HERRICK -- The trick with heeding the call of the wild is knowing which direction it's coming from.
For six roughly year-old orphan whitetail deer suddenly given the opportunity recently to hightail it out of the loving arms of wildlife rehabilitator Anne Eddings, freedom's siren song was getting a bit scrambled.
After all, this barn on Eddings' home in the country near Herrick had been their refuge for most of their lives, since they were brought to her by various venison well-wishers after being found alone and helpless.
Now trembling on impossibly thin legs that can nevertheless bounce them 8 feet into the air and rocket them along at speeds that form their bodies into brownish blurs, the deer clatter out of the barn looking uncertain: Which way to freedom? Should we go? Or stay?
One pinballs this way and that before selecting the right gate and flying erratically toward the horizon. The others make slower progress, cannoning off fences and screeching to sudden halts to shoot back the way they had come but, happily, and apart from one patch of skinned-off fur which had to smart, they dodged all injury while trying to hurtle out of the confines of the barn and garden area.
Eddings, helped by her trusty assistant and husband, Ron, wades repeatedly into the Bambi frenzy with a guiding siren song of her own: "Come on, babies . come on, babies . come on, babies ." and, after about 15 minutes of intensive scrabbling and one lone holdout who takes a bit longer, their combined deer GPS kicks in, and they cry freedom and vanish into the rolling countryside.
What eventually will happen to them is anybody's guess: They could end up sleeping the big sleep in some hunter's freezer or as fodder for insurance claims after becoming the deer-in-the-headlights of an onrushing car. Que sera, sera, a life on the run isn't always a joyride, and for a young deer, it's a jungle out there. But Anne and Ron Eddings know they gave them a chance they would not have had otherwise, and it began with the decision to release the whitetails after hunting season was over.
"And we still might see these ones hanging around for a few days before they finally go," said Anne Eddings, 62, who stands sentinel facing the direction in which the deer just vanished. She even seems hopeful. "I'll leave the barn open and leave the lights on."
The annual deer release has become something of a tradition since this state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator set up shop several years ago, following the same calling for 13 years in Missouri. The tide of wild America brought to her ranges from hummingbirds sick with cold to injured squirrels and parentless young opossums. Most go after they get well or bigger, but some stay as permanent guests on the Eddings' 20-acre spread.
"About six years ago, we had two young brother and sister raccoons, Bonnie and Clyde," recalls Ron Eddings, 70. "When we came to release them, Clyde took off, but Bonnie sort of said, `I've got it made; I'm not leaving,' and she stayed with us."
(A sad postscript: After a last cuddle with Anne Eddings, Bonnie died March 3 following a short illness)
The full list of full-time guests right now includes two handicapped raccoons, three crippled squirrels and three opossums, one of which is disabled. Come spring, the tide of orphaned deer and other critters in need of nursing and a caring touch will start to rise again. Feeding and providing medical attention to this ever-shifting Noah's Ark of long-term and short-term refugees costs the retired Eddings more than $6,000 a year.
Helping make ends meet is a short list of hard-core supporters who donate much food in kind: Randy Bierman, a Purina dealer, and the Sav-a-Lot and J&W Produce stores in Pana.
More supporters are always welcome, and they will be rewarded with pictures of the animals and a thank-you note from Anne Eddings. She's also available to do talks at organizations and schools and is happy to arrange for visits to her wildlife refuge. She said those who get to see the animals up close won't need convincing that all creatures great and small are worth a bit of an effort to save.
"When people come out here and they touch a possum or a raccoon baby, I want them to see they have souls," Eddings said. "They are living creatures that need to be treated with a lot more respect than what we give them."