Silt’s Nanci Limbach gives wildlife a second chance
July 30, 2009
SILT, Colo. – A walk-in freezer containing 2,000 pounds of expensive, frozen meat for mountain lions is on the fritz, a caller wants to know where to bring sludge-covered migratory birds, and a pair of squiggling, 3-day-old raccoons need to be bottle fed. It’s just a typical Monday morning for Nanci Limbach.
The founder of the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation rehabilitation center near Silt has her hands full – literally. And, she couldn’t be happier.
“When high school kids say they don’t know what they want to do when they grow up – I can’t relate to that at all,” said Limbach. “I always knew what I was going to do.”
On this particular morning, she’s trying to keep the nipple of a baby bottle in the hungry mouth of a raccoon so young its eyes haven’t yet opened, before she feeds raw chicken to young raptors with a tweezers and checks on three bear cubs brought into the center the night before to make sure they have recovered from their ordeal.
Elsewhere in the compound, a big snapping turtle, nicknamed “Jaws,” is lounging in a wading pool in the shade, a river otter is bobbing for smelt in plastic tub of water, a red fox and silvery arctic fox wrestle and yip in their enclosure, and a mountain lion has just made quick work of an errant bird.
The center is no zoo – it’s not open to the public except by appointment – and most of its inhabitants are visitors, staying only long enough to recover from an injury or grow big enough to survive in the wild.
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“The shorter their time with us, the better,” Limbach said.
Among its current residents, all destined for a return to the wild, are 35 baby raccoons of varying ages, a trio of chirping kestrel chicks, two juvenile mountain lions, five black bear cubs, five young deer, two elk calves and an antelope. By day’s end, the guest list may expand.
Limbach grew up in Maryland, but quickly points out she was conceived in Colorado. She insists she was not the kid who brings home baby birds – rather, others brought orphaned animals to her.
“People just knew I liked taking care of animals,” Limbach said. “They would bring them to me – nothing like mountain lions – it was all squirrels and birds.”
At age 18, she headed for Colorado to pursue an education and a career as a veterinary technician. These days, she puts those skills to use at the center and teaches environmental science to Colorado Mountain College students in a classroom at the center, a facility also used for local school programs.
Limbach founded the Western Colorado Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in 1984, and formed the nonprofit Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation in 1991 to honor her grandmother when she passed away. “She was always interested in wildlife and helped foster that love,” Limbach explained.
The foundation’s mission, to care for and rehabilitate orphaned and injured wildlife, has led to a menagerie of both animals that are just passing through and resident critters that are integral to the center’s educational programs.
Among the residents are two declawed mountain lions and three declawed bobcats – all illegal, exotic pets that were confiscated from their owners but can’t make it in the wild without claws – the two foxes and, it appears, a pair of Mexican wolves that Limbach had hoped would be released. Regulatory hurdles may mean they are destined to remain at their new Silt home.
The permanent residents can’t be released for one reason or another, but the young animals Limbach rears are headed for the wild.
“We’ve never had an animal that we’ve raised that has stayed in captivity,” she said.
Limbach guesses the center has released some 5,000 to 6,000 animals during its existence.
Her life’s work has never produced a paycheck, though. “Insanity,” she jokes, is why she perseveres, but it’s really something much deeper, and more admirable.
“I think it’s just a desire and a passion to counteract what people to do wildlife,” she explained.
On any given day, that can include caring for a fawn attacked by someone’s dog, taking in a snake packed with illegal drugs or the python peeled off the 100-degree pavement of a parking lot in Rifle, providing a home for two ferrets orphaned in a divorce, and rearing three kestrel chicks “rescued” from their nest by a misguided individual who thought they were owl chicks under threat from a hawk. The hawk was merely caring for its young.
Limbach’s facility holds a host of state and federal permits that allow her to keep wild animals in captivity, hold threatened or endangered species, conduct educational programs and rehabilitate wildlife.
It is the only option in the region for the Colorado Division of Wildlife when it needs a place to take an injured or orphaned animal.
“The private rehabilitation facilities are especially important from the division’s perspective because it gives us an option,” said DOW spokesman Randy Hampton. “Without those facilities, a lot of those animals would have to be put down.”
DOW officers on the Western Slope are well acquainted with Limbach.
“She’s a fabulously dedicated individual,” Hampton said. “Our guys really appreciate her work.”
With bear trouble on the rise from Aspen to Glenwood Springs and beyond, this season could be a busy one for Limbach. Last year, just one bear came through her facility, but the center housed 19 bears in 2007 and 25 passed through the facility in 2006.
When a bear with cubs is euthanized by the DOW, as was the case recently in Glenwood Springs, the orphaned young are taken to Limbach. Cubs are kept until hibernation time in the fall, when they are transported to backcountry dens maintained by the center at 8,000 feet. In late winter, the bears are removed from the dens and transported in caged sleds pulled by snowmobile to snowcaves, where they resume hibernating. They emerge in the spring to fend for themselves.
The DOW is involved in the release of bear cubs, as well as mountain lions. Limbach and her staff handle the return of smaller critters to the wild.
Animals destined for release get as little contact with humans during their stay at the center as possible. The meaner and more skittish they remain around their human keepers, the better.
For Limbach, that means keeping a very small crew on hand so the animals don’t get used to a lot of different people. Just one individual, for example, has been feeding the elk calves. Three college students, two of them paid interns funded by a grant this summer, will be gone shortly, but Lindsay Smith of Aspen heads to Silt once a week to help with the never-ending task of cleaning cages.
“It’s such a worthy cause,” Smith said. “We live in the mountains and, as the old saying goes, we lived into their territories.”
Smith’s husband, Jim, helps out with construction projects at the center, where the revolving array of wildlife means a constant need for new cages, expanded enclosures and rearrangement of the facility to accommodate whatever happens to come its way. Murray, the arctic fox, required an air-conditioned den for the hot Silt summers.
Among the center’s currently pressing needs is a bigger run for the wolves, since it appears they’ll be staying on indefinitely.
Educational programs at the center help pay the bills and Limbach’s husband, Paul, helps support the center with his commercial beekeeping operation. Veterinary services are donated and the New Castle City Market offers produce it can’t sell.
The DOW doesn’t support the center financially, but helps when it can by bringing fresh road kill for the carnivores, Hampton said.
The center’s annual food budget is $60,000 a year on top of what’s donated, according to Limbach.
“Those two mountain lions are going through 20 pounds of food a day,” she said, in reference to the 6-month-old cats that she hopes will go back to the wild in the fall. For the two resident lions, frozen meat purchased from a Nebraska supplier is an ongoing expense.
Various animals also consume about 100 pounds of raw chicken per month.
Like many nonprofits, the center’s donations have dwindled with the recession. “It’s a constant struggle,” Limbach said.
But, it’s a worthwhile one, she adds with conviction.