By Cheryl Conway
A newly born fawn almost got run over by a lawnmower as it was hiding in the bushes.
The tiny stranded fawn curled up in a fetal position next to the front brick steps of a residential home in Flanders for hours, not knowing where to turn. The homeowner, fearing that the fawn’s mother was not going to return called the Antler-Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary in Frelinghuysen for help.
Sanctuary Director Kelly Simonetti of Frelinghuysen gave the homeowner specific instructions to not feed nor go outside to disturb the fawn. She told her that deer usually leave their babies behind hidden in bushes or forests while they go searching for food for the day. Most of the time, they do come back but if the parent deer did not return by 8 p.m. to call her back for some additional help.
Sure enough, by dusk, momma deer did come back for the fawn as he was no longer curled up near the front of the house but instead, thankfully, seen lurking in the wooded backyard feeding from its mother.
Located on 120-acres of preserved farm in Warren County, Antler Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary is a wildlife rehabilitation center that provides vital care and treatment to sick, injured or orphaned wildlife. It is one of 30 rehabbers in NJ licensed through the NJ Division of Fish and Wildlife to care for fawns, raccoon, skunks, opossums, squirrels, rabbits, woodchucks, other small mammals and bears.
The sanctuary is dedicated to rehabilitating these animals back to health so they can be returned to the wild where they belong.
Simonetti opened the sanctuary 13 years ago right on the land that she had moved into six months prior with her husband Jim Simonetti, former police chief of Roxbury who is currently running for Warren County sheriff.
Simonetti, a registered nurse, used to volunteer at St. Hubert’s in Madison for 15 years taking care of dogs and cats.
“I would help them with sick animals but that’s when I realized they were bringing in wildlife, so it was an easy fit,” she says. “So I got my wildlife rehabilitation license,” but decided to “not go crazy with it,” and instead start off slow with just a few animals. “But when you start taking care of animals, you can’t help it to get crazy.”
She explains how “we started with a couple of cages in the garage,” with maybe 25 to 30 animals the first year; 100 the next year; “then it grew and grew.” Simonetti soon realized she needed help so “I got friends to help me.”
Her sanctuary has grown into four buildings of various animals cared for by about 50 non-paid volunteers- young to old- on a regular basis. She currently has 150 animals, at least one of everything, skunks, opossum, squirrels, raccoon, fawn, groundhogs, bear cubs, foxes and porcupine.
Right now she has close to 40 fawns that she is raising, who require the most work when it comes to feeding. Each fawn gets a 12 ounce bottle of formula four to five times daily. Thanks to her “die hard ladies,” her dedicated 40 volunteers ages 50 to 70 years old, who arrive 7:30 a.m. to mix the formula “fresh every day. “They are here making formula in the heat. When I say die hard, I truly mean die hard,”
Also called “veterans” by Simonetti, she says of these volunteers, they come with “ice packs around their necks, towels around their head, the boots on, the die-hards, they keep going.”
The fawns get fed 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., then 11 a.m., then 4 p.m. and then at 8 p.m. Volunteers, who each go through training and safety issues, work in three shifts with each involving feeding the animals, cleaning cages, 25 loads of laundry a day as each animal has its own towel. Simonetti says they go through six gallons of bleach a week.
At the evening shift, “we tuck everyone in for the night; make sure the cages are locked” and then the whole routine begins again at 6 a.m. for Simonetti the next morning before she goes off to her full time job in sales for High Touch Healthcare.
“We all go home exhausted,” Simonetti admits, but taking care of animals, like people, is her passion. Before opening the sanctuary, Simonetti worked as an oncology nurse in Newark for 25 years.
When she had gotten a puppy, she needed to train it so she started visiting St. Hubert’s. Not being able to ignore the sheltered cats and dogs, “I started going down there and helping them. I just always loved animals all my life. I got more involved in what goes on. As a volunteer you give a lot more; you realize it is what you want to do.”
At the sanctuary, Simonetti has a volunteer veterinarian, Dr. Marie Policy of Sparta, who visits regularly to monitor the animals, tend to their diets and medication and trains student interns. For the past four years, Simonetti has been bringing in four to five interns to gain first-hand experience of taking care of animals that have been sick, injured or abandoned.
These students have gone off to veterinarian schools; some have gone onto wildlife projects; one who worked at the sanctuary when she was 13 is in Montana researching prairie dogs.
“We give them a solid base to reality,” says Simonetti of her intern program.
“These people, they love wildlife, they love habitat, they love nature, they get it. People are amazing; they will pick up anything and bring it here” whether orphaned or injured.
At the sanctuary, Simonetti operates everything similar to a medical facility with one building temperature controlled and dedicated to critical care with small infant animals needing incubators and formula; with another building dedicated to animals not ready for the habitat and still in indoor cages; then another area with animals outdoors in cages; raccoons and skunks in another big cage, all scattered and rehabbing throughout the property.
“Once stable and eating natural food and behaving, we know we’ve done our job and that’s when we will release them,” she says. “We find either private land or we take them out and release them,” after caring for them close to 10 to 12 weeks.
Out of the animals brought there, Simonetti says about 20 percent don’t survive because they’ve been severely compromised, injured or dehydrated.
Simonetti’s favorite part is when the animal turns to the wild.
“The best part is when we take in these small, small animals and they are destined to die, to watch the growth and development, they are so depended on us…then they get wild. Unlike dogs and cats, they become dependent on us; other animals they turn wild immediately. That’s the best part.”
A raccoon, “they are climbing around the cage, then they go to the end of the forest, they run right up the tree or go across the lake and go swimming,” she explains.
Or the bear who is fed vegetables, fruits, pears, peaches and corn, “We put in a bucket of acorns and he smells them, he immediately dumped the bucket and started eating acorns piece by piece. They just know instinctively. That’s the best part; when the light bulb goes on in their head. They are so anxious. When they dig for worms, that’s the most rewarding part. We know we’ve done our job well.”
Besides helping animals return to the wild, Simonetti’s mission is to actively educate the public on caring for the ecosystems, supporting the environment, respecting the wildlife and protecting and preserving the native lands for the future wildlife habitat, as stated on her website.
Antler Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary is a 501©3 non-profit organization supported entirely by public donations and volunteers, without any local, state or federal funding. With more than 1,000 animals a year brought to the facility, it desperately needs adiditonal support. It costs $175 per animal per month to provide proper care. A 20 gallon bucket of formula which lasts about a week costs $100; she spends up to $60,000 on formula to feed the animals. The annual season runs from March to Oct. and she runs on a $120,000 operating budget.
Simonetti holds several signature fundraisers during the year which includes a Baby Shower in May at a local church where people donate supplies; a Tuscan Sun outdoor Italian-style dinner is set for Aug. 21 this year at the Brook Hollow Winery in Milton with an Elvis impersonator; Hay Bails of Hope for Cancer set for Oct. 9 in conjunction with breast cancer awareness featuring tricky tray baskets donated by businesses held at the sanctuary; and a Holiday Bazaar held the first week in Dec. with a Christmas Tour and Craft- show in Hope in which “a lot of people do their Christmas shopping with us; they pay it forward- they give a gift of meaning.”
Current challenges are “providing enough good volunteers” and being able to finance the continuation of the sanctuary by funding repairs and building new cages.
It is hard to get individuals to contribute during economic hardships, grant writing is a challenge. “It’s hard to convince people that rehabilitating squirrels is a good thing. When you destroy a habitat you are replacing animals.”
Two years ago, Simonetti’s sanctuary was one of only two rehabbers in NJ designated by NJ Division of Fish & Wildlifeto rehabilitate bears. The other rehabber for bears is in South Jersey.
“We built a temporary bear cage,” she says, for a bear who was six pounds in April who grew to 85 pounds by Oct.
“Our challenge or our wish is we want to build a bigger or more sophisticated bear cage,” she says. This can cost up to $80,000. With the current cage, they can house up to three bears at this time.
A corporate or private sponsor to help fund a bear cage, or a donor to act like a Secret Santa, is “our wish.” Send tax-deductible check made payable to Antler Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary, 52 County Road 661, Newton, NJ 07860. Call 973-800-2420 to find out other ways to help or visit anter-ridge.com for more information.
If there is a wild animal left on a property or injured, call Simonetti for advice or an appointment.
“It is illegal to house or hold onto wildlife in NJ,” she says. “People want to do the right thing but they have to understand they all can’t be experts because they read about it on the internet. People have to follow the rules.”