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Stephen M.2

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Review for Antler Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary, Newton, NJ, USA

Rating: 5 stars  

My name is Steve Matlaga and I'm a father of six beautiful kids and husband to my amazing wife, Karen. We've been married 25 years. Raising a family is certainly a story in itself. However, I'm here to tell you about my experience with Antler Ridge. It’s a long review, but hope you find it worth it and get something out of it.

I'm just finishing up my first year as a volunteer at Antler Ridge. I've always had a love of animals. You name it, we've had one. Dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets, hamsters, and recently, chickens. Last year, we started fostering dogs, which was definitely a positive move in my life. However, I wanted to do even more. My wife mentioned something about an opportunity to work with wildlife at a local sanctuary. My interest immediately peaked! Karen had been going to Antler Ridge for some time with a group of home schoolers. My youngest daughter enjoyed this program that Antler Ridge supported called 'Discover Nature'. I never actually had a chance to go see what it was about, but it sounded cool. So I applied with my daughter, Abby. Abby also shares my love for all creatures great and small. (some of the greatest creatures are small by the way)

After applying online, we attended our ‘Intro to Antler Ridge’ meeting. Both of us being shy and not a fan of crowds, found ourselves leaving the meeting shortly after arriving, feeling defeated and disappointed. You could not believe the amount of cars and people all lined up and packed into this local town meeting room! I said something to the affect, 'if there is this many people wanting to volunteer here, maybe we are needed elsewhere... We left and that was that.

After I got home, I composed an email to Kelly Corless, the Director of the sanctuary. I thanked her for the opportunity, but it looked like they had things covered. To my surprise, Kelly got right back to me and explained that only a small amount of those who show up for the introduction meeting will actually become volunteers. She continued to invite me and my daughter to the first training class. We eagerly accepted. Sometime not long after our initial correspondences with Antler Ridge, we were heading to our first training session. When we first showed up, neither of us knew what to expect. However, it took all of 10 minutes of listening to Kelly and her team talk about what we’d be doing, before Abby and I were hooked! Handling and feeding baby animals? What? Are you kidding me? They spoke about how much work it was, the intensity levels during the various parts of the year, and some of the less enjoyable tasks a volunteer will be taking part in. (like cleaning out poop from the cages! YUK!). I don’t think there was single thing that they could tell us that would keep us away from this amazing opportunity. We both agreed to our work schedule at the sanctuary, and awaited our next training session. After another few weeks went by, we complete our training, ready, well mostly ready to start down the road of wildlife care and rehabilitation.

I could certainly fill a novel with our experiences at Antler Ridge. From initial disappointment, to pure joy and excitement, we both felt like part of something so much bigger than us. No words can express the emotions. The first time I got to feed a baby squirrel (us insiders call them pinkies, lol), my hand was shaky, I was nervous, felt like I was way outside my ability levels. Yet, something inside me pushed me forward. I think it was compassion. I couldn’t help but have an incredible amount of compassion for this little tiny life that I was about to help get its next feeding. The experience was a game changer. This was just incredible. Wait, it got better! Shortly after getting some hours behind me, a bit more experience and a comfort level, I got a chance to feed a baby raccoon. I knew immediately, that raccoons were my thing! There’s something about their eyes. Their personality just comes right through. I was in love with these critters! Their sounds, their silly behaviors, and just how sweet they are all around. Things just kept getting better and better each week. I learned to work with skunks (never got sprayed by the way, despite lots of scolding and critiques of my confidence in handling them), opossums, and of course fawns. I think fawns deserve their own story! These little babies are nothing less than addictive to be around. I never really understood how needy baby animals are after they lose their mom until I was there first hand to see and experience this first hand. We always are told, stay away from wildlife. They will do fine without us. You’ll just make it worse. Blah blah blah. Well, to a point, maybe that is true in some situations, but for the babies that get abandoned, orphaned one way or the other, they do need us! As Trump might say, BIGGLY. These little buggers are so happy to get a bottle from their human caretaker. Having a fawn sit on your lap while you help nurse it back to strength is certainly a special opportunity. They all just seem to understand that we are there to help them. It’s pretty bizarre. As they grow, they actually seem more like puppies than wild animals. NO, this isn’t an invite for you approach a fawn in the wild. However, you should understand, these animals do in fact have emotions, love and I think, care for their caretakers. They understand that we are trying to help them. Naturally, the end game is release back into the wild with as much of a chance as we can give them at success. In the meanwhile, every moment leading up to and including a release is just one big beautiful experience.

Before I summarize, I feel I must mention a few of the negatives of my volunteer experiences. Animals Die! It happens, not every animal makes it. Far more than I’d like, pass along to the rainbow bridge. I always keep my eye on the big picture though. We can’t save them all, but we save many! Also, not every visit to the sanctuary is perfect. Being that we are all human, many a day I’ve found myself dealing with my own feeling as I’m being scolded for some minor infraction of ‘good practice’ handling wildlife. I know it’s important to follow protocol, but I’m a big mush. Everyone there is usually trying to promote the best environment for these little buggers to flourish and be released. Rehabilitators are really strict about best practices, as they should be. They will look out for the animals best interest, which sometimes might mean you’ll want to cuddle a little squirrel in your arms while walking around, but that is going to be met with a good verbal lashing! I must admit, one of the hardest things for me is not treating these animals like my own pet. You fall in love with them, all of them. You just instinctual want to cuddle them and protect them. You want to carry them and shelter them from all the nasties in the world they will soon face. It’s a struggle coming from a world of love, hugs, cuddles and kisses of domestic pet care to wildlife rehab. Easy to lose sight that we are there to help rehab animals, not prep them to be domestic pets. But, I’m only human. So that little challenge will continue.

In summary, the experience at Antler Ridge gives me a chance to do something beyond the normal life experience. We are going to a place where we can all come together to work on our compassion, our patience, our understanding of ourselves, and those we work with. We are not just observing nature, we are being part of it! We are all doing something good for the community. I think the animals are more or less the ones helping us rather than the other way around!

I hope I’ve inspired you to look into Antler Ridge or your local wildlife sanctuary. Even if you only volunteer for a day or a weekend, I assure you, it will change your life! God bless and thanks to my friends at Antler Ridge.

PS: Lucky, Crackers, & Delilah say hi! (did I mention I adopted a duck, a goat, and a chinchilla from Antler Ridge? Yes, they rescue just about everyone)

Role:  Volunteer