WATERLOO — Joy Huggins and her daughter were walking through a park when they discovered a baby squirrel with a broken leg.
Huggins packed up the tiny critter and took it to a wildlife rehabilitator.
That was nearly 15 years ago.
For the past 10 years Huggins has been operating a provincially-authorized wildlife rehab centre out of her home in Waterloo.
“It just changed my life,” the 50-year-old said. “I really felt like I was meant to do this; I love animals.”
Huggins receives animal intakes from across the province. Her name is listed on the Ministry of Natural Resources’ website so she is constantly called by people finding injured or abandoned baby animals.
“Spring and summer is crazy, crazy because of the babies,” said Huggins. “The babies need constant feeding.”
Most of the six squirrels she has in her care now were babies that were abandoned in the fall and would not have been able to survive the winter on their own.
“(With) baby squirrels, the mom gets hit or killed somehow and these babies … fall out of the nest looking for mom because they’re hungry,” she said.
“If their eyes are open they actually seek out people — they’ll come up to people, they’ll climb up their leg, I’ve even had people say, ‘he was scratching at the door.'”
Three of the tinier squirrels Huggins has are kept indoors in enclosures where they enjoy swinging from their hammocks or doing back flips off the sides of their cages.
The heartier and fluffier ones are in a large wooden enclosure in the backyard.
The Wildlife Haven is operated entirely on donations and with the help of volunteers.
And there’s never a dull day at the house. At any moment Huggins could be doing an intake, releasing an animal back to the wild, feeding the animals their specialty diets, tending to injuries, or just keeping all the indoor and outdoor enclosures tidy.
And she always has an animal story to tell. Some are happy and some are heartbreaking.
She has two pigeons that fell in love while in her care. Romeo and Juliette sit side-by-side in separate enclosures taking turns sitting on an egg.
She also has a mallard duck healing after it was found frozen to the ground near RIM Park a few weeks ago.
Then there’s Roo, the grouchy groundhog she has had for five years. The Ministry of Natural Resources has permitted Huggins to keep Roo as an education animal as he is unable to be released back to the wild.
Huggins takes him to a senior’s residence in Kitchener from time to time.
She also gets the occasional possum.
“These guys sleep with their eyes open; it’s creepy,” she said with a laugh. “I didn’t know that when I first got one.”
Huggins is also caring for a quail, crows, goldfinches, a barn swallow, a cedar wax wing, pigeons and a number of finches.
Finches come in with eye infections commonly caused by dirty bird feeders, she said adding that most people don’t realize they have to clean them out regularly.
While the work is rewarding, it’s also challenging.
Huggins has seen many animals die due to severe injuries. These stories are hard to forget.
But it can also be heartbreaking to release animals that have recovered under her care.
“It’s very bittersweet,” she said. “You’ve got your goal, you’re going to release them, but then I can’t watch over them anymore … I struggle with that (but) that’s where they belong.”
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