink of water? No? Well, good night, then. No more bugs. That's it. Good night."
Penny places the bat inside its cage, where it dangles upside-down from a baby blanket and sniffs around one last time.
"Show him your pretty little face," Penny says. "Aren't they absolutely gorgeous? To me, there's not a thing ugly about them."
GUANO IN THE ATTIC (BUT IS IT ART?)
One day several years ago, the Denver Art Students League called.
The organization wanted to renovate the old Sherman School at 200 South Grant Street but had encountered a problem. A winged and squeaky problem. Bats, the caller said. Many bats. In the attic. And construction crews wouldn't go near them.
Jack grabbed his gear, got in the Dodge and headed over, thinking he'd be able to clear the attic and zip back to headquarters in time to throw some guts in the blender.
"So I climb up this creaky set of stairs and walk into this attic expecting it to be about the size of a house attic, but it's like 22 feet high and about the size of half a city block!" Jack recalls. "So I start walking around, and I see these piles of bat poop like ten to twelve feet in diameter and eight inches deep, and I'm going, 'Whoa. This is more than a handful of bats.'"
Try several thousand bats. Several thousand female "little brown" bats and their babies, which had flown in through broken windows and holes in the roof and turned the 107-year-old attic into a miniature Carlsbad Caverns.
"We estimated anywhere from 2,500 to 5,000 of them," Jack says. "I'd go up there with a flashlight and look under the beams, and there'd be forty little faces staring back at me. Everywhere you looked, there were bats. It was cool."
But trying to evict them would have been insane, and Jack said so to the league. Its board agreed, and even considered incorporating a bat house into its remodeling plans; it came up with a fundraiser that involved the sale of $1 paper bats.
Jack and Penny, meanwhile, did a little research and discovered that a maternal bat colony occupies its nursery only during warmer months, then flies to a separate hibernation chamber in the fall. So the couple suggested that the league postpone its remodeling project until the fall, when the bats would leave on their own.
And that's exactly what the league intends to do -- once it raises the remaining $300,000 necessary for the $1.6 million renovation. Until then, although the health department has assured the board that the creatures do not pose a risk, the attic is off limits to students. Even unseen, the bats add a certain flair to the place. And come to think of it, Jack says, the guano was quite modernesque -- "but it wouldn't be considered art unless they threw it on a Jesus poster."
A FEW WORDS FROM THEIR FRIENDS
Cheryl Conway, Aurora Animal Care spokeswoman: "We refer a lot of business to them. We think they are fantastic. We don't have enough accolades for them."
Anonymous nuisance-wildlife handler: "He's an animal-rights nut. I can't believe no one has punched him out yet."
Dr. Dan Brod, veterinarian and co-owner of Deer Creek Animal Hospital: "I've worked with Jack and Penny for about ten years. They're extremely dedicated. They're always there for us. Just wonderful people."
That same anonymous nuisance-wildlife handler: "He absolutely cares nothing about people. Animals take precedence, whether it's a mouse, a fly or a bug. He thinks raccoons have as much right to live in someone's house as they do."
Todd Malmsbury, Colorado Division of Wildlife spokesman: "Are they licensed? Yes. Do we take them animals on occasion? Yes. Are they reputable? Yes. They may have views which are different than the division, but that's not news."
The anonymous nuisance-wildlife handler, again: "He'll tell someone with raccoons on their roof to leave them alone, and in six to eight weeks they'll leave. I just laugh. Six to eight weeks is not long enough. Even if it were, they'd make the homeowner's life a nightmare. None of that stuff works."
John Pape, state health-department epidemiologist: "They're definitely providing a service that is not provided by a government agency. If there was a bat out there flopping on the ground in the middle of the day, I'd rather that it get into Penny Murphy's hands than stay with the person who found it. There are some areas we don't agree on. Like, I don't see a compelling reason to save mice, rats or tree squirrels, but over the years we've worked toward some mutually beneficial situations."
Anonymous nuisance-wildlife handler: "I can blow off a lot of stuff, but he'll call customers of mine and tell them blatant lies. I've hired a lawyer and threatened him with a lawsuit. He's a people-hater. A menace. A flake. Like I said before, he's a nut."
WE ARE NOT ALONE
Jack takes a long drag from his cigarette and looks at Penny, who takes a long drag from her cigarette. They exhale simultaneously. They could talk forever about why they do what they do, defending varmints and all, but they don't want to get too philosophical about it.
Well, maybe they do.
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Penny goes first: "When we treat one squirrel and one raccoon, we are not making a significant impact on that species," she explains. "But it does encourage an overall humane outlook toward animals. It means there's someone who cares about them and will take care of them. And I think that helps teach others to become more compassionate. Not only toward animals, but hopefully toward other people."
Jack couldn't have said it better -- but he tries, anyway. "I think about population and ecosystem," he says. "But I also think of the individual animal. Even though helping one squirrel isn't going to make or break that population, it does matter to that individual squirrel. I was brought up to think that whatever animals do that looks intelligent is only instinct, but after observing them for many, many years, I learned that, yes, animals do have instinct, but there's so much more to it than that. They have an appreciation for life. Even insects. If someone goes to kill a bug, that bug fights for its life. Same with squirrels. They fight as much as humans, sometimes more."
"Here's another way of looking at it," Penny interrupts. "How many humans go camping? How many go up by a river because they want to hear the water and the trees and the birds and the animals? It fills their souls with joy. Just looking at these things can make you feel humble. Wilderness and wildlife offer people a true look at life. We consider ourselves very fortunate."
Jack tries again: "A lot of the time, it's just trying to prevent suffering. If I see an animal in distress, I feel compelled to help that animal. I've had people say, 'You're just rehabbing varmints.' And I say, 'Yeah, we are.' But I don't consider them varmints. A lot of people think that animals have no useful purpose unless they serve humans. I disagree with that philosophy 100 percent. The fact that an animal has survived for a million years tells me he deserves to be around. People say, 'It's only a rat.' And I'll tell them, 'Yeah, well, you're only a primate.' People think they're the only living things on this planet. Well, I've got news for them: They aren't."