Thursday, August 30, 2012

Wildlife In Need Center Victim Impact Statement

Wildlife In Need Center Victim Impact Statement
Public Presentation to
Judge Domina
Circuit Court Judge, Branch 11, Waukesha County
August 29, 2012

Introduction:  Joan Rudnitzki, Executive Director of WINC

Good Afternoon Judge Domina.I am Joan Rudnitzki, the Executive Director of the Wildlife In Need Center.  Thank you for giving us the opportunity to present information regarding the damaging effects that the criminal actions of the defendants have caused to the overall business operations of the Wildlife In Need Center.
To fully understand the harm that has resulted from this crime, I would like to give you just a bit of background about the Wildlife In Need Center. As you know from our previously submitted written statement, the Wildlife In Need Center is a wildlife rehab facility. As part of our mission we also provide educational programming. The Center was established in 1994 in response to this community’s need for an organization to care for injured or orphaned wildlife. 
In its relatively short history, the Wildlife In Need Center has grown to be the second largest organization of its kind in this region. We admit between 2,000 and 2500 injured or orphaned Wisconsin wildlife annually with a goal to rehabilitate and release them back into their native habitat. To perform this work, the Center holds permits from the DNR, US Fish and Wildlife Services and the United States Department of Agriculture.

The value of our work is demonstrated by our partnerships with area law enforcements agencies, area humane societies, area veterinarians, and the Department of Natural Resources.  These organizations are fully aware of the valuable role that the Wildlife In Need Center plays in our community. Their support for our work is demonstrated by the fact that they regularly refer to us any calls that they receive regarding injured or orphaned wildlife.

Equally important in the fulfillment of our mission is our education program.
We field approximately 10,000 calls every year to provide advice and counsel on wildlife related questions for residents in our five county service area. The most visible aspect of the education component of our mission is our outreach programming.  The Center presents at least 100 programs each year to schools, scout groups, civic groups and senior centers.  WINC’s outreach programs advise the public on how to live in harmony with their wildlife neighbors.

Since his coming to WINC twelve years ago, Dakota has assumed an exceptionally important role in our educational programming. HHHis story, as a young owl provides a platform for teaching the public that it is illegal to keep wildlife without a license.  The outpouring of community concern over Dakota’s kidnapping last November is an indication that the community holds him in very high regard.

To further explain the impact of the crime that was committed against the Wildlife In Need Center, I would like to introduce Chelsea Matson and Mandy Feavel who are animal care staff members at WINC. Mandy and Chelsea hold degrees in Wildlife Ecology and Animal Science respectively, have combined 10 years of experience in their fields and are licensed by the state of Wisconsin as Wildlife Rehabilitators.

Mandy and Chelsea, along with Leslie Kiehl, the center’s education coordinator, organized volunteers and participated in the search and rescue of Dakota.  Mandy and Chelsea, along with guidance from our Vet Dr. Nicole Waliszewski combined their exceptional levels of expertise and were able to nurse Dakota back to a healthy physical state.

Mandy and Chelsea have a short statement to share about the rescue and rehab of Dakota.

Thank you Judge Domina for giving us this opportunity.
To fully understand the impact that Dakota’s kidnapping had on him, we want to share his history.
Before coming to Wildlife In Need, Dakota’s story began after falling from his nest as an owlet 12 years ago. He was taken from the wild, being illegally kept as a pet. He became very ill, since this person did not know how to properly care for an owl.  He was taken to a vet who explained they were breaking a federal law by keeping this wild animal without proper licensing. Dakota was given to a local wildlife rehabilitation center in Northern Wisconsin which determined he was imprinted.  Imprinting is a process that occurs during a restricted period early in life during which an animal develops species identification. Therefore having spent his early formative period with a human, Dakota identifies himself as a human. Sadly, this process is irreversible. Dakota was transferred to Wildlife In Need in hopes to further educate people to prevent his story from happening to any other owl or wildlife.

On the morning of November 13, 2011 Wildlife In Need staff came in to find multiple enclosures damaged, a patient running loose, and the worst- Dakota’s locked enclosure broken into and Dakota gone. Because he is imprinted, Dakota trusts people and looks to humans to provide food and socialization. We assumed that Dakota had been taken against his will from his enclosure and according to Waukesha County’s criminal complaint, one of the defendants stated “the owl didn’t want to go.” 

-         Slide 1- Facebook picture slide: 
This is a picture that was posted to facebook the night Dakota was kidnapped showing one of the defendants holding Dakota as if what they did was something to brag about. Even to the untrained eye Dakota looks terrified.

Although imprinted, Dakota’s traumatic removal from what he knew as his safe enclosure may have forever damaged his trust in people.  At that point, we were thankful he had escaped his captors not knowing what their full intentions were. Since Dakota has never had to hunt or avoid natural predators like crows, we were well aware this story could have had a very different ending. Luck did not bring him home - our experienced, educated and dedicated staff brought Dakota home.

Our recovery of Dakota took a total of three and a half weeks totaling over 1000 volunteer and staff search hours. These hours included setting up multiple trail cams, feeding stations, organizing large search parties, and reaching out to the community for help with any sightings or sounds. This time period also involved Thanksgiving Day and deer hunting season which posed a hurdle in our search, but we were determined to bring him home. For three and a half weeks our personal lives were turned upside down staying out late during night searches only to wake up and begin the search again before the sun was even up. The time spent on these daily searches was on top of the daily work of caring for hundreds of other injured wildlife at the center. All this added stress and exhaustion stemmed from an unprovoked act of cruelty against our center.

-         Slide 2- ICU picture

After hundreds of hours of searching, Mandy and I rescued Dakota on the morning of December 7th and brought him back to his home at the Wildlife In Need Center. Our staff and his vet, Dr. Nicki Waliszewski, determined his body condition was emaciated having lost 27% of his weight. He had no fat stores left and his body had started to eat away at his muscle putting him at high risk for refeeding syndrome. This happens when a starved animal is not properly reintroduced to nourishment. For this reason, patients that come to our center emaciated and dehydrated, like Dakota, are given only fluids for the first several days to encourage healthy recovery of those organs before giving them calories. Introducing calories too early could send their bodies into shock or electrolyte imbalances that could cause heart failure. This fear was a reality for Dakota’s case. For the first week of Dakota’s recovery he was monitored through the night by the dedicated staff to make sure he would make it through his body’s toughest battle. His vet had made it clear to staff that he could very well die during the first week.

-         Slide 3- Depressed close up

This picture was taken within an hour of Dakota’s rescue. It shows Dakota was too week to stand or perch. Also he was so weak he wouldn’t open his eyes which a healthy alert owl would do.

Dakota was not given any solid food until he was completely hydrated and his blood levels were starting to move in a more normal direction. This showed us that his liver and kidney function had improved. All of this information confirmed that our staff was correct in knowing that an imprinted owl cannot fend for itself in the wild.

-         Slide 4- Nicki examining Dakota

With the expertise of our trained staff and vet, Dakota’s health slowly improved after administering fluids multiple times a day for weeks along with antibiotics and supplements.

-         Slide 5- Comparison in appearance

Dakota was not back to his healthy weight until a month after he was rescued although you can see he is stronger and more alert. He still had a long road to full recovery, as he had to build up all of the muscle mass he had lost. Dakota’s physical health was finally normal by the beginning of March, allowing him to slowly return to educating the community about respecting his majestic species and Wisconsin wildlife as a whole.

Introduce Leslie

Now Leslie Kiehl will provide background information on Dakota’s psychological health and Dakota’s continued work as a WINC educator.

Good Afternoon. I am Leslie Kiehl the Education Coordinator for the Wildlife In Need Center and I have been Dakota's primary handler for last 7 years. Thank you for giving us an opportunity to speak.
Once it was apparent that Dakota was on the road to a physical recovery, I began to monitor his mannerisms to assess his readiness to return to his educational role.  I did this by taking Dakota for walks inside the Center to interact with trusted volunteers.

One day while sitting calmly and quietly Dakota stood upright, trilled, which is an angry or nervous response, and all his feathers flattened to his head and body.  I had never seen such a stark reaction in him before.  What I did notice was one of our younger male volunteers passing back and forth at the end of the aisle.  Dakota was vividly frightened and disturbed.  He began to pace on his perch showing high levels of anxiety.  It then dawned on me that our young volunteer looked like one of Dakota's captors.

Owls have a remarkable memory.  Situations or circumstances that they have encountered as juveniles or throughout their lives will stay with them always.   With Dakota's sign of panic it was obvious he was remembering someone who had caused a traumatic experience for him.  From here on out I knew I had to be wary of who Dakota was around and watch for his cues if he could handle the situation or environment he was in.

On January 30th while conducting an educational program for a 4-H club in our Gathering Room I believed it was the right environment for Dakota to make a very brief appearance.  I asked the group to remain very still and quiet and brought Dakota in.  Things were going well until we turned to face the audience.  The room was filled with girls and women except for one young man in the front row.  Dakota fixated on him and began to trill.  Dakota leaned into me for protection and I asked the young man to stay seated, look away and remain calm.  After a couple of minutes I had to remove Dakota from the room to calm down.

That experience showed me that Dakota was not yet ready to meet with the general public.  There had to be more work and time put into reassuring Dakota that male figures were not a threat to him.

On February 29th we decided to have Dakota participate in an educational program that was similar to what he had been doing before his theft.  Dakota came out for a group of law enforcement officers in our Gathering Room.  During a usual education program Dakota's portion could be up to 20 minutes long while he would perch on my arm as I educated people on his story, natural history and answered questions they might have. 
During that time in Dakota's past experiences he might bate, jumping off the glove, once or twice but he began to get nervous and bate more.  Due to this I wrapped up talking about him and opened the floor for questions and pictures.  When the men began to stand for pictures or to get slightly closer, Dakota began to open mouth breath.  He was frightened and had to be taken back from the audience so that he could feel safer and subsequently put back in his enclosure.

Dakota was not scheduled for a full education program again until March 24th which was almost 4 full months since his return.  I continued to socialize with him inside his enclosure and also with me at my desk. Dakota's disposition had changed.  He needed more reassurance with anything I did and wanted more direct attention.  His vocalizations had become more conversational and needy.

Three more direct experiences stand out.  On March 24 at a program for a group of middle school boys Dakota could not stay out but for a few minutes. There was another session immediately after that with mixed sexes and Dakota was fine. The last experience I would like to mention was just on August 3rd and with my own son who was helping with maintenance and weed clearing around Dakota's enclosure.  I had to go into Dakota's enclosure to retrieve him for a program and unlike our usual ritual of him flying to the perch where he then steps on to my glove to leave the cage he was agitated and flying back and forth.  When he calmed he did get on the glove nervously.  My son was standing outside the enclosure raking when Dakota saw him. Dakota began trilling at him like I have never heard.  I asked my son to put down the rake and stand still.  Dakota did not stop trilling and was almost screaming at my son.  I approached my son with Dakota with much reassurance and asked my son to not look directly at him.  After a short time of Dakota still scolding my son, Dakota settled down but still stared directly at my son’s face.  That is when it dawned on me my son had just cut his hair to the same cut as one of Dakota's captors.

These are all obvious signs that Dakota is still suffering from post traumatic stress.  Since Dakota's reintroduction to educating the public I have had to modify programming to adjust for his behavior.  The organization that is booking the program is told up front that I plan to bring Dakota but never promised in case he is having a bad day.  Previous to his kidnapping, Dakota and I had appearances in which he would sit on the glove with me for an hour at a time in front of large audiences and venues.  We have not been able to do those to date.  He can bate 5-6 times in five minutes which did not previously happen and results in the end of his appearance.

Dakota only identifies with people and to have his trust violated by them was devastating to his psychological well being. We have no way of knowing whether or not he will ever be as comfortable doing programs again as he once was. Physically he is fine but his psychological recovery has been slow.   

Closing – Joan

We have presented the very negative impact that the actions of the break in and theft has had on our business operations and on our staff, including Dakota. . This was a reckless foolish action and has resulted in significant serious impact to the Center. In the many years that that the Wildlife In Need Center was housed on Highway C, there was never any break in or security threat to our operations. Now the Center has been forced to employ security measures to protect our staff and property.  Our staff and volunteers who provide a valued community service are entitled to feel safe from those who might violate our security. 

Further, any case regarding animal abuse of this type requires the court’s attention. We know that particularly with young people that this kind of action is a marker for other potential problems later in life.  Children and young adults that have disregard for animals often times translate their actions into a manner that is hurtful to people.

We agree with and support all the elements of the joint recommendation. We are hopeful that your sentence will serve as a strong deterrent and will send a message to these young men and the community that this was a serious offense and that it won’t be tolerated. On behalf of everyone associated with the Center, we appreciate this opportunity.

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