Cedar Rapids woman who rescues wildlife has two choices: Lose the animals or relocate

City says Amber Oldfield's wildlife rehab violates zoning codes

 

CEDAR RAPIDS — A Cedar Rapids woman who rescues injured, sick or abandoned wild animals — such as foxes, beavers, raccoons, squirrels, ducks, geese and others — is being forced to clear out the animals or move because her 16-year-old wildlife rehabilitation practice is not allowed by the city’s zoning code in the single-family residential neighborhood.

“If you take me out, who’s going to do it?” asked Amber Oldfield, 38, who lives in northeast Cedar Rapids and is a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

She recently took the matter to the City Council, urging leaders during a public comment period to make an exception for her service.

Those questioning the city’s recognition of the need for wildlife rehabilitators should look no further than a recent overhaul of the zoning code, which expanded areas where the practice can take place and designated other areas where one could apply for a conditional use permit, city officials said. But Oldfield’s neighborhood is not among them.

“It is a violation of the zoning code,” said Sandi Fowler, deputy city manager, adding Oldfield is not being rushed out.

 
 

Oldfield, her attorney and city staff have discussed options for removing the animals from her property but have not set a timeline. City officials also have pointed out other areas where she could move and operate legally within the city limits, they said.

The Iowa Department of Natural Resources also is discussing the issue with the city.

“We are all working together to find a resolution for this — for all parties,” said Ron Lane, an Iowa DNR conservation officer for this area. “It sounds like the city is willing to give her time. I don’t think anyone is looking to be the bad guy or make someone move tomorrow.”

Lane said those with wildlife rehabilitation licenses still must comply with local ordinances.

He and Karmin Klingenberg, a programming planner for the licensing section at Iowa DNR, said they were not aware of other license holders at odds with cities around Iowa. They said they were not familiar with other local ordinances when it comes to wildlife rehabilitation.

Especially in a city as large as Cedar Rapids, Lane said, a wildlife rehabilitator is a “valuable resource,” and many more once existed here to fill the void.

“They do it out of the kindness of their own heart and cash from their pocket,” Lane said.

State license requires yearlong apprenticeship

 

Oldfield said her pleas to the City Council have fallen on deaf ears.

Cedar Rapids Mayor Brad Hart, when contacted by The Gazette, deferred to city staff, saying he hadn’t been briefed on any new information.

“I understand she also went through the city’s variance process before and her request was denied,” Hart said in an email. “I don’t have any additional information about this issue.”

Oldfield is among 125 in Iowa and fewer than five in Linn County licensed by the Iowa DNR to care for injured, sick or abandoned native animals other than raptors, white tail deer and endangered species, according to state records and Oldfield.

Often, the rehabilitators communicate with each other to see who has room when new animals come in, she said.

The license requires a yearlong apprenticeship from a master rehabilitator and then a successful application for a permit, according to the Iowa DNR. The license comes with no public funding, meaning rehabilitators are volunteers getting some limited donations of supplies or other resources, according to the agency.

Raising babies and healing wounds

 

Oldfield takes in new animals every few days, rehabilitates them for various lengths of time — weeks, months or longer — and when they are in good health returns them to the wild, she said. People seek her out when help is needed.

“I don’t go looking for animals, they come find me,” she said. “I am good at raising babies, good at tending to wounds. I am good at getting them ready for release. I am not perfect, but I get them back out.”

A few weeks ago, a rabbit infested with maggots was on the verge of death when Oldfield began nursing the creature back to health and the path back to the wild.

It doesn’t always end so well. Last week, an injured goose was brought to her but didn’t survive the transition. It died soon after, she said.

Oldfield cares for about 300 animals over a year, filling a gap in care such that the animals would be put down without her, she said. Most people wouldn’t drive a long distance to find a rescue animal, and public agencies won’t take them, she said.

A message left for Cedar Rapids Animal Care Control was not returned.

A fox named Vesta, duck named Stella

 

Oldfield currently is housing about 25 animals, including a fox named Vesta, seven mallard ducks, a white duck named Stella, three raccoons, a pheasant and chickens. She was also expecting to take in two injured squirrels.

Vesta and Stella are considered educational animals, meaning they must be made available for educational purposes periodically and are not going to be returned to the wild, Oldfield said.

The animals stay outside in a large penned area. The ducks use a small pond Oldfield built for them. Some animals, such as the raccoons, fox and pheasant, have separate enclosures. She has invested $2,500 on the cages, she said.

 
 

Over time, she’s also helped deer, beavers, rabbits, geese, various bird species and others.

The rift with the city puts her in a quandary.

Although she works full time as an office manager for a tire and service company, her financial flexibility to relocate is limited. Her home is valued at less than $80,000, so moving is a lofty expectation, she said. And she doesn’t want to give up what she excels at doing.

“I am scared,” she said. “I’m scared at the fact someone can say we can’t work with you no matter how much time you spend talking and hearing the other side. So I have to uproot my home again. That’s a lot to take in.”

Oldfield said she lost everything during the 2008 flood when she was living in the Time Check neighborhood, where she previously rehabilitated animals.

Two operators in Cedar Rapids

 

The city is aware of only two wildlife rehabilitators operating in city limits — Oldfield and Rachelle Hansen.

No one has filed a complaint against Oldfield, according to the city and the Iowa DNR. She had contacted police in May when children were trying to access her outdoor animal enclosures.

The police calls brought her practice back to the city’s attention, according to city officials. She previously had been sent a notice to remove animals in 2018 when a city staff member came upon her property while in her neighborhood on another matter.

“She’s a good neighbor,” neighbor Jim Iverson said. “I like having her here. I enjoy the animals.”

As to why Oldfield is being forced to remove the animals given she has not received complaints, Fowler pointed to the violation of city code, and noted she had been in violation under the old version of the code as well.

Hansen, on the other hand, has been reported multiple times and was cited in 2017, according to the city.

The city says it can’t verify Hansen is continuing to harbor animals, though complaints have continued with at least one neighbor contending she’s keeping animals inside but they sometimes get loose and rummage the neighborhood. She denies that.

The city can verify only if the animals are visible; the city does not enter private property, Fowler said. Therefore, no active case exists against Hansen.

Hansen urged the city not to sequester rehabilitation practices to limited areas, noting it is an expensive proposition to move.

“This is not a paid program,” Hansen said. “This is something people do freely for the residents, for Cedar Rapids, and for the animals. We are not hurting anyone, not mistreating or abusing the animals. We take them off people’s hands.”

l Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com