Citizen Dane: Caring for animals makes a spirit soar

Holly Hill-Putnam might have hit the volunteerism nail on the head by posing the following question. “How many pursuits can make your spirit soar?”

For Hill-Putnam, the answer has been volunteering at the Dane County Humane Society, where she has spent more than 14,000 hours, many of them in the Animal Medical Services (AMS) area helping animals to recover from spay and neuter surgery. For her devotion to our animal friends and to our community, she was selected to be part of IB’s inaugural class of Citizen Dane, which honors Greater Madison’s unsung heroes.

Hill-Putnam got started with the Humane Society in 2012 when she had to leave her job as a restaurant manager to care for parents who both had Alzheimer’s. While providing care for them, she needed a stress-reliever — a way to stay in contact with people (and animals) and not get isolated while providing 24/7 care for her parents. Her supportive husband, Rollie, stepped up to the plate and helped so that Holly could spend a few hours a week at the humane society.

In the AMS department, where domestic animals are spayed and neutered, she does surgical recoveries on the dogs, cats, and bunnies that come as strays or are transferred in from other shelters in the southern United States, where spaying and neutering is not so common as it is here. Hill-Putnam loves the responsibility, and in the AMS she really feels like she’s part of a team. She picks up the animals from the surgery table and carries them to a recovery room, where their breathing and vitals are monitored as they recover from anesthesia. The surgical team also sanitizes and packs the surgical instruments and provides care for the ICU patients.

“It creates more room in the southern shelters,” she notes, “and gives us in Madison more dogs and cats to choose from for our forever pets. It’s a real win-win for the animals and the community.”

Hats off to volunteers

Providing her own version of a win-win, Hill-Putnam has tried on a lot of different hats at the shelter. She got involved in new volunteer orientations, answered phones and entered data in the wildlife reception area, provided tours to school groups, and took care of the humane society’s classroom animals. These are animals the society uses in educational programs like Camp Pawprint and Humane Heroes to teach kids what is required to care for a pet. It’s a wonderful opportunity for kids to get to know more unusual species like Ursula, an 11-year-old bearded dragon, Ranger Jake (a corn snake), a rat trio, and Abyssinian guinea pigs like Inca and Inti.

Perhaps Hill-Putnam’s most significant impact has been with the Wildlife Focus Group, where she’s part of a team that cares for sick, injured, and orphaned wildlife with the goal of releasing them back to their home environment. After she lost her father and placed her mother in an Alzheimer’s facility, she wanted to get more involved and gradually started volunteering up to 50 hours a week during the spring and summer — during baby season, she explains. Over the eight seasons she been here, she has volunteered for more than 14,300 hours, including six seasons where volunteers raised orphaned wildlife mammals in their homes to allow the center to save space for injured or sick animals.

In 2017 alone, they treated 4,101 patients. “Due to the overwhelming number of patients we were caring for, we had to cut our home-care program in order to maintain a high quality of patient care,” she notes. “Baby mammals require up to six feedings a day, and finding people to feed, clean cages, mix formula, and pick natural greens to feed them was really tough.”

Nevertheless, the best thing about volunteering at DCHS is the direct contact with the animals. To avoid bites from a scared animal, it takes practice in the proper handling techniques, but the humane society provides training with well-seasoned volunteers and staff. This allows volunteers to develop as far as they want to go and when they are competent with mammals, they are offered a chance to learn about waterfowl, raptors, songbirds, or reptiles.

“Holding a baby owl or a bald eagle to allow staff to provide medical care is an experience you just can’t get in many facilities,” she says. “We are so blessed to have a wildlife center here at the humane society. Every shift, I get my ‘cuteness fix’ holding a baby chipmunk, an eastern cottontail bunny, or a gray squirrel in my hand to feed it.”

For Hill-Putnam, another favorite part of volunteering is bringing new volunteers on board in new volunteer orientations because she can feel the passion in the voices of volunteers who describe their roles to the new folks. It’s a feeling that pervades the entire shelter.

A restaurant manager before focusing on volunteerism, Hill-Putnam also is in charge of setting up the initial training for all new wildlife volunteers, all of whom start with housekeeping and progress to their choice of fledging songbirds, infant and juvenile mammals, or waterfowl. The humane society started an online training program last year with hands-on training following the completion of an online quiz. Spring is a particularly busy time as the wildlife center gets volunteers ready to care for the onslaught of hatching songbirds, ducklings, and infant mammals that cross its threshold.

“One important part of our job in wildlife reception is helping determine whether the animal truly needs our help,” she explains. “We always ask people to call first before bringing in animals so we can assess the situation and determine the animal’s need for care. We want to save our resources for those animals that are truly orphaned, injured, or ill, and not kidnap perfectly healthy babies just because mom is not with them at a particular moment.”

They educate people about the animal’s natural habits and frequently ask the finders to return them to their nest and let “mom” raise them since she can do it so much better than humans can. “Many of the patients we receive are very compromised with joint fractures, lead poisoning, or have been attacked by feral cats,” Hill-Putnam states. “Although great care goes into the decision, humane euthanasia is the best option for some when we cannot provide a good quality of life.”

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Special satisfaction

According to Hill-Putnam, there is no feeling quite like releasing animals back into the wild once rehab is completed. In fact, some of her best days have been release days after an animal has been cared for over a lengthy period. “I don’t think the general public realizes what wonderful care these patients receive from an amazing staff who run all kinds of diagnostic tests before determining a prognosis for recovery, including blood work, X-rays, fecal analysis, and eye tests for raptors to be sure they can hunt proficiently,” she states. “We take great pains to ensure the animals do not become pets, including visual barriers on the fronts of their cages so they can’t see us, whispering in animal care areas, and wearing camouflage masks when feeding animals that imprint easily on humans like baby owls and crows.

“We have a process where we gradually lessen our contact with them by placing them in an outdoor pre-release pen to allow them to regain their strength and demonstrate all the behaviors necessary to make them successful in the wild, like catching live prey.”

Her favorite release was a large snapping turtle from the Rock River that had been run over while trying to find a good nesting site to lay her eggs. There was major damage to her carapace (top shell) and plastron (bottom shell), and Hill-Putnam wondered if she would even make it back to the center. As she explains, it was an emotional trip back to Madison. “I cried all the way, but with the help of the UW Special Species staff and students, her shell was wired back together and we were able to harvest her eggs, which we incubated and hatched, adding 11 tiny snappers the size of a quarter to Lake Kegonsa.

“Mom was with us about 10 months. When I released her, she was so happy to feel the river’s current, she was spinning around and lifting up her head, and I swear she was smiling! It was like sending your kid off to kindergarten. As many releases as I’ve done, I still get teary as I pray for a good life for each animal.”

With experiences like this, it’s not hard to understand why she keeps coming back. Working with dedicated, like-minded volunteers who share the same values creates a great atmosphere that she did not have in her previous professional life. “It seems that everyone here is a tree hugger and values all lives, domestic or wild,” she states. “I’ve seen remarkable things done by volunteers here that make me proud to be part of this organization.”

Hill-Putnam has plenty of examples to cite. There’s the volunteer who drives around her neighborhood and landfills collecting branches the humane society uses to “enrich” cages. Her car is referred to as “the branch office.” There is the volunteer who drove all the way to Oklahoma to deliver a turkey vulture to an educational program when it could not be released, and there is the building team that just completed a new flight pen for song bird patients. There also is a volunteer who, when there were several hummingbirds to care for, regularly went to Olbrich Gardens to get deep-throated red flowers for them to enjoy.

“How could anyone not be inspired by what these folks do on a daily basis?” Hill-Putnam asks. “So, the next time you hear a songbird singing his heart out just outside your window, or a flock of sandhill cranes flies overhead, or you see a nest of baby squirrels chasing each other around a tree, think of us at the WC. We provide a second chance for these creatures.”

All of this care is provided for free, but the shelter heavily depends on public donations. It does not receive any funding from state or federal agencies, but it’s fortunate to have an army of dedicated volunteers.

“It’s a heartwarming feeling to be recognized for doing something I love,” Hill-Putnam states. “It’s a lot of hours but they just fly by. The feeling you get helping orphaned and injured animals at the Wildlife Center or helping a little puppy or kitten recover from surgery is worth every second invested. I go home every day and truly feel like I did something worthwhile.”

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