Wild Heart Ranch is located in Claremore, Oklahoma. We provide medical or infant support to any indigenous wild animal in need of assistance and release it into suitable wild habitat once care is completed.

The Cardinal Puppet

The call came in on a busy summer afternoon. I was passing myself as I worked in the overflowing wildlife nursery. Hungry babies lining the counters in various cages, incubation tubs and playpens for groups of growing raccoon kits set up on every available square foot of floor space. I was frantically keeping up with the busy orphan season, finding energy from gallons of strong iced tea and motivation from the hungry cries of infants to be fed. I was barely holding it together which was common for May and June. All species of wild infants are here in their greatest numbers, and the weaning weeks wouldn’t arrive until July for most of the babies. I heard the phone and considered not answering it. My hands were full trying to feed a dozen or so hungry raccoon kits. Many times I would let the answering machine get the phone, only to learn that a two year old was taking ‘good care’ of the baby bunny while the caller waited to hear from me. That usually meant certain death or extra work reviving the animal from shock, so the frantic search for the ringing cordless phone began.

Breathless and panicked on the other end; “Oh Annette, thank goodness you answered!” Yep, another animal was surely on the way. With hungry baby raccoons using my arms as an escape branch from their playpen, I gritted my teeth at the pain and put on my most helpful and concerned wildlife rehabilitator voice. “What do you have and what has happened?” I patiently asked, sounding miraculously like a calm professional.

“We have a cardinal. Its wing is broken or something. Our cat had it. He’s a good cat, not usually a hunter, his name is Twiggy. We rescued him from a shelter where they were going to put him to sleep. He loves to watch TV and..” I hissed as a stray raccoon claw cut deep into the tender inside of my elbow.. “Tell me about the bird, HOW IS THE BIRD!?” my patience had expired.

“Oh yes, sorry, I didn’t want you to be mad at Twiggy. He is so sweet, such a gentle kitty, but we need to bring this bird to you immediately!” I groped for an alcohol pad and a band-aid, scruffing the hungry pin cushion in one hand and cradling the phone with my aching shoulder. “Where are you?” I asked the frantic woman on the phone. “We're in Sapulpa and we are on our way!” She exclaimed. The town of Sapulpa, Oklahoma is over an hour away. You pass several wildlife rescues on the way here. YAY! I was out of this one! Though I certainly do not mind helping any animal, I was swamped beyond capacity and if I could dodge an injury, which would take up lots of time today saving its life, I was going to try.

“Oh, let me give you some numbers to call. We have several wildlife rehabilitators closer to you than I am.” I dropped the coon into the play pen where the others immediately began investigating him for signs of food. The band-aid forgotten, I ran into the house for my directory. “No PLEASE! We want to bring him straight to you!” My heart sank… “We were told you were the best. We know where you are. We are on our way.” I had nothing left to defend the home front. We were about to be infiltrated by visitors. I mentally surrendered, “Okay, keep him warm and quiet. Don’t let him stress. Get here as soon as you can.” I instructed. Frantic gratitude erupted and the phone went dead. I had a mental picture of the trip here. Stoplights would be ran, people scattering from the sidewalks, school zones violated. I was certain any near fatalities would be included in their delivery.

It was now my turn to be frantic. Babies were fed with record speed. Dirty bedding that was thrown to the floor to be collected later was collected now and stuffed into the washer. Dishes were scrubbed in a blur of activity, counters were wiped, floors were swept, and deodorizer was sprayed. Visitors during orphan season were protected from the horrid truth that animals poop smells bad. So far, my charade has been quite effective. Visitors are convinced that the animals hold it all day long, never spoiling their invasive peek into their beds. They walk into clean, lemon scented chaos and never fail to leave bewildered by my utterly meticulous care and immaculate babies. Of course, not having time to shower, I don’t stand too close to anyone this time of year, and its not unusual for someone to casually pick something from my hair, only to rush to the sink upon inspection to wash their hands.

The over an hour trip took about thirty minutes as I projected. I listened momentarily for sirens to follow as the SUV threw gravel sliding sideways into my driveway. Two women erupted, carrying a bundle about the size of my head. No doubt, the bird was warm, IF it could still breathe through its protective bundle!

I opened the door and let them in. Eyes wide with concern, I could almost hear their hearts pounding. The woman not holding the cardinal burrito, carried her checkbook. Always a welcome sign. I decided then that no matter the inconvenience, donations were more needed now than any time of the year, and I would fulfill my duty to this animal with complete enthusiasm and conviction and appreciate their concern for the bird.

I took the bundle from the woman carefully, not wanting to further upset the bird after his wild ride that most likely rivaled his near miss luncheon with Twiggy. I held him for a few minutes quietly, explaining that it was best to let him settle after being moved before I examine him. The women were nearly in tears as they recounted the afternoon’s events. They were struggling to continue to love and cherish their precious kitty after he presented his gruesome gift to his family. The excuses were endless. That was typical. Cats will be cats. It wasn’t a mystery to me. If you hang bird feeders in your yard and let your cats venture outside, you are only providing hours of entertainment for kitty and a trap for the poor, hungry birds.

A curious raccoon kit who was avoiding his nap poked his nose from the top of the playpen. That was it. Subject changed. The women went to squeals of delight and wonder as the tiny kit dove for cover amongst his sleeping siblings. Completely distracted from the plight of the cardinal, the women began to take in the magnitude of their surroundings. A group of tiny fawns huddled in a corner, wide eyed and eared at the strangers, noses flaring with alarm, birds of every species and stage of fledge filling cages of various sizes and shapes, incubators like beckoning surprise boxes lining the counters, demanding the visitors lift the lid to discover the contents, waking the sleeping infants who will no doubt expect immediate feeding. I scrambled to note the ‘off limit’ tubs as the occupants would be stressed or awakened by a peek.

The woman with the checkbook was immediately inspired to begin her gifting script. It took her a minute or two, so I knew we were in the triple digit arena. Pressure. A large gift of money always sent pressure through me to make certain I performed miracles with whatever I was brought to save. My heart pounded as I began to unravel the blanket from the injured bird, decided that no matter how grim the condition, I would be positive and give it every moment of attention it needed to survive, even if it meant sacrificing much needed sleep tonight. I was determined. I would save this bird.

The check dropped into the locked donation box, it was a done deal. The women momentarily distracted by the hoards of babies, I began to examine the contents of the bundle. Yes, it was a cardinal, yes, it had been cat caught, and no, I couldn't help it. It was not only dead, rigor mortis was already setting in. The bird had probably been dead from the moment it was rolled into the blanket. It could have been asphyxiation, and if so, it was merciful. The tiny bird’s wing was in several internal pieces. I would have had to euthanize him anyway, which would have been completely awkward considering the lengths its rescuers had gone too in order to get it to the only place they believed could save him.

Like a deer caught in the headlights, I looked up having been lost in my grief and pondering of the fatality, to see both women completely fixated on my examination of the bird. I felt a horrible pain of guilt. I didn't know what to do! I tried to wrap him back up, but the blanket had slipped and his lifeless head was sticking out of the top. The women’s faces were contorted with excruciating hope, their hands clasped at their chest, their question was written in capital letters on their faces; “CAN YOU FIX IT?” I was stuck. How could I tell them that they had traveled like madwomen across a hundred miles to bring me a dead bird? The pressure beating down on me like a lead pipe, without a thought, I used the hand inside the blanket and slipped a finger behind the cardinals stiffening neck and “puppeted” a response to my exam, causing him to appear to be struggling to escape the blanket. “Oh no. He’s stressing out!” I exclaimed as I rolled him back into a snug burrito. “Do you mind if I keep the blanket so I don’t have to stress him more right now?” I lied through my teeth. I was making myself sick with myself. I wove the web out of compassion for these women, and I hated myself for it. At that moment, I would have rather cut out my own heart with a spoon as to inform them of their precious kitty's murderous venture and their utter failure to rescue his would be snack from certain death.

“Oh yes, of course!” they exclaimed in unison. "Keep the blanket! It's yours!" I franticly searched for an incubator to end to this bizarre puppet show. I was shaking as I quickly placed him in the tub, blanket and all. The poor bird was now standing on his head. I was shocked they didn’t notice. I was panicking, and I was certain they mistook it as deep concern for the injured bird.

I quickly explained to them that it was a bad wound but I would do my best. We would have to leave him alone for now to de-stress and I would work on him tonight. They wanted details of his condition and I did my best to string lie after convincing lie, as I tried to give them hope-and keep a straight face.

After a quick tour of the grounds, a slobbery kiss from a mountain lion, a glimpse of an orphaned coyote pack before they dashed for cover into their ‘den’, I explained that I needed to get back to work immediately so I could make time for the cardinal later. My mental picture was placing him in the freezer for later disposal, but I told them they could call and check on him the next day. I was sure by then I would find the courage to let them down.

Again, I was a gutless coward. Their phone calls began with songs of praise for my skills and efforts, their three digit check nestled safely in the rescue’s bank account, their lives now forever changed from their excursion to my home, I told them “He would be fine.” Oh how I hated myself! Three hundred plus babies to care for and I was focused on a dog and 'phoney' show for these sweet, trusting ladies.

Over time, the dead bird began to make progress. His wing was healing and he was eating well. His broken feathers were replacing themselves and release would come soon. My mental picture was tossing the frozen solid cardinal into the air and watching it dive bomb head first with an audible "clink" into the ground, and watching their faces as it did so. What would you say to that Annette? "Oh, I guess he wasn't ready." ??? What a fraud I had become! I decided I needed therapy, or a vacation, or both. Would this episode EVER end?

Of course they wanted to witness the release! Sure they did! Ten thousand animals through my clinic in 8 years and THIS one has two mommies! I decided I deserved anything I got, but my luck would change. At the same time my web of fiction was coming to a welcomed end, a window-stunned cardinal made it in for a few days of care. Finally, something was working in my favor in this case, and I contacted them to invite them to share in the successful recovery and release of their precious bird, which I had lost plenty of sleep over, but not for reasons of all night vigils, fighting for it’s survival.

“No, that’s okay. Twiggy has a vet appointment and we don't want the bird waiting another minute. Thank you for all that you do and thank you for taking such good care of our bird!” I hung up the phone, their enthusiasm lacking its former conviction, their life back to revolving around Twiggy the wonder cat. I was filled with mixed emotions. Relieved to be done with the lies, but disappointed that my perfectly executable fraudulent ending was now to be un-witnessed and ultimately wasted.

I released the imposter cardinal and Twiggy’s would-be lunch was placed gently and with great regret into the trash to end an excruciating era. I would not recycle the bird into the food chain which is what I normally did with fatalities, but I did pluck one perfect red velvet feather from his mangled tail. I taped it to my clinic freezer next to my most inspirational clippings and my daily 'don't forget' list to serve as a daily reminder to myself. No matter the hopes, no matter the donation, no matter the pressure, the truth would always have to do. They were all more than ‘just animals’ to me and to the people who vowed to rescue them, but I, after all, was and always will be, only human and should never promise more than to do the best that I can and to accept immediately and convey honestly when there is nothing more that I can do.

Annette King, Animal Rescuer
Wild Heart Ranch Wildlife Rescue
Claremore, Oklahoma

Touch a friend and give my book as a gift.
"Touched by the Wild" contains this story and more true short stories of the struggles and triumphs of some very special animals as they are brought into my care at my home and wildlife rescue, Wild Heart Ranch.