Peggy and Farzad Farr stated rehabilitating wildlife in 2006 when they found an injured bird and didn't know where to turn for help.
"We couldn't find anyone to help us, so we did it ourselves... And that one recovered," Farzad Farr said Thursday. "After that we thought we'd do it as a hobby. We had no idea how big this would get."
Peggy is a radiologist (on humans) for a Duluth medical center. Farzad is an engineer by training. But Wildwoods has become a huge part of their lives, taking in injured and sick wild animals from 13 counties across northern Minnesota and Wisconsin and nursing them to recovery and return to the wild.
The first year they rehabilitated about 30 birds and small animals. That grew to 100 within a couple years. By 2011 they handled 220 wild animals and decided they needed to incorporate as a nonprofit.
"It was getting very expensive. We had to have a way to take donations and set it up right," Farzad said. "And it just keeps growing. We spent $4,800 in 2011 to operate. This year we'll top $78,000."
In 2013 they surpassed 500 animals. Last year they hit 780. This year they've surpassed 1,100, and there's still a couple of weeks left.
Handling that many wild animals, they've outgrown the space at their home in Duluth's Kenwood neighborhood. So Wildwoods is moving to a new location at 4009 W. Arrowhead Rd., near Swan Lake Road in Duluth. They've already obtained a conditional use permit from the city. They'll use an existing home on the six-acre site as their office, with the basement converted into an animal medical center. Plans call for two new 24 x 60-foot buildings on the property to house injured animals.
To get there they need to raise $500,000, and on Thursday they kicked off a capital campaign hoping media attention will help them reach their goal.
"We already have $200,000 of that in hand or committed. We're on our way, but we need a lot more help," Farzad said. They hope to break ground in April and have the new facility, some 5,000 square feet in total, fully operational by September.
Wildwoods is the only state- and federally-licensed wildlife rehabilitation center in the Northland, and they get calls from across the region. Some calls come from people who find injured animals, and other referrals come from 911 operators who send people to Wildwoods. Department of Natural Resources conservation officers, who often receive the first call for help, refer people to Wildwoods or bring animals there themselves.
"They've been absolutely awesome. They have really filled a niche. The DNR isn't in the business of rescuing wild animals. We don't have the people or the funding to do that," said Randy Hanzal, a Duluth-area conservation officer. "In the past, a lot of these animals might have been dispatched. But, if there's a chance at saving them, why not? Who can argue against trying to help?"
Wildwoods' "patients" range from tiny birds and rodents to foxes, raccoons, bald eagles and deer. About one-third of its caseload is small mammals and another third songbirds. The rest is a combination of raptors, waterfowl and larger mammals.
The animals brought to Wildwoods may have injuries from collisions, or be suffering from disease. Some are helpless, abandoned or orphaned young of the year.
Not all the animals survive, of course. If a wild animal is hurt enough to allow someone to easily capture it, "that means they are usually pretty bad when we get them."
Most of the rehabilitation work is done in-house by the Farrs or staff (they are up to seven paid staffers during the busy summer season). Dougherty Veterinary Clinics handles X-rays when needed. For major surgery, animals are transported to the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Minnesota in Roseville. Injured eagles and other raptors can go to the University of Minnesota's Raptor Center in St. Paul.
"For adult wild animals, if you can hit 40 or 50 percent (survival) you're doing well," Farzad said. "We usually do better with orphaned animals."
This year's huge number of animals was spurred in part by the Wildwoods name gaining recognition, through Facebook and word of mouth.
"We get a lot of repeat customers," Farzad said. "The same people seem to keep finding injured animals."
But this year's surge also was spurred by a severe outbreak of distemper in wild mammals, as reported in the News Tribune in October. More than 150 animals came in suffering form the disease that is usually fatal. Pet dogs can get it too, but most don't because they are vaccinated.
"Distemper really kept us busy this year," Farzad said.
The Farrs are the first to concede that their efforts aren't about preventing a species from going extinct or even making a dent in threatened species' survival. Instead, the Farrs say it's their duty to help other living beings in distress.
"People might say we are interfering with nature. But nature didn't put the buildings up for birds to run into... or make the roads where the cars run into birds and animals. People did that, and we need to recognize our responsibility to help the wildlife we impact, whose habitat we've impacted," Farzad said. "It may not make a difference in their population. But it makes a difference to the animal we help. Is it worth it? Absolutely."
Wildwoods' busiest months are generally from April to October, when birds are migrating through or raising their young. Now, most migratory birds are wintering somewhere south and many animals are holed up for winter - so the Farrs can concentrate on raising money for their new facility.
To donate to Wildwoods
Wildwoods is accepting donations through Facebook or their website, www.wildwoodsrehab.org or www.GoFundMe.com/Wildwoods. A fundraising event is set for May. Or call (218) 491-3604, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or mail to Wildwoods, P.O. Box 3161, Duluth, MN 55803.