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'Leap of faith': Severn wildlife sanctuary a labour of love for owner

Krystal Hewitt purchased Speaking of Wildlife in 2016; 'I did it for the animals I had been working with for so long, and for many more to come'

Ravens caw loudly as the sun beams through the stands of cedar and fir trees.

Maple the coyote runs alongside her fence, whining to see her friend and playmate, Maverick the wolf. Various beaver noises are audible, grunting and sawing at the plywood attached to the fencing in Kerri and Sammi’s enclosure. Farther in the background are Ocellus the bobcat’s rhythmic purring sounds, and the quiet hoot-hoot from Gill the great horned owl.

It’s just another morning at Speaking of Wildlife.

Speaking of Wildlife is an animal sanctuary for non-releasable Ontario native wildlife, located in Severn. Owner Krystal Hewitt and staff look after all the residents — more than 45 of them — and offer wildlife education programming, both on and off site, with the animal ambassadors.

“I always had a love of animals, growing up on our family farm,” said Hewitt. “I was the kid who saved the animals, whether they needed it or not. I triaged the bird who flew into the window, or the frog in the pond. I stayed home from school on the days the vet was coming out.”

Hewitt followed her love of animals into a high school co-op placement with Speaking of Wildlife, which was founded in 1989, and housed at the Muskoka Wildlife Centre on Highway 11, north of Orillia.

“I loved being at Speaking of Wildlife, caring for those wild animals, building on that foundation of that love of giving those animals a second chance,” said Hewitt. “Working there also honed my public speaking skills and, of course, I learned so much about native Ontario species and also the individual residents at (Speaking of Wildlife) at the time.”

She tried out other co-ops, including a stint at a veterinary office, but kept coming back to Speaking of Wildlife.

“I really had found my niche. I found I had an innate ability to read animals. I worked there summers while I was at university, and once I graduated,” she said.

In 2016, Speaking of Wildlife lost its physical home, as the Muskoka Wildlife Centre property was expropriated. Hewitt took a deep breath and jumped in with both feet, taking over the reins of Speaking of Wildlife and building a new wildlife centre for the animals on a section of the family farm.

“I did it for the animals I had been working with for so long, and for many more to come. This leap of faith let me work near where I had grown up and kept me working with those animals that I had come to adore. I knew that travelling and teaching people about the animals could keep them fed, at the very least,” she said.

In the summers, Hewitt needs to employ six staff in addition to herself to keep programming going on and off site, as well as look after all of the residents at the centre.

Employee Jamie Proctor loves working at the centre.

“You’re never bored,” he said. “Even if two days have the same chores, the animals are always doing different things. And, of course, working here gives me the opportunity to pick up and cuddle a groundhog semi-regularly.”

Employee Alex Frye said, “I love having the opportunity to teach people about the ecosystems around us, inspiring people to get outdoors, and connect with the natural world in our own backyards. It doesn’t hurt that I also work with about 50 animals who have all stolen my heart in their own special ways.”

Hewitt estimates she started out at the new location with about 35 animals. Now, there are 48.

“I doubled a lot of the residents. There are two kestrels now instead of one, two pigeons, two raccoons and, of course, four squirrels now,” she said.

“Yes, the squirrels are a story. Pip came to us because he had become too habituated to humans, and he made such a good ambassador for our educational programming. Plus, he needed a companion, so when the next one came along, we thought she would be perfect, but she was more skittish and maybe not quite as good of an ambassador as we had hoped … Then another one came who had eye problems, and another …”

A lot of the animal residents are at the centre because of some kind of human impact.

“Many got habituated to humans or got injured by cars … So, it makes sense for us to give these animals’ lives a purpose, which is to teach humans about wildlife and how to protect it,” explained Hewitt.

To that end, she offers guided tours at the centre, both by appointment and as part of special holiday events, including the Halloween Hoot ’n’ Howl, and Christmas tree tours. As well, staff and animal ambassadors are popular guests at community events, fall fairs, schools, daycares, seniors and retirement centres, and anywhere else people are congregating.

Revenue from these tours and events help keep the animals fed and cared for, but, with more and more animals in need, and more staff needed to care for them, other help is needed and valued as well.

“Donations — whether of food, cleaning supplies, bedding — these are all gratefully received. We also have an Amazon wishlist, which can be found here,” said Hewitt. “Our carnivores love a good feed from a hunter, or someone cleaning out a freezer. Kibble is an ever-present need, and we have some new residents on a special diet who need sardines and yogurt, believe it or not.”

Hewitt emphasized it is best to reach out and ask before donating so donations aren’t wasted.

“People can email [email protected] and we can arrange for donations to be received, and if any organizations or event organizers would like us to come visit, we are happy to arrange that as well,” she said.

Staff and animal residents are also gearing up for a special tour day on Feb. 18, during Family Day weekend.

“We are doing guided tours that day, and still have some room at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.,” said Hewitt. “People can email to book a time. It’s just $12 a person.”

At the end of the day, as the sun sinks behind the hill, Hewitt goes out to the enclosures where Maverick and Maple wait impatiently. Hewitt begins with one quiet howl, and Maverick joins in immediately, long, low and haunting. Maple follows, yipping and yapping, sounding more like a pack of coyotes than one not quite fully grown one.

It’s the end of another magical day at Speaking of Wildlife.


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