Wild Heart Ranch
Here, rescued animals from all walks of life help heal one another.
Brought to you by Liberty Mutual's
The Responsibility Project
“We had a raccoon come in from a meth lab,” said Annette King Tucker, field general, head surgeon and founder of Wild Heart Ranch animal rescue, in Claremore, Okla. – a hospital and rehab facility for wounded and orphaned animals.
“He’d burned his feet walking through chemicals. He was somebody’s illegal pet and he’d ingested a lot of meth,” said Ms. Tucker. “Since he was an addict, he didn’t respond to anesthesia. So I had to clean and bandage these wounded feet with an awake, combative raccoon.” Because of the meth damage to the raccoon’s brain, once he could get the bandages off, he started eating his feet, then his tail.
“He was suffering emotionally, mentally and physically, he just could not get a grip on the pain. I euthanized him. It wasn’t fair,” said Ms. Tucker. “We have a three strikes and you’re out rule. We know we can’t save everything. Then it’s a matter of not letting the animal suffer. We have the means for them to go peacefully.”
This meth-addled raccoon is just one of the multitude of unfortunate creatures that Ms. Tucker and her volunteers see every year at Wild Heart Ranch, a 10-acre patch of scrub oak just off Route 66, near Tulsa. The hospital, the ER, the long-term care and the administrative operations of Wild Heart Ranch are housed in a warren of corrugated steel walls and modular housing, growing as best it can to meet the unending need.
Wild Heart is an animal MASH unit. Waves of wounded can come in at any moment, at any time of year. For example, spring time is orphan season, when the crew of about 20 dedicated volunteers can be found hand feeding 600 orphans a day.
Ms. Tucker was a successful insurance agent when she started Wild Heart Ranch in 1996. After she purchased a small farm, she started taking in some stray dogs and cats. “I’d inherited a couple horses, had a real life, I had this farm with just two horses, and all these animals have no home and all of a sudden I have 36 cats and 15 dogs,” she said.
Then someone brought her a couple of orphaned raccoons. “The game warden told me to take them out back and shoot them and I said ‘Hell, no.’ I got my [animal rehabilitation] license in April of ‘96 and by December of that year I had 860 wild animals at my house. I knew I couldn’t be an insurance agent anymore, so I became a kennel tech for my vet, and worked up to technician. I got to take my work to work, and I got this really unique training.”
Wild Heart Ranch sees all manner of the horrible things man does to animals, accidentally and on purpose. Ms. Tucker frequently has to improvise.
“I don’t have the training that puts your head in a box. I don’t know what I don’t know,” she said. “As long as an animal isn’t suffering, I want to find a way to get him past it. It’s the same with humans, there’s nothing impossible. It depends on the individual animal. How bad do they want to make it? How hard are they going to fight with you? If they have the will to survive, I’m a big enough bonehead to help them.”
Early on a Friday morning, amid the cacophony of cawing birds, barking dogs, ringing phones and the occasional passing train, a cadre of upbeat volunteers, fueled by strong coffee and donated doughnuts, are cleaning pens and cages.
“These are my brats,” she says, at four small dogs in the midst of a tag-team wrestling match on the floor. “The black puppy is from a line of police dogs. He has Parvo,” Ms. Tucker says, casually. Parvo is a highly contagious virus that has a 91 percent mortality rate in unvaccinated dogs.
“We’ve pioneered a new treatment for Parvo that has the potential to cure it 100 percent of the time if it’s caught in the first 24 hours. We did the clinical study that led to the FDA approval and the patent.” Ms. Tucker also took on the World Health Organization when it tried to stop her from using Tamiflu on her animals for fear of it getting into the groundwater and thus making it less effective on humans. She did the science and proved them wrong. She now spends about $5,000 a year on the medicine.
Ms. Tucker intends to raise the black puppy to patrol the perimeter of the ranch. “I’ve got to have dogs who patrol for coyotes, wild dogs, any kind of predator, including humans. We had a fawn shot five times.” she says, not attempting to hide her disgust. “I’ve got nothing against hunting. Did that animal die quickly? Did you use the meat? Fine. But shooting at my deer? Seriously?”
A skunk walks out from under a table. No one, including the dogs, seems to notice. “That’s Trigger; she’s blind,” said Ms. Tucker. “Don’t worry, she’s not loaded.”
The goal at Wild Heart Ranch is always to release the wild animals and to adopt out the domestic ones. But some, like Trigger, end up staying. In addition to Trigger, there’s Peg, the opossum who had one of her feet eaten by her siblings; Bob, the declawed bobcat found almost starved to death. Lumpy, an African spurred tortoise, currently rooms with fully loaded skunk Lola. Zena the parrot started plucking her own breast feathers out while her owners went through a nasty divorce. She was eventually rescued from a pet store, but her nervous habit hasn’t stopped.
Animals of all species bond at Wild Heart. Amy, a Sika Deer, helps raise the multitude of orphaned deer that come to Wild Heart Ranch. She also plays surrogate mother to puppies, including Gunner, a basset hound who came in with Parvo and a blind golden retriever who gained his sight under her care. Jack the goat led Charlie the blind horse to pasture every day for 18 years. “No one taught him, he just did it,” said Ms. Tucker. “When we put Charlie down, Jack knew his job was done. He got to where he couldn’t get up and down. He needed to fill the void and Trooper came along. Trooper doesn’t need Jack, but he goes along anyway.”
When Trooper came to Wild Heart, many said it was the worst abuse of a horse they’d ever seen. He was grotesquely emaciated, with a wound on his back so infected, his backbone was exposed. Trooper fully recovered. Jack passed away this spring.
When an animal passes, Ms. Tucker gets some solace out of sharing their story on Facebook. “Facebook is my therapy,” said Ms. Tucker. “When I’ve dealt with some awful case of abuse or we lost an animal and I can’t get over it, I sit down and write on Facebook. That animal’s story will reach people all over the world — it didn’t die for nothing. Now with Facebook, we all share this pain. What we do is a tiny drop in the bucket, but the ripples in a pond spread.”
As she often does, Ms. Tucker quickly lightens the mood. “After Hurricane Katrina, we were catching hell for raising money for squirrels when there were people homeless. I said, ‘Fine, all I need is your nuts.’ We had people, mostly old ladies, sending us pecans from all over the country. Our postman was like “y’all are creepy,’” she said, with a smoky laugh that filled the room.
Barry Stringfellow is a freelance writer based in Hermosa Beach, California. He's contributed to Westways Magazine, Yankee Magazine and The Boston Globe, among others; he's also a Writers Guild of America member with numerous television and film credits.