Serving Northern St. Louis County, Minnesota

Caring for critters

Local woman is devoted to helping injured and abandoned wildlife

E.M. Schultz
Posted 11/25/19

REGIONAL - Nestled in the woods outside Babbitt there is a place where animals of every shape and size are given a second chance at life. Heather (Flikke) Griffith, the operator of this healing …

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Caring for critters

Local woman is devoted to helping injured and abandoned wildlife

Posted

REGIONAL - Nestled in the woods outside Babbitt there is a place where animals of every shape and size are given a second chance at life. Heather (Flikke) Griffith, the operator of this healing establishment, has always had a passion for helping animals in need. Up until six years ago, when she discovered Wildwoods Wildlife Rehabilitation in Duluth, she did so in an unofficial capacity. Two years later, she started her own center, which she dubbed Cripple Critter Ranch (CCR). 

The process behind opening this facility was not a simple one. Heather had to take a test to become licensed through the DNR and make sure she had at least one room that would serve solely as a rehabilitation area. She also had to find a mentor who would be willing to take her on, which, according to Heather, is a massive commitment requiring 24/7 availability. She said her mentor, Gail Buyle, who works at the Raptor Center in Roseville, was a huge help when she first started out. Now, she has built up a much bigger network of individuals who can answer her questions and offer her help. 

This support group, as well as her own determination and experience, has helped Heather advance her license from the novice level to the general level. With this new classification comes the ability to treat a larger variety of species and no limit on how many she may treat at a time. 

“The limit is really what I can handle,” she says. “The most I’ve ever had at once was maybe fifteen to twenty.”

Higher numbers such as these generally occur during the spring or summer, which are the busiest seasons for CCR. Spring ushers in a number of orphaned babies, while summer tends to bring in more juveniles, or as Heather calls them, “dumb teenagers.” These are animals who couldn’t or didn’t quite figure out how to take care of themselves and whose parents have moved on.” As for the fall and winter, numbers are usually lower.

This doesn’t mean Heather isn’t busy during the winter. She often continues feeding the animals she has released back into the wild, especially those that would usually stock up on food during the fall months, such as squirrels. This is what she calls a “soft release.” She also takes care not to touch any baby animals that come to her after they’ve been weaned, as this can negatively affect their ability to be reintroduced to the wild.

“It’s important to remember they’re still wild animals,” she says.

While some of the wild animals that end up at CCR are discovered by Heather herself, most of them come from the discoveries of others. People stumble across incapacitated animals and call the DNR, and then the DNR either calls Heather or gives out her number. According to Tom Rusch, the DNR Tower Area Wildlife Manager, being able to do so has been extremely helpful.

“She’s been a godsend,” he says. “Having her as a resource has been amazing.”

Rusch and his staff of one are responsible for an enormous area of 4,770-square miles that includes several state forests and wildlife management areas. He says it wouldn’t be possible to help nearly as many animals as they do without Heather’s volunteerism. According to Rusch, Heather is a lot of fun to work with, and she’s always more than willing to help no matter the time or day.

“You never know when an eagle is going to get hit, or when a loon is going to have something go bad,” says Rusch, “Being able to call Heather is awesome.”

Generally, when Heather gets a phone call from someone regarding an injured animal, she asks them to bring it to the Ely Veterinary Clinic. This is usually her first stop when she receives a new ward. She brings them there because of Dr. Kristine Woerheide, who is actively learning about wildlife care.

Dr. Kristine isn’t the only vet at the clinic who is willing to help. According to Heather, there are several other vets who help if Dr. Kristine isn’t available, or in the case of an emergency. And they do it all pro bono, a fact for which Heather is extremely grateful. According to her, none of what she does would be possible without their help and the help she’s received from many others over the years.

“It’s all worked out really well,” she says. “It’s a whole bunch of people working together.”

One of those people is her husband Mark, who not only supports her efforts but also builds the facilities for the healing animals. Heather spoke about how much she appreciates his help, giving him “huge kudos” for everything he does and puts up with. He isn’t the only one who helps her, though. She also gets assistance with transfers from time to time, both from people being willing to drive animals where they need to go and from other rehabilitation centers being willing to meet halfway. Another source of help comes from the owners of the houses she cleans, who are kind enough to allow her to bring along animals who require more constant care. 

Another area where she has gotten help is in the financial realm, though not nearly as much as necessary. Other than a grant she received last year for incubators, all of the rehabilitation center’s expenses have come out of her pocket. Heather does have plans to apply for another grant in the future, which would allow her, or rather Mark, to build an otter enclosure. If all goes as planned, it would be the only one in the state of Minnesota. It would also be the second specialized enclosure at CCR, with the first being a 16x16 flight enclosure, and the fourth facility to be built overall. 

Though CCR is currently growing, Heather wants to make sure it doesn’t become too large, not because she doesn’t want to help as many animals as possible, but because she doesn’t want to lose the passion for what she does. A bigger center would mean constant paperwork, finding volunteers or staff members, and dealing with scheduling rather than spending her time doing what she loves: taking care of the animals. While she still may seek volunteer help in the future, for now, she’d rather focus on providing the highest quality care to a smaller number of creatures. 

“It’s about what’s best for the animals,” she says.

The animals are, after all, what CCR is all about, and Heather is willing to take on any species, as long as her license allows it. She has helped everything from baby mice, squirrels, and swans, to a great-horned owl fledgling. Her favorite animal so far was a mink named Ernie. When Ernie first arrived, he could barely open his eyes. Heather raised him for several months before finally releasing him to the wild. Other than Ernie, she said it’s hard for her to choose a favorite.

“They’re all my new favorites,” she says. 

Ernie may have been her favorite, but an American Bittern she named “Bird” was the most unusual animal she’s ever helped. She described him as a “shy bird” who made a “weird glunking noise.” Bird had neurological issues, however, and he eventually had to be euthanized, which Heather said was one of the toughest decisions for her.

While that decision is always difficult, Heather acknowledges is not an uncommon outcome for many of the animals she cares for, particularly adults. In most cases, she said, an adult animal must be severely injured to allow itself to be captured by a person.

Rusch said he appreciates that Heather is fully aware of the reality of what she does.

“She knows that a lot of animals don’t survive,” he says. “She’s very realistic about things.”

Heather herself says that as difficult as it is to make the call to euthanize them, it’s better than allowing them to continue suffering. It’s also gotten easier over time. The first year she ran CCR, she says she cried the entire time.

Despite the more difficult aspects of the job, Heather says running CCR makes her “unbelievably happy.” If it were possible, it would be her sole focus. For her, it’s right up there with her job.

“My whole world is wildlife,” she says. “My mind is on the rehab 24/7.”

Heather is also actively learning more about how to care for the animals. She is currently taking classes, such as medical math, at Vermilion Community College in Ely. She’s also in the process of applying for a federal license to work with migratory birds. On top of this, she is constantly seeking out information on her own, especially when she gets a new animal she isn’t entirely familiar with. As she says, it’s important to “know your animal,” which she clearly does, considering she’s only ever had one animal successfully attack her. She was bitten on the finger by a gray squirrel.

It’s clear that Heather cares deeply for all creatures. She urges everyone to at least be kind to animals. Most importantly, she asks that people stop using poisons and glue traps, as they are especially cruel.

“Just because you don’t see it,” she says, “doesn’t mean an animal isn’t suffering horrifically because of those things.”

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