Meet Heather Holcomb

Certified Wildlife Rehabilitator
Smiling woman with long brown hair standing near some aspen trees in the fall

Heather wears many hats at Earthfire, helping in both office administration and managing the day-to-day care of Earthfire’s 31 resident sanctuary animals, from wolves to bison to a porcupine named Teddy.

How did you come to rehab work? Do you have a history of working with animals?

My background is in food and beverage management and I’ve spent 20 years in the hospitality industry here in Idaho and Wyoming. My husband and I moved to New Mexico to help my father-in-law run his video production company, where I had a chance to work with Wild Spirit, a wolf sanctuary outside Albuquerque, producing six episodes for a show on Fido TV. Spending so much time out there, I fell in love with the wolves, most of whom were rescued from illegal breeding and hoarding situations.

At one point, the sanctuary was called to help authorities with a hoarding situation. We rescued three adult wolf dogs and two wolf puppies. To see them touch the earth with their paws for the first time and enjoy the sunlight—I was hooked.

What animals does Earthfire rehabilitate?

At Earthfire, we’re certified to handle small mammals, including foxes, coyotes, raccoons, marmots, beavers, possums, badgers, and maybe even a bear cub, if it’s less than a year old. But because there aren’t many rehab resources around, we end up getting calls about all kinds of animals, working with our small network of other rehab facilities, and transporting them if needed.

Someone brought us a young woodpecker once, and because we’re not permitted to rehab most birds and raptors, I immediately jumped in the car to drive it to another rehab in Pocatello. We also got a little female coyote last spring, but she was only about 10 or 12 weeks old and on her own, and coyotes are very social and should really be raised together—so I drove her to a rehab facility in Boise, about five hours away, that had two other coyote pups for her to grow up with.

All that said, we have to be ready for anything—because if Idaho Fish and Game need support and ask us to care for an animal we’re not permitted to care for, we can take them. That’s how Earthfire has even cared for moose babies in the past.

What’s involved in getting certified as a wildlife rehabilitator?

I’m certified through the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (IWRC). After studying a lot, I took a comprehensive multiple choice test with the questions focused entirely on animal care. So for example, if you’re addressing dehydration, would you give an animal hypertonic, hypotonic, or isotonic solution? And if an animal came in weighing 58 grams, how much would you need to feed it based on its body weight? It’s really basic rehabilitation, but it gives you a strong baseline of knowledge. What I’d like to do now is gain more practical hours, perhaps by shadowing some of our local veterinarians. I also need to take credits continuously to maintain my certification, and hopefully as the pandemic comes to an end, there will be more in-person opportunities to gain advanced hands-on skills in things like wound management and pain management.

We’re headed into the season when there are lots of baby animals coming into the world. What should people do if they come across one that seems to need help?

People have such big hearts. We got a call in February from a woman who was driving home and saw a baby skunk on the side of the road, so she pulled over and she picked it up and she took it home. How many people would take an injured skunk home? It’s a wonderful instinct in many ways—but in rehab, we educate the public to – in many cases – stand back. Regardless of the animal, whether it’s a baby squirrel or a baby coyote, we ask people to leave them alone because mom is usually very close by. It might feel like you’re rescuing them, but in many cases you’re removing that baby from its family.

That said, keep watch if you’re able. If it’s getting close to nightfall and they’re not a nocturnal animal and it’s going to be too cold, you could get a box with some bedding and even some hand warmers (though not electric heating pads because the current is not good for babies). Once you’ve got them warm, try not to interact with them—it’s so tempting to hold them and take photos, but these are wild animals and they shouldn’t get comfortable around humans. Then try to connect with a rehab facility to get advice for next steps.

Rehab and rescue are two very different things, and Earthfire does both. What are the challenges of that?

It’s a really big challenge, because we are a small facility and team, and we have to care for our resident sanctuary animals and those we are preparing for release into the wild at the same time. The job of rehabilitation is to return a healthy animal to its natural habitat, and if they’re habituated to human voices and contact it can disrupt the rehab process. It’s also a difficult service to offer because it’s expensive. Staff time, appropriate nourishment, and often veterinary bills come with rehab care and we have to hope that private donations will cover the costs.

There’s also the natural challenge of not getting too attached! Last spring we rescued several baby skunks who were absolutely adorable. We needed to be able to identify them, so of course we gave them names—and particularly when you’re bottle feeding them when they are so vulnerable, it’s difficult not to fall in love. That’s why, as soon as the bottle feeding is done, we try to be as absolutely hands-off as possible, using trap doors to feed them and helping them learn how to forage on their own.

What are you looking forward to, as you grow into this role?

Of course I don’t want to see young animals in trouble, but at the same time, I hope we can continue to help any animals who do need our care. And I’m looking forward to encountering other species and learning how we can help them, and supporting community members who have found an animal and are scared and don’t know what to do.

We’ll get calls that someone has discovered a deer with a broken leg, for example. And I can tell them from my personal experience that I’ve had three deer with broken legs in my backyard this winter. They’re much more resilient than you think, and the younger they are, the more likely they are to recuperate from that injury. They really can heal themselves from things we can’t imagine healing from on our own. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t step in if an animal is really struggling, but we have to consider the impact of human interaction on these animals before getting involved.

Learn more about Earthfire’s Wildlife Rehabilitation efforts here.

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