wild heart ranch

Wild and Free
for Oklahoma Today

By Lori Duckworth

Those who visit Wild Heart Ranch, a wildlife rehabilitation facility outside Claremore, likely will meet Pat. Pat looks something like a half-shaven turkey or a miniature ostrich. Curious and docile, she has probably seen better days, but it’s hard to say, because nobody even knew exactly what Pat was when she was rescued in April.

“She was found running around a shopping center with no feathers,” says Annette King, Wild Heart Ranch founder. “We weren’t sure at first, but we know now that she is a Cornish hen.”

Pat’s in good company with Wild Heart’s other residents: several talking birds, a free-roaming crow, the office bulldog, a pig, a donkey, and Keebler the lemur, a circus veteran who spends much of his time snuggling with teddy bears.

With this motley crew of unlikely mascots, it’s easy to see what King means when she says, “We take the odd kids, the hopeless. We fall in love with all the broken ones.”

Wild Heart Ranch began on a lark in 1996. King, then working for an insurance company, started rescuing horses, cats, and dogs. She brought so many to her land that she had to move permanently onto a larger property to care for them and eventually had to purchase the farm across the street to accommodate all her rescues. When a friend brought her a pair of orphaned baby raccoons, she decided to get her wildlife rehabilitator license.

“I had no idea what I was doing, but I had to figure it out,” King says. “The first seven months, I was brought 860 wild animals.”

Since its founding, Wild Heart Ranch has rehabilitated 57,000 animals. King says she owes the ranch’s above-average save rate to Google and help from veterinarians like Claremore’s Lesleigh Cash Warren, as well as some of her own twelve years’ experience as a veterinary technician.

Last spring and summer, King and her volunteers—including her husband Dan Hardt—cared for, among others, baby armadillos, skunk kits, cottontails, ducks, chickens, possums, raccoons, owls, turkeys, and bottle-fed fawns. All orphans are housed indoors at first and, once old enough, are moved outdoors into pens. If healthy, they’re eventually released into appropriate natural habitats.

Wild Heart takes as many as 250 calls per day, and King and her crew refer and offer advice to some and take in animals from others. Occasionally, she’s asked to assist in a capture, and many of her emotional stories are detailed on Wild Heart’s website: a hairless raccoon runt mistreated as a house pet; a wolf kept chained around the neck; and a terrified cougar cub that had been caged and abused.

King worked several jobs—vet tech by day, bartender by night at one point—to fund her efforts, even borrowing against her own home. During a period of financial struggle in 2001, the local game warden asked her to take in a mother dog and nine puppies that had been dropped at the home of Sandy Brooks, then-wife of Garth Brooks. She reluctantly accepted as a favor to the warden and found facilities to take care of the dogs. When Brooks later called to adopt one of the puppies, King explained she wasn’t a dog rescue and gave Brooks the number to the shelter. The pair ended up spending hours on the phone discussing wildlife rehab, and a week later, Brooks showed up to volunteer, sparking a friendship that has been fundamental to Wild Heart’s continuation.

“I couldn’t borrow any money for my facility after the real estate market crashed,” King says. “I was ready to close down. Sandy suggested I become a nonprofit and offered to fund my paycheck and pay the bills. She’s been making that donation for the last ten years. It’s more than incredible.”

On a relative shoestring budget of donated funds, Wild Heart Ranch matches the capacity of much larger facilities. It’s not glamorous and often is thankless, but King says saving creatures like Pat at Wild Heart Ranch is where she’s supposed to be.

The Buffalo Run Casino and Resort in Miami is hosting a fundraiser for Wild Heart Ranch November 4. Tickets are $50. (918) 230-2134 or buffalorun.com. Wild Heart Ranch, (918) 342-9453 or wildheartranch.org

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