From manatees to bats – the path to becoming a wildlife rehabilitator



Carmen Smith spent her childhood running through a creek, climbing trees, and walking in the woods. Her family did a lot of boating, often going to Horseshoe Island near their home in Greenbay, Wisconsin. Her job was to jump off the boat while it was still moving and tie it to the dock, so she learned to tie good knots, which still comes in handy.


When her grandmother bought her mother the Audobon Field Guide to the Eastern U.S., Carmen quickly “borrowed” it. She i.d.’d all the birds she saw and logged them in the book. For a long time she looked for a Cedar Waxwing and finally saw one after several years.


She could even birdwatch from inside her house, which was built on a hill. From her room, looking out the window, she could see the tree canopy.




Her family often went scuba diving and snorkeling, and from a raft, they watched herons. In the sixth grade, she, with her older sister and their parents, went to Florida to see the manatees. “They were huge,” she remembers. This was before a lot of people went to see manatees – before they were being hit by boat propellers and before they had to chain off parts of the water to keep boats out. At a place called Crystal River, they were able to see the manatees up close. They looked like “huge rocks floating out of the water. They ate seaweed, and it was hanging out of their mouths.” There was a spot in the Crystal River, 60 or 70 feet down where there was a freshwater spring entering the river.


Most of their scuba diving was done in the Great Lakes though, where they saw birds, fish, and salamanders.


At home, they had a dog and cats; many of the neighborhood cats came in as well, and sometimes brought with them little animals or birds they had caught. Carmen bandaged them up and cared for them as best she could.


Loving the outdoors was a major part of her childhood.


Carmen’s dad was a chemical engineer, and her mother started and ran a temporary employment agency.


She describes herself as a lazy student who got by doing well on tests, without putting in a lot of hard work studying. Fond of math and science, especially algebra, biology, and chemistry, she liked the arts as well.


In high school, one day when she was working in a hotel on an after-school job, she looked out a second-floor window just in time to spot someone trying to sweep an injured bat off the sidewalk. She shouted out the window for them to stop, and raced down the stairs to save the bat. She found wildlife rehabilitators at the Bay Beach Wildlife Sanctuary and took the bat there to be cared for. That was her first bat rescue.


At the University of Wisconsin, she studied philosophy and religious studies, with a minor in anthropology. She had been drawn to the idea of ethical forestry, but then found herself planning to go to graduate school to study archaeology instead.


Archaeology inspired her curiosity about why people do what they do. In Wisconsin, where there are a lot of Native American archaeological sites, she worked on one that dug up ancient trash piles, carefully avoiding digging up burial sites out of respect for the ancient people. A lot could be discovered by sifting through trash. There were the remains of ancient buildings, constructed of timber, and sometimes they had built in stone. The site lay along a major river where there had been a lot of trade up and down the waterway. The tributaries led to the Mississippi further south, and they suspected possible connections to the Missouri mound builders.


Spending a semester abroad in Latvia, she traveled a lot during her school years, and in the years after graduation – to Greece, Romania, Estonia, Lithuania, England, France, Italy, Scotland, and Iceland. A natural history trip took her to see a glacier in New Zealand, and she went to the rainforests and the deserts in Australia.


In Iceland, the northern lights were amazing. The waterfalls were frozen, and the hot springs were really hot despite the snow all around. One day, shaggy ponies rocked their car, and they barely managed to drive off safely with no damage to themselves or the ponies. There she also experienced her first earthquake.




She traveled quite a bit around the U.S. too, but had never been west. On a trip to California, she traveled through the redrock canyonlands of Utah. Captivated, she returned a year or so later to southern Utah, where she’s lived since 2001, to begin a career as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.


About 10% of Carmen’s 200-300 orphaned and injured wild patients each year are reptiles and amphibians.


Of the others, about half are birds and around half are mammals. There always seem to be a number of bats and squirrels.


Fifty to seventy different species arrive every year. This past year, there were many birds; especially doves, robins, hummingbirds, and goldfinches. One year there were 36 cottontail babies. The kinds of species that arrive vary greatly from year to year.


Finding opportunities to teach people how to help wild creatures is an important aspect too. For example, when someone brings her a bird that has flown into a window, clearly, the person cared enough to bring the bird. Providing education on how to avoid window collisions is a great help to the people, as well as to the birds.


Carmen views spending her life working with wildlife as “an effort to mitigate how hard it is for wild birds and animals to exist peacefully in a world dominated by humans,” she says, “It is a way of ‘giving back’. It is damage control.”


Top photo: Royalbroil / Wikimedia Commons / Horseshoe Island, Wisconsin.


Second photo: “This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code. See Copyright.” / Three West Indian manatees.


Third photo: Sharon St Joan / Zion National Park











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