By KG Brake

I’ve always loved animals. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say I’ve always loved the idea of animals. I grew up watching Bambi and Snow White, with all the cute little forest creatures being helpful and fun, but my actual experience with animals was limited to the cats in my household. Eventually my family got a dog too, I had a few interactions with the class guinea pigs, and I loved taking trips to the North Carolina Zoo. Wildlife weren’t neighbors, they were backdrops. Accessories to the landscape.

While in college studying environmental science, I took a blend of plant- and animal-focused classes. My concentration was in ecology, so I was learning about the bigger picture of how the living pieces fit together in a web of relationships. Ecology was and still is a big interest of mine, but in hindsight I was still viewing the wildlife as objects. Puzzle pieces and statistics, not friends and family. It wasn’t until I began working as a Wildlife Rehabilitation Apprentice at the Carolina Wildlife Conservation Center that the veil was lifted and I began to appreciate these animals not as cogs in a machine, but as living, breathing, bumbling goofballs.

Being around these native wild critters has shifted my mindset from “I should plant native plants so that the animals will eat them instead of my garden” to “I should plant native plants so that the animals will be taken care of and more will come.” We talk about this idea of “creation care,” but it took interacting with and learning more about our non-human neighbors for me to really connect with the “care” portion of that idea. 

Baby striped skunks enjoying their breakfast

“Wildlife just have it so hard.” This is a phrase I hear often from my wildlife rehab mentor. She says this every time we get a new patient who has been affected negatively by humans—so, nearly every day. Many of these animals are the result of humans’ accidents: a turtle hit by a car, a bunny nest uncovered by a lawnmower, a chipmunk caught by a free-roaming cat. But there are some that were clearly injured on purpose. A raccoon with a bullet in his head and his arm. A litter of baby opossums whose mom was beaten to death for eating the cat food left out on the back porch. Orphaned baby skunks dying from heat exposure because the people who found them wouldn’t approach them to cover them with a box. 

It’s no surprise that certain animals are the victims of human brutality more often than others. The cute little bunny isn’t seen as a nuisance so much as the raccoon in the garbage is. The birds flying overhead eating bugs aren’t as scary as the bats doing the same thing. Oftentimes when we think about caring for native wildlife with our landscaping, we picture the cute innocent woodland creatures but forget about the less charismatic critters. These others, these “undesirables” are just as important as the charming chipmunk. Both the turtle and the snake sunning themselves on a rock are creatures that deserve respect and care.

I can’t help but think of Jesus’ teachings when I think about our non-human neighbors. Jesus was friends with the undesirables of society—the tax collectors, prostitutes, and so much more. He views all people with the same love, regardless of their societal status. Why wouldn’t that extend to the non-human beings? We could talk all day about the ecosystem services these animals provide, but I challenge you to value them simply because they exist as creatures of God. 

We’re not going to be able to change societal views of “pest” animals overnight, but we can start by showing them love ourselves. How can we make a safe space for these creatures in our backyards and in our churchyards? What can we plant to provide food and shelter? What brush piles and wood piles can we leave for the snakes? What blackberry brambles can we allow for the opossums? Pesticide use is one of the leading causes of abscesses in turtles. How can we reduce or stop pesticide use in our gardens? Will we allow the foxes to hunt in our yard? Will we allow the desperate mothers to seek shelter under our porches? Will we check our trees for raccoon nests before cutting them down? 

“Buck,” the raccoon who had bullets in his head and his arm, snoozing with his arm splint on.

Caring for our non-human neighbors means caring for them all. You can’t have the birds without the bugs, and you can’t have the squirrels without the hawks. All creatures belong here, even the ones who occasionally create a stinky smell or an unsightly molehill. Let’s try to remember and care for everyone.

Oh, and by the way, the raccoon with multiple bullet wounds recovered and was released. If you’d like to learn more about the work we do at the Carolina Wildlife Conservation Center, visit https://www.carolinaconservation.org

 

KG Brake was raised in The United Methodist Church and got her B.S. in Environmental Science from the University of North Carolina at Asheville. She is currently a Wildlife Rehabilitation Apprentice at the Carolina Wildlife Conservation Center and the Communications Assistant for UMCJM.