Keeping wild animals wild
SILT – Tucked out of sight in one of the numerous cages in Nanci Limbach’s sprawling barnyard is a young bobcat licking his wounds after getting struck by a car earlier this fall near Meeker.Plenty of bed rest will help the cat recover from a fractured pelvis. The bigger problem is teaching him how to survive in the wild.That’s the daily challenge facing Limbach, who started the Western Colorado Wildlife Rehabilitation Center 23 years ago. Wild animals that are injured, orphaned and sometimes both are brought to her for care and eventual return to the wild.
Limbach’s unique operation is the second-oldest of its kind in the state and one of only a handful that exist. She has nursed hundreds of animals and given others a chance to survive in their native habitat.It’s not a zoo. Limbach and her friend and volunteer helper Natalie Hert don’t cuddle the animals or come up with cute names for them. The center is closed to the public and visitation is by appointment only.Limbach and Hert feed babies with puppets so they don’t learn to trust humans. The irony of their job is they need their patients to mistrust and even hate them, even though they are providing life-saving care.”This one hated our guts, but I think it was in pain,” Limbach said of the bobcat kitten. “He hisses and spits at ya, which is good.”The young cat wouldn’t have survived if a concerned passer-by hadn’t brought him to Limbach’s wildlife rehab center near Silt. But bringing him in meant separating him from his mom, who would have kept him for about a full year and taught him to hunt.So Limbach and Hert do their best as surrogates. The kitten has healed to the point he can move better and try to kill prey. Like other young predators, he will receive a steady diet of live chickens, pigeons and mice to help him get used to the kill. The plan is to have him ready for release by spring.
Limbach undertakes the same sort of effort with numerous wild species, both predators and prey.
Last year, two mountain lion orphans and one sickly cub were reintroduced into the wild.This year, two black bear cubs became residents when their mom was killed after breaking into numerous homes in Vail to pilfer food. The cubs learned bad habits from their mom, but they were put under Limbach’s watch until it was time for hibernation.Colorado Division of Wildlife biologist John Broderick relocated them to an extremely secluded spot, where he hopes they will feed on natural foods and forget associating civilization with food.All animals that go through Limbach’s Western Colorado Wildlife Rehabilitation Education Centers get special ear tags when they leave. That lets wildlife officers like Broderick track the success rate after re-entry into the wild. Fewer than 5 percent of the scores of bears that have gone thorough the center became “nuisance” bears, Broderick said. “And we’ve never had any problems with mountain lions.”Limbach estimated she prepares five bears cubs for the wild each year, on average. In years when berry and acorn crops are spared from a late frost or a drought, she might not end up with any cubs.
In years when there is a natural crop failure, moms and cubs might go to desperate measures to find food.
Raiding trash bins and even homes can lead to situations where the sow is killed under the state’s two-strike policy. When that happens and orphaned cubs are caught, they are brought to Limbach.”We get a lot of bears when it’s a ‘bad bear’ year,” she said. “We had 25 cubs one year.”
Other animals Limbach has aided include coyotes, deer, elk, rabbits, owls, hawks and eagles. Her license requires either release or euthanasia for the wild animals .She has a separate permit to care for wild animals that were bred in captivity. Therefore, she cares for a couple of wolves, foxes, bobcats and a pair of cougars that are essentially 150-pound housecats.In nearly all the cases, the captive-bred animals were taken from people who owned them illegally or owned them legally but couldn’t care for them properly. They probably would have perished if Limbach hadn’t adopted them.
Providing the service is a labor of love for Limbach. Her nonprofit foundation depends on private donations and an occasional grant. She scrapes by from year to year.”It’s expensive to feed all of them,” Limbach said. The feed bill was $68,000 last year. That’s her single biggest annual expense. Veterinarians donate their time and often provide supplies and medicine at cost.The state wildlife division doesn’t support Limbach financially even though she provides “an invaluable service,” Broderick said. State regulations hamper the agency’s ability to provide funding.Veterinarian Cindy Wallis is one of Limbach’s biggest fans and supporters. She occasionally sends wild animals to Limbach when someone contacts her for help.”There’s nobody like her,” Wallis said. “There’s no one else doing what she’s doing. If we lose her, there’s no place else we can send these animals.”