Local Heroes 

Mady Rothchild and Toni Hicks

"Most people have one real interest, something that always follows them and that they'll die with," explains Toni Hicks, co-founder of Animals in Distress Association (AIDA). "This is what we're stuck with." Stuck with may sound like a harsh description, until Hicks and her sister, Mady Rothchild, unleash but a few of the horror stories that they have compiled since opening the valley's only wildlife rehabilitation service for wounded or orphaned small mammals and birds in 1987. Skunk sprays taken in the mouth, vicious face attacks from hypersexualized raccoons, 4 a.m. police calls to homes where an animal is under fire for its existence--all are commonplace occurrences that prompt Hicks to proclaim, "It's amazing we're around to operate at all."

"You can't sell this lifestyle. People have either got it or they don't," echoes Rothchild, who handles most of the day-to-day operations of AIDA. "It's not something to do for fun for a couple of days. I have no time. I have no life." As head rehabilitator at AIDA and its ornithological spinoff The Ruth Melichar Bird Center, Rothchild processes (meaning rehabs, raises or, if necessary, euthanizes) over 3,000 birds and small mammals annually. Some squirrels or raccoons are treated and released within days. Others live in cages and pens at one of the sisters' homes, or with carefully chosen volunteers, for months if necessary. At the time of our interview, Rothchild had over 20 raccoons in her charge. Hicks had an equal amount of squirrels, and had only recently released 19 of her 22 skunk tenants.

"People are just crazy," Rothchild declares. "We've driven out to places like Marsing and Kuna, spent days and days digging, trying to get babies out of a fox den where the mother had been shot, because we'd hear from the public: 'If you don't, we're going to shoot them all.' You can't help but get into it after that. We just saw a need."

Both sisters alternately accredit and blame their passion for creature comforting on their mother, a founder of the Idaho Humane Society. Unlike that organization, though, adoption is not an option for AIDA lodgers--indeed, the inclination local humans have to raise wild animals like pets is often what leads to AIDA's involvement in the first place. Thus, Rothchild and Hicks regularly travel statewide in search of suitable locations to release a cloud of skunks, a rabble of raccoons, a few foxes or a single bum-legged badger. Though the relocated critters often achieve a mortality rate of 70 percent or higher, the sisters have toiled on into middle age and beyond, under a simple credo: "The only animal you need to fear looks just like you."

Rothchild's dream for AIDA is to open a small mammal center in Boise similar to the Bird Center, where staffed veterinarians and volunteers can both provide care to the wounded and community education to curious humans. In the meantime, both sisters perpetually search for more volunteers, funding and suitable property on which to release animals. Anyone whose plot features both natural food and water sources, and is in need of a slight sprucing by way of some masked bandits is encouraged to call AIDA or visit the Web site www.IdahoWildlifeRescue.org.

--Nicholas Collias

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