Wildlife refuge seeks funds to expand its reach

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HOPE, Ind. (AP) — Nestled in the farmland of Clifty Township is an eclectic collection of wildlife with one thing in common.

Every creature housed at UTOPIA Wildlife Rehabilitators is on the mend.

They include Loki, a 6-year-old bald eagle with a crushed "elbow" in its wing; Grubby, a woodchuck that a cat dragged onto someone's doorstep; and Shelly, a three-legged box turtle that survived a dog attack.

Kathy Hershey, who founded UTOPIA on her property in 2002, is seeking to expand her organization's educational and rehab capabilities by purchasing vacant property next door to the refuge's facility, The Republic reported (http://bit.ly/1mMDwKN ).

In order to do so, however, UTOPIA must raise upward of $150,000 to acquire the land, which includes a small house and a large pole-barn. An additional $50,000 is being sought to renovate the buildings after the property is purchased, according to Barbara Garton, UTOPIA board member.

Hershey would like to use the home on the property as a small medical facility — complete with a nursery, intensive care unit and office — to perform medical examinations on the distressed wildlife regularly brought to UTOPIA and to house an intern who specializes in veterinary sciences. She also plans to use the barn as an indoor nature center to ensure the various field trips and nature outings visiting the rehabilitation center are not canceled because of weather.

"Education is what we feel is our most important aspect; and right now, if it gets cold or it's raining, it becomes a problem," said Hershey, a former biology teacher.

"She's had to call off a lot of field trips with these kids because of the weather," UTOPIA co-founder Melissa Newcomb said.

UTOPIA sponsors about 180 educational programs a year — including off-site nature exhibitions and in-house tours — viewed by about 10,000 people, Hershey said. The in-house tours are offered in an amphitheater on the property, built by a local Eagle Scout for a service project, and are restricted to days with decent weather.

Being able to conduct programs year-round is Hershey's ultimate goal; and in order to achieve that goal, she said her organization must expand.

"I love to teach. Teaching is my favorite part of this job," she said. "All of the organizations like ours start out in someone's home or at someone's kitchen table. They all start out small like us and then eventually move on, and we've just reached that stage."

Expansion also would help house critically injured and baby animals that Hershey now keeps in her home due to a lack of a suitable, weather-protected shelter.

"Right now, anything that is really sick or injured has to be in her (Hershey's) basement or her guest bedroom, and that's not the best situation for her, her family or for the animals," Newcomb said.

Newcomb, a veterinarian with Hillview Veterinary Clinic in Franklin, connected with Hershey in 2002 when the West Nile virus first affected birds of prey in Bartholomew County.

Newcomb and her husband worked together with Hershey and her family to transport raptors and birds from neighboring cities and towns to veterinary clinics.

The need for medical assistance for the birds was extensive enough that the women decided a rehabilitation facility was necessary. When searching for a name for the newly founded operation, Hershey said Newcomb's husband had suggested the name UTOPIA — an acronym meaning "Up To Our Posteriors In Animals."

UTOPIA now cares for a wide variety of injured and displaced animals ranging from coyotes to opossums to barn owls.

Newcomb receives many injured birds, mammals and reptiles at her veterinary office, and if their individual situations will allow them to be moved, she transports them to Hershey's property for continued care.

The organization operates as a nonprofit, has state and federal permits allowing for the treatment and housing of wildlife and is one of the few facilities in the state allowed to care for injured bald eagles.

The ultimate goal is to nurse the animals and birds back to health and release them into a suitable environment, Hershey said. Per Department of Natural Resources Fish and Wildlife Division regulations, animals are only allowed to be kept at wildlife centers for a maximum of six months before they are able to be released.

But if an animal is not healthy enough to be released, wildlife facilities such as UTOPIA may apply for permits to keep them for educational purposes or until they have recovered.

Almost every structure used to house UTOPIA's birds and mammals has been built by either Boy Scout and Eagle Scout members or high school students from Bartholomew County.

Zeke Sandlin, an Eagle Scout adviser who helps young Scouts connect with UTOPIA to establish their individual service projects, said the Scouts' focus on nature pairs well with UTOPIA's mission to save injured wildlife.

"It just goes along well with a Boy Scout's love of nature and wildlife," he said. "They really enjoy it, and they learn quite a bit from Kathy."

Because UTOPIA is a nonprofit organization, it relies heavily on donations to fund the treatment, care, shelter and transportation of the injured wildlife, as well as the upkeep of the grounds.

About 30 volunteers help to keep UTOPIA at its best throughout the year, Hershey said.

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Information from: The Republic, http://www.therepublic.com/

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