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Compassion for All Animals Is the Seed for Wildlife Land Trust’s Founding

As we were celebrating the final month of HSWLT’s 20th Anniversary year, we talked with Barbara Birdsey, an extraordinary friend of wildlife, who is both a founding and current board member, to hear the story of HSWLT’s beginning from her perspective, and her thoughts about its future.

As it turns out, among the seeds of HSWLT’s founding story is an earlier story -- one that reflects what is at the heart of HSWLT’s mission: care and concern for the needs of individual animals. That humane ethic is a cornerstone principle for HSWLT, enabling it to serve the conservation needs of landowners who view land and wildlife as part of an inseparable whole, all of which is worthy of protection.

Birdsey says it was several years before HSWLT’s founding when one of her neighbors showed up at her door with an orphaned baby raccoon, knowing that she would find help for the unfortunate animal. Birdsey contacted a Cape Cod veterinarian she knew, Janet Palomas, about the tiny raccoon -- who came to be known as Dave -- and she kindly agreed to care for him. When checking with Palomas on Dave’s progress, Birdsey often talked with her about the habitat problems that cause wildlife to suffer injuries and orphaning, and about the lack of safe places to release rehabilitated wildlife.

“As I thought about it, I realized that the greatest need is habitat, because there are so few places we can release these animals,” says Birdsey. In a few months, Dave was ready to be on his own, and although a safe place was found for his release, Birdsey still felt determined to find a way to save habitat for other wildlife. In 1986, she and her husband Dave founded Orenda Wildlife Trust and began acquiring and protecting New England properties as wildlife sanctuaries. “Orenda” is a Seneca Indian word meaning “protected place,” perfectly capturing the essence of the new trust’s mission.

Orenda soon expanded to include a clinic for rehabilitation of orphaned and injured wildlife on the Cape. Within several years, though, demand for services increased beyond Orenda’s funding capacity. To ensure the support the clinic needed, while maintaining the same commitment to the care and protection of wildlife, Birdsey granted the clinic to the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

Amid those negotiations, John Grandy, then senior vice president for Wildlife and Habitat Protection at HSUS, talked with Birdsey about HSUS’s interest in creating a national land trust with a special focus, like Orenda’s, on protecting not just the land but also its wildlife. Ultimately, the shared vision and compassion for wildlife among all involved led to the founding of HSWLT, enabling landowners in all states and several foreign countries to protect their land and wildlife, as Orenda was helping New England land owners to do. Birdsey became a founding member of HSWLT, sharing her invaluable experience and support. She also transferred Orenda’s Maine and New Hampshire properties to HSWLT, refocusing Orenda’s land preservation solely on the Cape and throughout Massachusetts.

Deeply involved with both a local and a national land trust, Birdsey says she sees progress in habitat protection and in the public’s understanding of what land trusts are doing for wildlife. “There’s a growing tendency to think outside the box and to work with many partners,” she says, “which opens up more possibilities for saving land for wildlife.”

HSWLT’s work as a national land trust with a wildlife focus is important, says Birdsey, because, “It’s the establishment of a large yet doable vision. I like the idea of having a major foothold in each part of the country,” she adds, “as well as the work HSWLT is doing internationally, and working to develop a vision for whole ecosystems.”

Going forward, Birdsey sees outreach and education as key to protecting as much safe habitat for wildlife as possible. “Development remains the largest threat to habitat, and hunting pressures are strong in many areas, so animals need to have an oasis,” she says. “We have to reach out to landowners with that message.”

She also suggests that although wildlife sanctuaries may seem remote and irrelevant to the lives of people living in cities, “We need to share that message with them, because the connections between wilderness and human-centered landscapes are as real as the air, water, soil, and climate we all share.”

In Thoreau’s essay “Walking,” he tells us that “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” In HSWLT’s protection of wildlife habitat is the preservation of healthier ecosystems that will benefit all who live in surrounding communities. “If you care about all forms of life,” says Birdsey, “you have to do something to protect them. It’s all part of the whole… animals, children, trees… it’s all interrelated.”

HSWLT is thankful to Barbara and Dave Birdsey, and to all other friends and donors, for believing in and supporting HSWLT’s humane and inclusive approach to land preservation. What worthier contribution could there be toward ensuring the future well-being of all living things?

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