To the Rescue

Tracy Bye is prepared for almost any emergency in the animal world

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— In Tracy Bye's bright blue house, the fridge is always stocked with yogurt, penicillin and baby formula. The cupboard contains towers of canned cat food. And the freezer is full of frozen rats and mice.

Bye is not a picky eater. Neither are her two young sons and husband.

Rather, Bye is prepared for any emergency in the world of wild animals.

Bye, who works as a first-grade teacher at Soda Creek Elementary School, is also the area's only wildlife rehabilitator.

Through her Born Free Wildlife Rehabilitation Sanctuary, she has helped animals ranging from baby bluebirds, four of which can fit on a quarter, to golden eagles; from baby field mice to moose; and everything in between.

In 1993, the year Bye started her program, she received 22 animals. In each of the past two years, Bye has helped about 100 animals.

Each animal that comes in gets a name and a photo spot in Bye's album.

This year, she has already rescued and released animals such as Marahute, a golden eagle hit by a truck; Meeker, a red-tailed hawk also hit by a car; and Digger, a mole that was attacked by a dog. She is now helping a baby fox that was found trapped in a deep hole.

After caring for the animals for days, months or sometimes even a year, Bye then releases them back into the wild. Seeing a healed animal return to its real home is one of her favorite parts of the job, she said.

"It's always like you just feel a huge blessing," she said. "You're so happy that you were able to help them and that they lived, and you know their best life is being free."

The animals come to Bye from Routt, Moffat and Grand counties and sometimes as far away as Silverthorne. They are brought by police officers, Division of Wildlife officials, veterinarians and residents that have heard of her program.

Without Bye, these animals would not be so lucky.

"She's just really generous with her time and very concerned and really has stuck with it," Jim Hicks, a wildlife biologist with the DOW, said about Bye. "It's important because most of those animals would have to be destroyed if there wasn't somebody who wanted to rehabilitate them."

Bye said she tries not to turn away any animal, unless it's a bear or mountain lion, which she cannot rehabilitate because she does not have the proper facilities.

She'll even take in crows, such as Edgar Allen Crow, a crow that broke its wing after getting hit by a car and required after-hours surgery by a local veterinarian.

"People are always like, 'Why do you help them?'" she said. "I believe that they should be able to live. So I give them the best chance whatever animal I get in."

The sanctuary's yearly operating costs are about $25,000 each year, which Bye said is raised through donations. Because the program is nonprofit, Bye can obtain grants to help pay for building and maintaining the animal holding pens. Local veterinarians who perform surgery on injured animals and offer other help for free are also a big help, Bye said.

She said what she could use most right now are donations for building a barn to hold more deer and elk, as well as a volunteer who would help with fund-raising.

Bye, like the veterinarians, devotes her own time to the animals completely free of charge. They seem happy to keep her busy.

A typical day in Bye's summer season may involve hours spent feeding animals, caring for their wounds and cleaning their cages.

During one summer, she had five baby raccoons, two deer fawns and an elk calf at the same time. All of them had to be bottle-fed every few hours.

"You couldn't even go to the grocery store," she said.

Even during normal weeks, Bye has a hard time going on vacation and usually gets her family to take trips that are nearby in case she has to return home to help a new animal.

But the effort is worth it, Bye said. She said she considers helping animals to be her passion in life, and she has learned a lot from each of the animals that she rescues.

"I feel like they can teach humans so many deep messages if we can just listen," she said. "They never complain, and they always just try to live and be the best they can be."

She has also learned some strange things, like the fact that moose love bananas.

In the winter of 1999, Bye cared for a 2-year-old moose that had a 12-inch broadhead arrow stuck in its behind.

Veterinarians from the Steamboat Veterinary Hospital, with the help of officials from the DOW, removed the arrow from the 600-pound animal. For more than a week, Bye snowshoed out to the moose every day to bring him willow branches, as well as a bucket of water that was smeared with bananas to encourage the moose to drink.

But eventually, the moose, named Bullwinkle, died from infection.

"It's like losing a child almost," Bye said. "I always take things hard when they don't go the way you want them to, just because you want these little ones to live and have the chance to be free."

Still, there are often more successes than failures. Bye said she tries to keep her success rate at more than 80 percent. Even when an animal dies, she said she is glad she had the chance to try to help.

Bye's love for all animals was sparked in Boulder, where she grew up. When she was young, she owned pets ranging from rats to dogs, took care of butterflies in her backyard and frequently watched the movie "Born Free," which is where Bye said she got the name for her rehabilitation program.

She also tried to stand up for animals that needed her help.

Bye said she'll never forget the time when, as a third-grader walking home from school, she ran into older boys who were throwing rocks at a muskrat. She watched the scene for a few minutes, then ran home and got her older brother to stop the boys.

"It just made me think, that little muskrat might have been a mom, and if they had killed it, what would have happened?" Bye said. "For my whole life, I've kind of been on the side of the animals."

Local animal workers are ready to vouch for Bye's loyalty to animals.

"She's a godsend for any wildlife that's injured or needs help," said Cindy DelValle, an animal control officer for the county. "She's just a lover of animals and is very patient and caring."

Bye looks like a patient person. Her large blue-grey eyes always seem calm. She is tall and tan, with thick brown-red hair that reaches to her waist.

When asked what animal best describes her, she doesn't have an answer right away, but with a smile, she'll give one.

"I'd like to say something regal like a golden or a bald eagle," she said. "But I think I'm more like a deer mom."

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