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By Michael Sangiacomo
Plain Dealer Reporter
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.
"I thought that was nice, but I never thought I'd win," she said. "There must have been hundreds of other people nominated. Who would know me out in the middle of Ohio?"
Apparently quite a few.
Rutger, founder and operator of the nonprofit wildlife rehabilitation center, "Back to the Wild" in Castalia in Erie County, won by a landslide.
She still can't believe she won, but has already spent the $10,000 prize money.
"It will go right into running Back to the Wild," she said. "It's a little less than we need to operate for one month. It costs about $150,000 a year to keep the place going, and that's with a lot of volunteers and donations. My husband and I work 20-hour days here and we've never taken a salary."
She said the second part of the prize - a trip for two to Hawaii - is exciting, even though she's afraid to fly. Rutger might have sold the trip but Animal Planet said the flights were not transferable.
"It will only be our second vacation in 32 years," she said. "I am really doing it for my husband, Bill. He deserves it for putting up with all this." By "this," she means a 30-acre facility where injured and orphaned wild animals are rescued, treated and put back into the wild. Those with injuries that are too severe are euthanized.
Victoria Lowell, senior vice president of marketing for Animal Planet, said she and the other judges were impressed with Rutger's operation.
"The reach of her program, and the fact that she is getting 60 percent of the 2,000 injured animals she gets each year returned to the wild, just blew us away," Lowell said. "Mona is an inspiration. We had more than 4,000 nominations and we narrowed it down to 10 and opened it up for voting. Mona was in the lead the entire time."
The announcement was made between 10 and 11 p.m. Wednesday on the Animal Planet channel, which is part of the Discovery Channel. A short segment featuring Rutger and friends will be shown on the channel over the next few weeks.
Rutger started the center in 1990 on her family property and watched it grow over 16 years. Bill Rutger, retired from Ford Motor Co. after 37 years, does much of the heavy lifting. She credited the center's success to hundreds of donors and those who built cages and aviaries, including area Boy Scouts.
Back to the Wild is not a zoo, but offers controlled, educational experiences by appointment. The center annually has more than 50,000 visitors, most of them students, and Rutger also takes her show to larger groups.
"Ninety percent of the animals that end up here are the victims of human carelessness," Rutger said. "Birds and other animals get tangled in discarded fishing line, impaled by hooks or are run over by cars. We show children how important it is to appreciate, respect, preserve and protect the natural world."
Operating under strict state and federal permits, the center has a selection of more than 80 animals - bald eagles, hawks, owls, foxes, bobcats, turtles, minks and many others kept in large, comfortable cages. These are the animals that are too badly injured or too familiar with humans to survive in the wild. They are the only ones at the center that can be viewed by the public.
Rutger or an associate educate visitors, allowing them to view the animals that are permanent residents. The students and other groups walk the grounds, observing the animals in their near-natural habitat.
In addition, there are hundreds of other animals that are never seen by the public. These are the injured birds and beasts that Rutger is treating and will eventually be released into the wild.
More than 2,000 animals arrive at the center each year: bald eagles injured by electrical shock because their massive wingspans can touch two power lines; deer with broken legs; foxes hit by cars. One falcon flew into a truck's airhorn and was carried many miles before the truck stopped and saw the bird sticking out of the funnel.
"We want to keep them as natural as possible and have as little human contact as possible, so we can eventually let them go," Rutger said.
More information on Back to the Wild is available at backtothewild.com or by calling Mona Rutger at 1-419-684-9539.
To reach this Plain Dealer reporter: email@example.com, 216-999-4890.
Used here with permission.