A LIFE GONE WILD: Jeanne Paddison’s lifelong passion for helping animals

Bunny Ware
Some of the animals helped by SWRC.

One would have to be living under the proverbial rock not to know that one of America’s favorite television personalities of all time, Betty White, spent almost all of her almost 100 years in the defense, support, care, and love of animals.

So, it was no surprise when the internet’s viral #BettyWhiteChallenge, issued on the recently deceased star’s birthday, January 17, not only saw record donations for animal organizations and shelters across the country, but it also positively affected donations for Savannah area animal charities, such as The Savannah Wildlife Rescue Center.

“It kind of caught me off guard,” said Jeanne Paddison, the executive director of The Savannah Wildlife Rescue Center (SWRC). “That morning, I got a couple of notifications that people had donated to our organization in honor of Betty White’s birthday. I was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing!’ I was very happy and excited about it. We brought in a few hundred dollars we weren’t even expecting and are so grateful for every penny. We are hoping this will help us kickstart our new season.”

And, like the famous actress who spent her life giving back to the animals, Paddison has dedicated her life to making a difference, as well. She has been rescuing wildlife for 45 years – since she was 14 years old.

Savannah’s Raccoon Lady

Jeanne’s father was on a job site one day and had an encounter that would lay the path for her life’s mission.

“He was doing measurements for the next house being built while guys were clearing the lot. A tree went down and rolled out and away with all these little baby raccoons exposed and no mother in sight,” she relayed. 

“Way back then, you didn’t have to have all of the licenses you need now… you just helped out. My father overheard some of the guys saying they would take a baby raccoon to their wife, another to his daughter, etc., and he joined in.”

“You have to know my dad is an absolute animal lover. Every ounce of me has to be from him because who else devotes 45 years of their life to rehabbing animals?” she said with a chuckle. “So, my dad gets a baby raccoon for me, as well. He shows up at home with this little baby and we named her Mandy.”

Paddison pointed to a simple, but powerfully beautiful mural over her shoulder and behind her desk. 

“This is Mandy’s tribute right here. Mandy watches over me because she is the reason I am here today.”

Of course, being just a teenager at the time she got Mandy to raise, Paddison had to learn how to bring up the orphaned raccoon on her own by trial and error. But she knew she wanted to do more.

“The season after Mandy was given to me, I approached the Savannah Science Museum because there wasn’t a way to get involved in any kind of rehab when you’re a child. There just wasn’t anything established,” Paddison shared. “There were no wildlife rescue centers at the time. Savannah didn’t have them. The science museum put my name on what they called a ‘foster list’ for those times they would get calls about baby animals who needed taking care of.”

Paddison had one stipulation. 

“I told them I only want to do raccoons.”

So, she did. In doing so, she became legendary around Savannah as “The Raccoon Lady” (although, she said the first iteration was “The Raccoon Girl.”)

“There has not been one year of my life since I was 15 where I wasn’t raising baby raccoons. Now, the Savannah Wildlife Rescue Center averages about 170 baby raccoons a season that we take right through the front door.”

The SWRC she started specializes in rescuing injured and/or orphaned animals and providing them with veterinary care, medicines, and a peaceful and quiet environment so they can heal (or pass in peace, if that is the case).

“We are in our offseason right now and have open cages. We’re all about taking care of any adult animal that comes our way; diseased animals, those hit by a car, attacks from other animals… we’re here to help them get back out there where they belong.”

The #BettyWhiteChallenge has shined a positive light on the work being done across this country on behalf of animals. Yet, the attention is not always something SWRC enjoys for a sad reason.

“The more we promote [in social media, fundraising, etc.], the more animals are dropped off at our door,” Paddison noted. “Our mission is not for people to come here and drop off animals, our mission is for people to call us and we work through the complex wildlife situation and try to solve the problem with either compassion or coexisting or just downright saying, ‘Hey let’s tell that mother she’s got to gather up her babies, pack up, and head on out.’”

Paddison explained she and her staff can instruct over the phone how to pick up a baby squirrel or cottontail, what to do with them, how to keep it overnight until it can be brought to the SWRC. 

“Honestly, that’s what most of my phone calls are about:  educating people. Everything is about educate, educate, educate.”

“We have all kinds of ways to help people with their complex wildlife situations,” she said. “There’s a process to go through. If there are no ants or fly eggs on it or predators circling the animal, then it’s best to try to reunite the animal and let mama have the opportunity to come down, grab her baby, and put it back up in the nest.”

“Again, our goal is to help these animals stay with their mothers, and a lot of that is educating people. Most folks simply want those animals ‘gone’ from their property not knowing that the opossum is an amazing critter to have on your property, along with vultures and everything else. They all serve a purpose.”

“Savannah is right on the water with so much marshland, as well as urbanization to where everything has been destroyed and the animals are learning to acclimate to us,” Paddison said. “They’re becoming human imprinted and so it’s just one of those things where we are here to give them that second chance at a wildlife because their mothers have met their demise either being hit by a car, trapped and relocated, trapped and destroyed, poisoned, dog attack, you name it… and we get the babies.”

Paddison stressed the need for residents to learn more about the animals of the area and how to live together. 

“I want people to know if they find an orphaned baby mammal, they need to call us first. We can go through all of the scenarios on what happened to the baby, how long they’ve had it, and so on, so we can plan on either reuniting it with their mother/siblings, bringing it into the center or leaving it alone.”

“We’re not their mother, right? We have scientifically created legit, species-specific formulas that we feed these animals. We have a vet that helps us with our animals and we have wonderful ladies who have become licensed under me and are now not only licensed to do small mammals, but they have also now been with me long enough that they have gotten their second license called the rabies vector license.”

Understanding Rabies Vector Species

Paddison doesn’t particularly like the term “rabies vector species” and feels as if it gives wildlife animals a label that’s not good. However, she says it is an important term to understand.

“A rabies vector species is an animal that could contract rabies or could carry rabies. One could get a license to rehabilitate squirrels and opossums because they’re not considered rabies vector species, but also includes skunks, raccoons, red and gray fox, coyotes, bats, bobcats, beavers, otters, and minx.”

When the rabies conversation comes up, though, Paddison was very quick to point out, “in my 45 years of rehabilitating wildlife, I’ve only come across two raccoons with rabies. Two. In 45 years.”  Then, she added, “so they need a lot better public relations.”

However, there are reasons why raccoons get the bad PR, the main being, according to Paddison is, “because people need to know not to just go out and find a baby to keep as a pet. They can be a carrier. Also, raccoons don’t make good pets because they reach maturity and have temper tantrums. They want to get out and meet the opposite sex and it’s not a pretty situation when they can’t do that.”

In those situations, many animals will get dumped outside to fend for themselves, which Paddison said is simply wrong.

“If you end up putting an animal outside that’s been raised by humans, it may not have been raised nutritionally correct, so it can have many challenges such as juvenile cataracts and metabolic bone disease. Additionally, these animals are not only human imprinted, but they also don’t know what species they are. It’s not something they’re born with.”

“So, here at SWRC, we make sure every orphan who comes through that door is raised with its own kind. That way, when it goes back out into the wild, it knows what it is it, knows how to behave, knows who to mate with, and things like that. A pet-raised animal goes out into the wild and can’t find that cute little water bottle to drink out of that was hooked to the side of the cage. Not only do they not know the smell of their own species, but they also don’t know their habits and/or playfulness.”

Paddison speaks from years of experience. “When people bring me their pets because they start to have temper tantrums and we have to acclimate them to the wild, that poor animal goes through so much stress. It usually takes about 1-2 months just so they accept what’s happening. Most of the time, they hang in the corner of a cage for days because they’re too scared to move.”

It’s against the law to have wildlife in your possession in the state of Georgia. There are reasons for those laws, Paddison said. Thus, going back to the topic of the raccoons getting such a bad rap, she feels some authorities may “promote the rabies warning to help people understand that you need to leave these animals alone and in their natural habitat.”

Eddie the Skunk

If your first inclination is to cringe whenever you hear the mention of a skunk, you have to meet Eddie, the bravest and luckiest skunk in town, according to his rescuer.

As Paddison relayed the little animal’s horrific tale, Eddie cuddled under her chin, nearly cooing from the petting and attention.

“Eddie came to us from north of Atlanta,” she explained. “He had been run over by a Bush-hog had to have multiple trips to the vet for three surgeries. He had a compound fracture in his back right leg, a broken upper jaw, he had to have five teeth pulled, they had to align his jaw back up, he had a crushed septum, a slice from his nose to his ear that went into his nasal cavity so he had to be fed through a tube, his back was shaved off and you could see his intestines. Surgeries kept bringing the skin closer and closer together…stitches everywhere…and here he was this incredible animal.”

As she stroked Eddie’s thick black pelt, he lovingly looked up in gratitude at his heroine.

“We should have euthanized him, but didn’t,” she said with a catch in her voice. “We didn’t because this animal had more will to live than you could imagine.”

Due to his many challenges, Eddie had his scent glands removed, meaning he could never be returned to the wild. Skunks use their scent glands as their natural defense mechanism. Because of this, Eddie will now spend his days at SWRC as an educational ambassador, along with his pal, Olive the opossum, an illegal surrendered pet.

But… it’s just an animal…

When people toss off the comment, “well, it’s just an animal,” Paddison expresses the error in this thinking and why she helps every animal that comes her way.

“It’s a sentient being. Every animal fears death and wants to live to raise its babies. They don’t want their babies taken away or lost or kidnapped. They’re sentient beings that, in my eyes, have feelings. I mean, look at your pets. You would always consider your dog or cat as sentient…and a mammal. They have just as much of a right to be on this earth as we do. It’s not our Earth. They were here first.”

Continuing, she said, “Every animal has a purpose. They’re part of a food chain and we’re actually on that food chain too but they have a job out there in our ecosystems. if any one of these animals becomes eradicated, like the coyote which people are working so hard to eradicate, that balance on the food chain is going to be completely off-kilter and we’re going to see the next animal become a nuisance and the animal under that become a nuisance when that one is eradicated for being a nuisance so every animal has a job has a place and deserves to be on this earth just as much as we do.”

“I have this motto:  Take gently. Give sweetly. And, share our world.”

How can the community help?

Like any charitable organization, Paddison indicated that donations—especially surprise ones like the #BettyWhiteChallenge—are always appreciated. “However,” she noted,” We need committed monthly donations coming in because that’s money we can count on.”

Another thing the community can do to help, Paddison stressed, is to just get educated about our area and the wildlife.

“We have an urbanized environment and these animals are attracted to the mess we make. They’re drawn to our overflowing dumpsters, trash cans, rats and mice in our urbanized chicken coops, and more.”

Her face grew more serious as she verbally underlined man’s effect on the animals in the area. 

“Everything here is basically 95% human intervention. What we do here is we try to make up for what mankind is doing.”

“I know talking about the importance of wildlife can be a very touchy subject. Lots of people have had bad experiences or think they’re filthy or diseased… but look at humans. We carry COVID, influenza, chickenpox, and all kinds of diseases. These animals carry three.”

Paddison finished with an important thought.

“When these animals are gone, they’re gone. If we don’t respect our wildlife and our Earth, there won’t be anything left for our grandchildren to enjoy. It’s on our shoulders. If you love animals, we need to respect them and coexist peacefully with them. You know…just like Betty.”

And, maybe like Jeanne, too.

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