Wild At Heart folds over funding shortage

Charity and facility to be taken over by Pet Save

Rod Jouppi, director of the Wild at Heart Wildlife Refuge Centre in Lively, opens a gate to a paddock at the centre were a pair of female moose spent the winter. The animals were transported by horse trailer and released back into the wild in the Estaire area on April 29. John Lappa/Sudbury Star

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It’s a sad day for wildlife, and for the community.

Wild at Heart, a centre that has helped countless orphaned and ailing animals over the years, is now closing for good.

“We’ve been trying to arrange for a partnership or someone to help us out in a bigger way for almost two years now, and that just wasn’t happening,” said Rod Jouppi, director and founder of the Lively-based organization. “Our revenue is down, our volunteers are down, and we recently found out we can’t really have interns live in our building, because it’s not set up for emergency evacuations.” 

The intern program is critical to the centre’s viability, he said, as “they are really the backbone of our volunteer care program.”

Between all these factors, Jouppi said the Wild at Heart board recently reached the unfortunate conclusion that the centre “is no longer sustainable.”

The charity lives on in name, at least for now, but its board is being taken over by Pet Save, said Jouppi, which will also inherit the three-acre property, including the large building constructed a dozen years ago to house Wild at Heart operations.

“When you close a wildlife centre, you can’t just sell it,” he said. “We could have sold the property for probably $600,000 but nobody owns the property or the buildings, it’s all part of the Wild at Heart charity.”

Pet Save was seen as an appropriate heir, as the group has also been working for years in animal welfare, albeit with pets, and has a strong volunteer base.

“They’re going to be changing the structure as a board and spending some time rehabilitating the building to suit their needs,” Jouppi said. “They may change the name as time goes on but it’s still a charity that’s in existence for helping needy animals.”

Pet Save won’t, however, be taking in raccoons, owls and foxes. “That’s not their expertise, and you can’t have a building with both domestic and wild animals.”

Wild at Heart director Rod Jouppi and Ashley Taylor, natural resources coordinator with the Atikameksheng First Nation, display a bin containing 28 snapper hatchlings earlier this fall. All of the tiny turtles were set loose in Whitefish Lake. Jim Moodie/Sudbury Star

Jouppi said he did try to find a party that might be willing to carry on wildlife rehab at the location, but no suitable takers came forward.

There is a chance, however, that another facility of this kind could develop in the area.

“I have been talking to a family in Greater Sudbury who is quite interested in starting a wildlife centre,” he said. “They don’t want to use our facility — they want to use their own property — but I told them I’d be very happy to work with them to get it going, and assist them in doing it. I just don’t have the time to be the main person on a daily basis.”

Jouppi said he wasn’t at liberty to name the family right now, and it will likely be spring before it is known whether or not this is a realistic possibility.

In the meantime, the only nearby facility that can provide a haven for injured and orphaned wildlife is Turtle Pond Wildlife Centre in Blezard Valley, but it is a small operation limited to turtles, small mammals and birds. 

Over the years, Wild At Heart has taken in moose, bears, deer, coyotes, trumpeter swans, sandhill cranes and snowy owls, to name just a few of the bigger, flashier creatures known to frequent our area.

It’s a service that Jouppi began providing more than four decades ago. “I’ve had wildlife in different facilities over those years, starting in Massey, and then out in Chelmsford at Rocky Mountain Ranch, and within my own house and clinic,” he said. 

Wild At Heart took shape on land that was initially part of the Walden Animal Hospital. 

“I donated three acres I owned as part of the vet hospital when we formed the charity and put up the building 12 years ago,” said Jouppi.

Thousands of animals have since passed through the doors of the facility — more than 1,000 per year, according to Jouppi — and many have made successful returns to the wild.

A skittish fox peers out of its box at the Wild At Heart Refuge Centre in Lively. Jim Moodie/Sudbury Star

The costs were also in the thousands, however, and Wild At Heart has never received consistent support from any level of government, other than a few grants that had to go to educational purposes.

The organization has counted on donations and volunteers to do its work, and while many have contributed generously over the years, Jouppi said it simply hasn’t been enough.

“It costs $120,000 to $150,000 a year to operate properly, and it’s become way beyond our reach,” he said. 

He said WAH took out a loan of about $80,000 five years ago to keep the operation afloat, and he personally loaned the wildlife centre about $40,000. 

“It loses every year,” he said. “You can only do what you can do, and it gets to a point where you just can’t keep doing it.”

Jouppi said this was the best time to close the operation since it’s a slow time of year for animal intakes — the centre is, in fact, empty right now — and if the organization continued it wouldn’t be long before it would have to spend money on food and supplies for the spring.

There is one final edition of the Wild At Heart calendar that was made for 2020, and while it may be a sad — or bittersweet, at least — item now to hang on a wall, Jouppi said he hopes people will still pick one up.

“We realize it’s not going to be as successful as years past, but we are quite proud of the calendar and there have been some sales already,” he said. “We’d like it if more people bought one because it would help tidy up the last expenses for Wild At Heart, and anything that is left over would go to domestic animals.”

Jouppi said it is hard to isolate one or two highlights from so many years of wildlife work.

“Every day was different — you could have a whole book of stories,” he said. “There were always special ones, but there are probably 500 special ones. Each individual animal has its own special place.”

A bear cub that was struck by a train north of Sudbury recuperates at the Wild At Heart Refuge Centre in Lively last December. Jim Moodie/Sudbury Star

While very sad to see the Wild At Heart adventure end, Jouppi said he is proud of the role the centre played — not just for Sudbury, but all of Northern Ontario — and grateful to all who pitched in to make it happen.

“I really want to thank anyone who was involved, either through donations or volunteering,” he said. “We’ve been able to exist as long as we have and we have been able to help thousands of wild animals over the years.”

The traffic at the centre also proved how important this kind of facility is for the region, he said, not only in providing humane care for wild animals and but also helping to manage conflicts, and the spread of disease, between animals and humans.

“It’s well-known that people cannot be healthy unless the animals and the environment are healthy,” he said. “Hopefully someone will be able to think of starting a large wildlife centre in Northern Ontario, and it would be great if there was some level of government that could see their way to giving some support to it.”

jmoodie@postmedia.com

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