OLDTOWN — The call came in from a distressed Cumberland woman who had found a group of boys making a game out of harassing a baby squirrel.

The woman knew the 6-week-old gray squirrel was in trouble if the boys didn’t let it alone. So she called Bettie Acks.

“She brought it to me,” said Acks, 64, from her Oldtown spread where animals of all types roam over the majority of the 14 acres owned by her and husband Gerry Acks. “It would have been dead by morning.”

Within just 14 hours, the young squirrel appeared to be gaining energy and increasing in strength, evidenced by its willingness to crawl around and explore its small home in the form of a plastic box, complete with a hot water bottle.

Bettie Acks is the only certified wildlife rehabilitation specialist in Allegany and Garrett counties. She took the call at 11 p.m. the night before — a scenario that repeats itself often.

Acks spent much of the night getting the squirrel, which fit comfortably in the palm of her hand — with room to spare — to eat. After hours of hydration, Acks said the next step was getting calories into the squirrel’s body. The squirrel was fed Tuesday afternoon from a syringe filled with warmed applesauce.

Her goal with the squirrel — and every other animal possible — is to return it to the wild where she knows it belongs. With that in mind, there are strict rules she must abide by no matter how strong the temptation to do otherwise might be.

“I don’t play with them,” Acks said. “I don’t make a pet out of them.”

Doing so now puts the animal at risk in the future, Acks said. The animal could build an artificial trust in humans.

“They’d walk up to the wrong person with a gun and that’d be the end of it,” Acks said.

Instead, the squirrel will gradually be phased into independence. Sometime next month, it will be moved into an outside pen. One day, Acks will leave the gate open.

“He’ll just wander off and get a life,” she said.

Some animals aren’t that lucky. A rescued groundhog was found with a broken jaw that already had healed. But it was crooked, and its teeth need filed down on a regular basis. The animal would be unable to survive on its own so it remains on Acks’ farm.

Acks said Maryland Department of Natural Resources officials believe any winged critter that can’t fly should be put down. A crow Acks stumbled upon is healthy in every way, she said, but it has a broken wing. It will never fly again.

“I don’t like to see them hurt. I feel sorry for everything. Sometimes there’s nothing you can do. But I try.”

And euthanasia? “I hate that word,” she said.

Over the years, the couple have received countless phone calls for help from the DNR, Maryland State Police and the general public. They all look to Bettie for help.

Acks began rescuing animals on a part-time basis while living in Harford County. Four years ago, she and Gerry purchased the southeastern Allegany County property.

While moving in, the truck got stuck in the mud and Bettie walked over to the neighbor’s house for help. The neighbor cringed at the sight of the new visitor.

“She said she thought I’d be upset about her horse getting in my yard,” Acks recalled. “I said that horse can come over anytime.”

Gerry said he’s the brains of the operation and Bettie is the heart. To be sure, caring for three dogs, two llamas, goats, snakes, squirrels and various fowl, including the crow, pigeons, guineas and turkeys, is a family adventure. Both are federally licensed to assist in animal rescue operations in the event of an oil spill. And one time, a goose Gerry was trying to help “commenced to beating the hell out of me.”

“Are we paid? No. Do we get abused? Yes,” the retired letter carrier and one-time teacher said. It’s still worth the effort, he said, to care for creatures with “gentle souls.”

The effort takes considerable time for Bettie, who once retired but now works nearly full-time hours to help pay for animal care. Food costs more than $800 a month and “if somebody gets sick, that’s a vet bill.”

“I have a credit card just for my critters,” she said.

Acks is available by phone at (301) 478-5181 or e-mail her at wildliferescuelady@yahoo. com. She does not pick up animals, but requests they be brought to her as needed. For information on becoming a wildlife rehabilitation specialist, visit the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association at www.nwrawildlife.org.

Contact Kevin Spradlin at kspradlin@times-news.com.

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