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Conference center doubles as animal rescue facility

  W ith dollars being hard to come by and congregations and presbyteries feeling the pinch, many Presbyterian camps and conference centers are in a season of re-evaluation. Some have closed, and some are reconfiguring to diversify and firm up their financial base.

As a result, some camps and conference centers have developed distinct identities — maintaining a Presbyterian connection, but also becoming known more broadly in their communities. Among them is Howell Conference and Nature Center in Michigan, owned and operated by the Presbytery of Detroit southeast of Lansing.

Howell does offer traditional programming — a summer day camp for elementary and middle school students, a summer residential camp and space for retreats and meetings. It’s also a site for the Heifer International Global Village program, which gives visitors a sampling of the challenges faced by those living in poverty and hunger.

But across southeastern Michigan, Howell has become known for another type of programming as well: its work as a nature education center, including a wildlife rehabilitation program which cared for 2,300 injured animals in 2011.

Animals and birds are brought to us from all over southeastern Michigan,” said Dana DeBenham, the center’s director. About half of the 2,300 arrive from late May to early July, in what she calls the “baby season,” when people often discover injured or orphaned baby animals.

Other animals brought to Howell last year included a bald eagle that had been shot in the wing (a federal offense). Unable to fly, the eagle had spent weeks on the ground before he was discovered, and suffered severe frostbite of the feet. Howell has a 100-foot flight pen that is required by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in order to be able to rehabilitate and treat raptor birds.

In this case, the eagle did not survive — he faced a long rehabilitation because of the damage to his feet, and after weeks of treatment succumbed to a respiratory fungal infection brought on by the stress of captivity.

With the help of volunteers and its on-staff veterinarian, Howell also treated a red fox last winter whose paw was mangled in a trap. The center’s staff was able to heal the foot — changing the bandages every other day for seven weeks, then releasing the fox back into the wild.

In addition to physically caring for injured animals, Howell staffs a telephone hotline that people who have found animals that seem distressed can call for advice.

In many cases animals don’t need rescuing,” DeBenham said. If a baby animal seems abandoned, “mom may be off browsing somewhere, looking for food,” and will return.

With experience, the Howell staff has become skilled at helping people assess which animals need assistance and which should be left alone — asking questions about whether the animal has any apparent injuries (such as puncture marks, a drooping wing, or a limp). If a baby is cold, “that may mean something’s happened to mom.”

DeBenham stresses that caring for injured animals is not a way for Presbyterian camps to make money — “wildlife rehabilitation is not a lucrative business,” she said. The injured animals don’t have owners, so “no one has to pay for their X-rays, their surgeries, their antibiotics, their cages.”

But Howell’s emphasis on wildlife care and environmental education, which dates from to the late 1970s, has built strong relationships between the camp, its cadre of animal-loving volunteers and the surrounding community. Along with the rehabilitation center, Howell operates the Wild Wonders Wildlife Park, which provides a permanent home for animals that cannot be returned to their wild because of their injuries or because they’ve become too tame (although the center works hard to prevent that from happening).

In 2011, Howell staff members and volunteers conducted 466 tours of the wildlife park and more than 450 programs on-site and at places ranging from libraries and schools to senior centers.

What we’re all about is trying to foster appreciation for the wonders of God’s creation and to live in harmony with our wonderful brethren.”