Doodles to aid wildlife

URBANA - Veterinarians and students organizing the University of Illinois wildlife clinic's celebrity doodle auction say one of the donations this year is especially poignant.

?Mr. Rogers sent us one for the second year,? said wildlife clinic medical director Julia Whittington of perennially popular children's television star and minister Fred Rogers, who died Feb. 27 at the age of 74.

?We feel so bad because we never got a chance to thank him,? said Michele Forbes, a third-year veterinary student who's co-manager of the ward at the UI's Small Animal Clinic.

Mr. Rogers' contribution, an autographed bar of music sent at the beginning of the year, will be among the doodles, autographed pictures, works of art and other donated items to be auctioned off Saturday at the clinic's second annual chief fund-raiser from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Highdive in Champaign. Tickets are $25, available at the door. Children are admitted free.

This year, celebrities sent in about 60 donations, about twice as many as last year, and event organizers have put together special packages, such as a behind-the-scenes tour of Brookfield Zoo and a fly-fishing trip with a clinic expert, as additional incentives to bid.

Among the doodles donated: a spotted salamander drawn by Animal Planet's Jeff Corwin, a silver airplane doodled by aviation fan John Travolta, a mouse with a tennis racket sketched by Martina Navratilova and a cat from ?Sabrina the Teen-age Witch? via Melissa Joan Hart.

Other doodle donors this year include Matthew McConnaughey, - Duchess of York Sarah Ferguson, Robin Williams, Steve Martin and others. Whittington said students sent out their requests last September and the doodles have been coming in ever since.

Last year, the auction raised $15,000 to help pay for the care of the wounded wild animals housed temporarily at the clinic until they can be returned to their natural habitat. This year, the pressure is on, and they hope to make considerably more.

?Our support depends heavily on the dean's discretionary funds,? Whittington said. ?This year there are no discretionary funds. ?

About 80 veterinary students volunteer at the clinic, taking care of injured animals until they're strong enough to be released. A few birds of prey that couldn't survive in the wild because their injuries were so severe have become residents, and students take them to public education sessions about their work with wildlife.

This year, the auction will be in honor of those educational raptors, which now live in cages at the clinic but will soon move to new quarters under construction at the College of Veterinary Medicine complex, a flight cage built to mark the wildlife clinic's 25th anniversary and to honor Dr. Tom Burke, who started it.

Dr. Burke died last May.

Matt Hounhout, a contractor from Michigan whose brother is a student at the veterinary school, donated his services to complete the huge outdoor cage, which has four compartments and will likely be occupied by this weekend by permanent residents Odin the hawk, Pistol the American kestrel and Penelope the screech owl. Kir, a great horned owl and longtime clinic resident, died unexpectedly this winter.

?We won't be in a rush to replace Kir,? said Whittington.

She said the clinic's annual operating budget is about $60,000 so everyone hopes the enhanced auction has a lot of support this year.

?We're trying to forget about the pressure and concentrate on having fun,? Whittington said. ?We're not going to have a band this year because we have so many things to sell at the auction, but we do have a slide show so people can see our patients.?

Clinic veterinarians and students are just starting what they call ?orphan season,? and they're feeding several baby rabbits found by people who believed they were abandoned.

?We have to feed them five times a day, but when they're with their mother, she only has to feed them once or twice because her milk is very rich,? Forbes said. ?Then mother goes to get food, people find the babies and they think they're abandoned.?

They're worried about what's coming this summer when mosquito season starts and West Nile virus victims start coming in. Last summer, veterinarians at the clinic treated an estimated 65 raptors, 15 squirrels, a dozen crows and a lot of house finches with the disease. They saved only two raptors and a few other victims.

?We're stepping up the medical care here,? said Forbes, who's co-manager with Christine Wilmes, referring to improved facilities and the fact that Whittington is now medical director.

Another recent arrival at the clinic is a juvenile red-tailed hawk, a bird with an interesting history and a badly injured wing. ?He was brought in by a Native American who also brought us sage to help him heal,? Forbes said.

The students gave the bird the obvious name, Sage, and hung the herb on the front of his cage, and the hawk is recovering.

You can reach Anne Cook at (217) 351-5217 or via e-mail at acook@news-gazette.com.

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