1. Archive

Providing a haven for the helpless

Published Aug. 28, 2005

Wild raccoons, opossums, rabbits and squirrels are scurrying in John and Brenda Baughman's living room.

They don't smell too great, despite the pine shavings that line their cages, but they keep their chatter to a minimum.

They're hurricane refugees.

The Baughmans run Wildlife Haven Rehab Inc., a refuge for Florida mammals too sick, injured or young to care for themselves. Falling oaks from Hurricane Jeanne left several dozen of their critter clients with crushed pens.

Down went the two-story plywood "raccoon condos" near the Baughmans' house. Squirrels, opossums and rabbits scampered from cages pierced by broken boughs.

So the 50-something animal lovers filled their modest rural home with their friends of the forest until the cages are replaced or repaired.

"We'll put up with some odor _ a little while," John Baughman says.

"We want them out quick as possible," Brenda Baughman says.

In their love for blind squirrels, orphaned raccoons, lame horses and abused chickens, the Baughmans have few equals. A couple hundred mostly penned animals overrun their 3-acre farm in Odessa.

Most of the wild animals, once healthy, will return to nature. One young deer hit by a car in Hernando County cowers in a pen until he's ready to rejoin his friends.

Others are too infirm and will live out their days in peace at the Baughmans' farm. They include a blind raccoon that park rangers trucked to Odessa from Fort DeSoto Park.

"It's a no-kill shelter," said Dawn Ladd, a Pinellas County animal lover who volunteers at Wildlife Haven.

Farm animals creep into the menagerie as well. A starved thoroughbred named Venus and a lame horse named Sunny arrived as physical wrecks but are now healthy, beloved pets.

"They were going to take her to the meat market if we didn't take her," Brenda Baughman said of Venus.

So all-consuming is the animal rehab operation, the Baughmans haven't taken a vacation in 20 years. John Baughman's salary as a circuit board designer in Clearwater pays for some things, but they have to economize.

"We go through 50 pounds of peanuts a month," John Baughman says of the supply he tosses to pet goats and wild squirrels.

"Fifty pounds? More like 50 pounds every two weeks," Brenda says.

"Well, we've been cutting back," John says.

Eggs from a coop of rescued chickens feed the raccoons. A free-ranging goat provides milk for bottle-fed baby raccoons. Even the fallen trees will be recycled, used for wood chips to line pens and cages.

The couple have a stock of weird animal tales. Many of the raccoons they nurse have been injured by sharp soup cans while rummaging through people's trash cans. One even arrived with a mayonnaise jar stuck on its head.

Wildlife Haven's bird shelter in Tampa cares for an American bald eagle that plummeted through a homeowner's screened porch and splashed into the swimming pool with an injured wing.

Some people bring over what they think are infant raccoons they've found on their property. The Baughmans don't have the heart to tell them they actually handled baby rats.

"Florida has come in and built up homes and taken their habitat," Brenda Baughman says of her charges. "They have nowhere to live."

Wildlife Haven is struggling to repair the pens destroyed by Jeanne. Plywood, chain-link fence and sand are in short supply. Animal food donations, including finger bananas from backyard trees, are appreciated. The phone number is (813) 792-8511.

So overloaded is their yard, the Baughmans have temporarily stopped animal deliveries. But it's only a matter of time before a gimpy squirrel shows up at their doorstep and a home is provided for him out back. "We can never say no," Brenda Baughman says. "That's our problem."