Animal House

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."



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."

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Harrison Fletcher