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By Steve Pollick
BLADE Outdoors Editor
Castalia - When a volunteer at the animal rehabilitation center told founder Mona Rutger that she nominated her for Animal Planet's "Hero of the Year" contest, Rutger just shrugged.
Caption: Mona Rutger shows a bald eagle to students at Toledo's Arlington Elementary School. (THE BLADE/JETTA FRASER)
Mona Rutger, of Castalia, Ohio, has been named the first hero of the year by cable television's Animal Planet for her work in rescuing thousands of wild creatures and educating tens of thousands of adults and children about wildlife conservation.
Animal Planet announced the honor last night as part of an ''Animal Cops Houston'' episode in its Heroes Week slate of programs.
Mrs. Rutger and her husband, Bill, operate Back to the Wild, a wildlife rehabilitation and education center outside the Erie County village. She was nominated for the honor by Dorothy Flounders, of Sandusky, one of the Rutger staff volunteers.
"I'm pretty much overwhelmed right now," Mrs. Rutger said yesterday. "I'm honored to have Animal Planet recognize our work. It's a chance to be an ambassador for other wildlife rehabilitators around the country."
As with other such rescue operations, Back to the Wild is funded totally by donations, running on "less than a shoestring," as Mrs. Rutger put it. She and her husband have been in business 15 years.
A cash prize of $10,000 goes along with the award, a bonus Mrs. Rutger intends to plow right into Back to the Wild. The operation takes in some 2,000 injured, orphaned, or displaced animals each year, and is able to return at least 60 percent of them to the wild.
They deal with everything from bald eagles to box turtles, with a considerable dose of unwanted exotic animals, such as tropical constrictor snakes, as well.
In addition, Back to the Wild programs reached more than 53,000 schoolchildren and adults last year in an outreach effort that Mrs. Rutger considers as important as wildlife rescues.
The Rutgers are among 88 licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Ohio. Mrs. Rutger was selected from among 10 nominees in the inaugural hero program. Along with the cash prize is a trip for two to Hawaii.
As a child, she grew up on a farm and spent many hours playing outdoors, often with animals. "I loved exploring the fields, creeks, and woods to discover insects, reptiles, birds, or any other animals I could find. Watching them live their wild lives gave me feelings of awe and amazement, excitement and peace, and an overwhelming desire to want to know everything I could learn about them."
Contact Steve Pollick at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6068.
Used with permission by The Toledo Blade Company.