ST. CLOUD -- The stay at home order to fight COVID-19 has people puttering around in gardens and tending to yards, making a wild animal sighting much more likely.

Robbi Hoy, operator of Central Minnesota Wildlife Rehabilitation, says the number of people who have contacted her about, or brought in, orphaned, sick or injured rabbits, squirrels, raccoons and birds during the pandemic has spiked.

“(People are) doing a lot more yard work, and probably things that haven’t been done in some time,” she said. “They’re disturbing rabbits’ nests, squirrels’ nests, and many birds as well. It’s that yard work going on because people aren’t working. It's busier than ever.”

Hoy holds a wildlife rehabilitation permit as a generalist, meaning she is licensed to care for orphaned, sick and injured wild animals. She began operating the rehabilitation center out of her St. Cloud home after winding up in the field “purely by accident” several years ago.

“I was a gardener, and a squirrel fell into my gardening shed,” she said. “I always wanted to be involved with the nature center, and have a rehab center and a nature center together.”

Wildlife rehab operations aren’t especially common in Minnesota; Hoy operates the only facility between Roseville and Garrison. The city-run Heritage Nature Center, formerly located on 33rd Avenue South in St. Cloud, closed in 2018, inspiring Hoy to take her wildlife rehabilitation efforts to the next level.  She currently operates with grant assistance from organization Partners for Wildlife.

“I really had hoped the Nature Center would reopen someday,” Hoy said. “Most of the folks who bring me animals will talk about what a great place it was to bring their kids.”

On a typical day, Hoy is caring for raccoons, rabbits and squirrels inside her home or behind a six-foot privacy fence.

“They’re either little and on my porch, or large and in my backyard,” Hoy laughed. “A lot of times, the bigger animals like fawns, I transport to a bigger facility because I don’t have the space for them.”

Hoy currently has a woodchuck and “many” baby raccoons. She says she’s had beavers, opossums, mink and many types of birds in the past. Endangered species, along with owls and raptors, are typically sent to specialists in the twin cities.

“If it’s a Minnesota native, I’ve had it,” Hoy said. “Except for some of the larger canines – I have not had any of those.”

Hoy says wildlife rehabilitation is a volunteer activity, supported by many generous donations and an Amazon wish list.

“This is the first year, so far, that I have not had to buy baby formula for any of the baby animals,” she said. “The people of central Minnesota really, really care about these animals.”

Hoy’s long-term goal is to partner with the city of St. Cloud to develop a nature center at Friedrich Park, located on the city's southeast side, that can care for orphaned, sick or injured animals in need of temporary care.

“We’re hoping to partner with (the city) and use the park for a nature and wildlife rehab center,” said Hoy. “That park was meant to be a nature center. We need a bigger place to do this."

In the meantime, Hoy has a few words of advice for anyone who stumbles across a nest of baby animals; leave them alone unless you know for certain they have been left orphaned; double-check yards for nests of baby animals before mowing; and, if an animal needs care, whether due to abandonment, illness or injury, don't attempt to nurse them back to health on your own.

“The biggest causes of injury to animals in my care are the good intentions of people,” Hoy said. “They take in these squirrels, rabbits or birds, and think, ‘I am going to keep this animal, and they try to feed these babies. I finally get the call when the animal has aspirated and ends up dying. I lose more animals because of good intentions than those who actually come to me because they’re orphaned.”

To learn more or contact Central Minnesota Wildlife Rehabilitation, visit them on Facebook.