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September 2014


Dakota, WINC perch on support of many

Today, we kick off a series of stories based on the song "The 12 Days of Christmas." From maids a'milking to lords a'leaping, we've got it covered. Watch for more stories in the issues leading up to Christmas. We kick things off with Lake Country's own "partridge in a pear tree," Dakota, the great-horned owl from the Wildlife In Need Center.

When our newsroom talked about doing a twist on "The 12 Days of Christmas," there wasn't much of a question that Wildlife In Need Center (WINC) animal ambassador Dakota was the perfect candidate to start it off as our "partridge in a pear tree." The center graciously agreed to let us feature the famous bird to start off our series of holiday stories.

While I drove out to the WINC nestled in the forest off Waterville Road I had an image in mind of the great-horned owl as the centerpiece of my story. But I also thought about the leaves, branches, roots and trunk of the tree that mythical partridge perched in, because that's what WINC is: an intricate life system.

The sage wisdom that an owl represents is surely a perfect theme for what happens at WINC. The new facility was quiet the morning I spent with Dakota's handler and WINC education coordinator Leslie Kiehl. It was humbling that Kiehl was gracious enough to spend a couple hours with me introducing critters and showing me the new facility, which averages 2,500 patients a year. There obviously was plenty that Kiehl needed to get done that day. She was already prepping for the center's 150th educational program held Saturday.

WINC is the only organization in the state that offers one-of-a-kind wildlife care and education. Nestled in the forest, the new facility is a haven for recovery and discovery. Built and operated on 100-percent volunteerism and donations, the center is a true example of how a community connects to help the natural world around it.

The center accepts animal patients from Waukesha, Dodge, Jefferson and Walworth counties. Fifty to sixty full-time volunteers work around the clock, 365 days a year, to help care for the animals and run the center. In spring there are another 40 to 50 youth volunteers, ages 12 to 17, who help feed baby birds. By averaging 2,500 patients a year, the center also answers more than 10,000 phone calls.

That morning, Kiehl asked me if I had ever met Dakota. Sure, I said. I've had opportunities to catch a glimpse of him or try and create a photo for the newspaper amid throngs of children and adults crowding in to see the raptor.

Dakota's always been a big draw as an ambassador, but people became even more aware of him around this time last year when he was taken by two teens from his enclosure. As he escaped his captors, the weeks that went by before his rescue must have been the longest for Kiehl, who has known Dakota since he first came to the center 11 years ago.

Kiehl had a career in corporate finance before her job at WINC. She saw an ad seeking WINC volunteers and thought it would be a good fit. "I wanted something to do myself, and I always loved animals," she explained.

You wouldn't know today that Kiehl once was a volunteer like any interested helper who applies. I see her as the voice of the animals. Likely revered by children with whom she shares her animal friends, you wouldn't know she ever did anything else in life.

Kiehl led me to the rear of the center where outdoor enclosures house recovering animal. There was no doubt where Dakota was. "Hear that?" asked Kiehl. And there it was. The distinct sound of an owl, coming from Dakota's enclosure, his good morning salutation. Perched in his cage Dakota was happy to see his faithful friend, and he wasn't shy about giving me a once-over.

To be near Dakota or any of the animal ambassadors is a treat. It awakens the child in an adult and sparks the imagination of a child. It's one of the most special things about WINC.

In the 150 educational programs undertaken by Dakota and the other animal ambassadors - Waldo the woodchuck, Daphne the duck, Jewel the turtle and Maize the snake, to name a few - the imprint they have left on the minds of their students serve as the branches of the proverbial pear tree. This year alone, more than 44,000 people have seen Dakota and learned about wildlife through the animal ambassador program.

Volunteers and community support make up a strong root system for the WINC tree. Executive Director Joan Rudnitzki said more than 18,000 volunteer hours have been logged. Bill Lane is one of those volunteers. Now in his 80s, Lane drives from Germantown to help answer phone calls. It's volunteers like him who help residents with good intentions know what to do.

WINC has plans to branch out even more with its partnership with the University of Wisconsin-Waukesha for more internships, education and support. Rudnitzki said there are also plans to bring more awareness to folks on how to address an injured animal you may see in the wild, or like my friend Rebecca Seymour says, to know, "the importance of wild things and how to walk quietly in the wild places."

It was an impressive experience to meet Dakota, to lock eyes with a great-horned owl. But what was even more impressive was to see the system of support that comes from a community that gives a hoot that keeps the WINC going. It's a great start to a series of stories that celebrate this season.

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