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State's injured wildlife depend on "Dr. Deb"

Dr. Deb Eskedahl hand feeds a baby sparrow rescued when its nest was knocked down. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)1 / 3
Two bear cubs will stay until next spring. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)2 / 3
A baby screech owl is also being raised until he can fly the coop. (Sarah Smith / Enterprise)3 / 3

The patron saint of Minnesota wildlife doesn't dress in monk's cloth or go by the name of Francis.

She's a slightly built, freckle-faced, quietly determined woman known throughout the state as Dr. Deb.

Garrison veterinarian Debbie Eskedahl expanded her practice in 1985 to minister to the state's ailing, abandoned fauna and fawns. Her Wild and Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, nestled into 18 acres of forest near Mille Lacs Lake, sees 450 animals yearly.

It's funded solely with donations that "miraculously" keep it operating even in rough economic times, she said. It's the only facility of its type in the state.

"We've really been fortunate," she added.

A board of directors for the 501(c)(3) non-profit entity guides fundraising and donations for rescues such as taking in the four orphaned bear cubs that will stay until winter, when the Minnesota DNR will assist Dr. Deb move the hibernating bears. They'll wake up in their new home.

Then there's the frisky bobcat cub that wants a buddy. He playfully climbs up the leg of vet technician Kris Fredrick. He's lonely.

Dr. Deb takes in anything native to the state - except skunks.

"It's not because of the smell, it's because they can carry rabies with no outward signs" of the disease, she maintains.

She's taken in otters, an occasional wolf, coyotes, beavers and birds, mostly injured by lead poisoning. Turtles hit by cars have their shells repaired with dental acrylic.

The center's goal is to release the animals back into the wild.

The center holds a garage sale and a black tie event as fundraisers, sends out brochures to interested persons, corporations and fraternal organizations and takes the direct approach - asking for money.

Garrison, a community of 250, give or take a few, has responded in whole. Grocery stores donate aging produce and meats that cannot be sold; bait shops donate minnows for trumpeter swans, ospreys or loons that come into Dr. Deb's universe, volunteers donate dog food to feed the bear cubs, local berry farms and farmers donate late season fruit and vegetables.

"Our food is our biggest cost," Dr. Deb said. Medications are the second drain to center funds. Dr. Deb donates all of her time, and pays for the time of her occasional student vets, usually out of her own pocket. Fracture repairs to birds and toxicity cases are the most costly, Dr. Deb said.

The average length of stay hovers around six weeks for injured or orphaned animals that need to be raised to some level of maturity before release.

Right now there's a lull in the number of intakes, but it will pick up in the fall when hunters are out in the fields and forests. Spring is the busiest time.

"We get a lot of orphaned animals when people clean up their brush or cut down trees," Fredrick said.

In the bird room, a baby screech owl, a baby merlin and a baby robin all squawk loudly for attention. They were all tipped out of their nests and abandoned. The owl dumped over his feed dish and the raw meat is trapped under the bowl. He's ticked off and hungry.

The other two are getting ready to fly the coop. A baby sparrow is back at the Garrison Animal Hospital down the road where Dr. Deb's headquarters are. It needs 20-minute feedings of mealworms.

Volunteers mostly feed the animals unless it's a species prone to contracting rabies. In those cases, staff, with rabies shots up to date, will care for the animals.

The center's goal is to release the wildlife, generally in the region where the animals were found, when they're ready. Often times, Dr. Deb and staff will coordinate those releases with the DNR.

Euthanasia is a last resort, but happens in 20 percent of the cases. When animals are injured through human activity such as vehicle collisions or contact with power lines, sometimes they can't be rehabilitated.

In those cases, Dr Deb tries to place the injured animals with a breeding project or an educational program. Failing that, the animals are put down.

A few years ago Dr. Deb took in a partner, Dr. Katie Baratto. It has lessened the long workdays and growing number of animals clamoring for assistance.

The women recently took out a $16,000 loan to erect the bear pen, a huge wooded enclosure with a tree that runs up the middle of it. The bear cubs play and chase each other up the tree. They can't escape.

The women have plans to eventually build walk out cages from the center's building, so animals don't have to be confined indoors.

That will surely appeal to Bob, a rambunctious kitty who needs to stretch his legs. He'll be long gone when that project comes to fruition, but future Bobs will be the beneficiaries.

"People always ask me why we take in common species like red squirrels," Dr. Deb said. "We can sharpen our skills so that when something that's endangered comes in, we can give it the best of care using our experience."

To contact or donate to the Wild and Free Program, the Web site is