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By Wayne Baker
CASTALIA - It is now official: Mona Rutger has been named Animal Planet's "Hero of the Year." She was selected ahead of 4,000 nominees.
Mona Rutger has been caring for animals and running Back to the Wild Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation Center for 15 years, along with her husband Bill and numerous volunteers.
Animal Planet's senior vice-president of marketing, Victoria Lowell explained the nature of the contest and why she thought Rutger deserved to be No. 1.
"This is the first time that we have done something like this," she said. "We were looking for a way to recognize people who have made significant contributions to animals and kids. We had 4,000 entries and were thrilled with the level of competition. Mona really has a tremendous impact on rehabbing animals. We were glad that she won."
Lowell said submissions had to explain the nominee's commitment to the community, dedication to conservation and the time spent on their cause. From the 4,000 entries, a group of judges pared that down to 10. And there was an online voting poll conducted to help judges figure out who would be the hero.
Rutger's nomination came from Dorothy Flounders, who was a recent volunteer at the center.
"I just noticed how much she cared about the animals and how much she put into it. She deserved the honor," Flounders said, after learning of Rutger's victory Wednesday night.
Rutger herself is not comfortable in the spotlight, and deferred most of the credit for victory to everyone but herself.
"This is really not about me and I wish the honor would just recognize Back to the Wild," she said. "This has not really sunk in yet, but I am feeling really overwhelmed. This has been my entire life out here. I just want to thank all of the kids, teachers, parents and community that have been so supportive. It just brings tears to my eyes."
Animal Planet will present a check for $10,000 to Rutger, as well as a trip for two to Hawaii.
"The money will really help because it is supposed to go to the center and we use so much of our resources out here," she said. "The trip sounds really nice and my husband and I have not had any time to take a vacation because all of our time is spent here."
The only problem with the trip might be boarding the plane.
"Well, I'm trying not to think about it, but I am terrified of flying," Rutger said.
Back to the Wild aids about 2,200 animals and makes presentations to about 53,000 schoolchildren every year. Those stats caused one staff member to reflect on Rutger's contribution to the community.
"I think she really deserved this award," said Sarah Neske, who is one of the few paid staff members Rutger can afford. "She is a spectacular woman and has given her whole life to this. She's making a difference. When those little kids are here, you should see their faces."
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