Story and Photos by Tiffany Blanchette
On a quiet country road north of Carterville, a red barn, surrounding cages and fenced areas host hundreds of wild animals each year as Free Again Wildlife Rehabilitation nurtures injured native wildlife back to health.
The volunteer-based operation takes in a wide range of wildlife from small animals such as squirrels, raccoons and opossums to various birds such as owls, vultures and eagles as well as large animals such as deer, goats and bobcats.
This season alone, Free Again rehabilitated 542 animals, a record high and substantial increase from last year’s 485 animals, owner and full-time caregiver Beverly Shofstall said.
The main reason for the facility’s increased intake can be credited to the continued increases in encroachment, she said.
“Increased encroachment results in more human and animal interaction,” Shofstall said.
“The more tree-trimming and structure-building that occurs will mean more and more habitat destruction, which forces animals to migrate.”
She said 75 to 80 percent of the animals the facility cares for were injured in an urban environment.
The encroachment’s effects have been particularly overwhelming to raccoons, she said. So much so, that many top experts no longer consider them wild animals but rather an urban species.
An overall decline in licensed rehabilitation facilities may also have contributed to Free Again’s increased count.
There are now closer to 200 facilities down from about 300 facilities several years ago, Shofstall said.
After starting Free Again in 1988 and eventually leaving her veterinary technician job at Central Hospital for Animals in Herrin, Shofstall and her husband Jim remortgaged the house to build the big red barn.
“My husband Jim and I made the decision that if we were going to do rehabilitation, we had to do it right,” Shofstall said. “Things definitely took on a life of their own.”
Twenty-five years later, Free Again operates on volunteer staff, offering $25 memberships and hosting educational programs around the area. Shofstall frequently hosts educational programs at schools, wildlife reservations and festivals mainly with non-releasable birds of prey.
Even with the many educational programs and appearances, she said. Free Again is always working to break even.
Amanda Bradley, of Christopher, a volunteer of two years, said Shofstall continues to rehabilitate day after day because she’s passionate about every animal and recognizes the area’s need.
“During the busiest part of the year when all the babies are coming in, Bev (Shofstall) is up in the middle of the night taking care of the squirrels and baby bunnies,” Bradley said. “She doesn’t care what time it is if they need to be cared for.”
Sadly, not every animal that comes through the door can be rehabilitated for rerelease, Shofstall said, and some won’t survive their injuries.
“At the end of the day, the goal is to keep the animals tame enough to be fed or have their injuries treated, yet keep them wild enough so they can be released back into their natural habitat,” she said.