Wild animals get second chances at rehab center

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— Right now, Barry, Jerry and Moose, all baby raccoons who were recently orphaned, are playing without worry. Winnie the Crow, who's 2 weeks old, is feisty and ready for flight. Spring, an elk calf, is healthy and will lick your hand if you come in her pen. And Pine, a fawn only a few weeks old and as big as a small dog, has a bump and cut on her head. She and her mother were hit by a car this week. The adult doe died, leaving Pine alone but doing well.

It's all part of a day's work at Tracy Bye's Born Free Wild Life Rehab south of Steamboat Springs.

Bye has spent the past seven years nursing orphaned and injured animals from field mice to elk, and magpies to eagles back into the wild.

"I've seen some hideous injuries," she said.

Many times, the animal's injuries are too severe and Bye has to let them pass away, or even euthanize them.

Though sad, it's the animal's spirit that impresses Bye and keeps her doing the work.

"They teach you so much about how you should be as a person enduring pain with a spirit to survive," Bye said.

She recalled the story of Caw Caw, an adult crow that was hit by a car and had almost all of his bones broken.

"He was just so banged up," she said.

Though Caw Caw's injuries couldn't be treated and he had to be put down, the bird's yearning to live was amazing, Bye said.

She feels a certain bonding is created with injured animals, she said.

"Once they know you're trying to help them, you see that they're so wise," Bye said.

Once an injured animal is healthy, or an orphaned animal is old enough, Bye releases it back into the wild.

"Anytime I release any of them, no matter how much they have healed, I feel so good about it," she said.

Some of the time, the animals return to say "hi," she said.

Flag, an orphaned buck deer released near Meeker four years ago, made a visit to Bye's house last fall.

That was a special time.

"You get very close to them when you feed them for a long time," Bye said.

Flag was rehabilitated for two years. When released, Bye remembered the deer running after the car when she drove away.

"My heart hurt so bad," she said. "When Flag showed up again, I was just so happy."

Flag spent the hunting season near Bye's house with four other deer.

"They're wild, but they knew this was a safe place," she said.

Bye has a picture of Flag in a photo album, along with pictures of every animal that's been to Born Free.

Last year, she accepted 85 animals.

"It's been real important to us," Division of Wildlife area manager Jim Hicks said. "We really don't have a facility to take care of the animals."

Born Free takes animals from Moffat, Grand and Routt counties.

"Yes, we love Tracy," said Stacy Hayes, city animal control officer. "Without her, a lot of these animals wouldn't be able to be rehabilitated and wouldn't have made it."

Bye is a first-grade teacher at Soda Creek Elementary School. She first became interested in animal rehabilitation when Hicks was talking to one of her classes. Bye asked Hicks how she could get licensed. Before she knew it, she was taking in an injured hawk.

But Bye has always been interested in helping animals. When she was a child, she ran butterfly hospitals with a friend and always had pets around her.

Now, she goes to classes each year to maintain a federal license to care for the animals.

Her husband, Michael, and their two small children help with Born Free. Bye also receives assistance from local veterinarians who volunteer their services.

Born Free is non-profit and depends on donations.

"We have some really good support by people I've never even met," Bye said.

Though several people donate to Born Free, feeding and caring for the animal is expensive, and part of the family's budget goes to paying for the service.

"We always put in money out of pocket," she said.

But that's OK, Bye said. It's one of her passions in life.

"I tend to have a better time relating with animals than I do with people," she said.

To reach Doug Crowl call 871-4206 or e-mail dcrowl@amigo.net

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