FORTVILLE — Each day after work, Jennifer Hancock drives home to her wooded Fortville property and checks in on her exotic brood, which currently includes seven bats, three flying squirrels and a baby possum named Spice.
Hancock is the only certified wildlife rehabilitation specialist in Hancock County, and among just 62 rehabbers registered throughout the state.
She secured her wildlife rehabilitation license from the Indiana Department of Natural Resources in September and has since worked to rehabilitate 20 animals at her Fortville home through her Hancock Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation program.
“I’ve wanted to do a startup rescue of some sort forever. I just had to work up the courage to do it. My biggest fear is having to turn an animal way,” she said.
Amanda Dehoney, director of Greenfield-Hancock Animal Management, said her agency has long relied on wildlife rehabilitators in neighboring counties, but she’s happy to now have an option close to home.
“It’s nice because we don’t have to worry about transporting animals as much,” said Dehoney, adding that rehabbers play an essential role in reducing the number of wild animals euthanized after illness or injury.
According to the DNR, the goal of wildlife rehabilitation is to nurse animals back to health and then release them into the wild, which is exactly what drew Hancock to the job.
“With dogs and cats or even small animals, I would be a foster failure every single time,” said Hancock, who has three dogs of her own.
“With wildlife you have to turn them loose, which is why I chose it, because you can’t keep them forever,” she said.
That doesn’t mean she doesn’t get attached.
“Every animal gets a name,” said Hancock, 44, who is currently caring for a tiny bat named Pearl and three squirrels named Cinnamon, Rocky and Jack, among others.
“Some people think I’m not going to name them if I can’t keep them, but everyone gets a name because I would get attached to them regardless,” she said.
While it’s challenging, Hancock is careful not to develop too close of a bond with the animals she cares for, so they’ll be willing to return to their natural homes.
“The last thing I want is to raise a squirrel who wants to jump on people in the park,” she said.
Not all rehab stories have a happy ending, however.
The first animal Hancock took in — a full-grown buck she aptly named Uncle Buck — succumbed to his injuries, which were likely caused by getting hit by a car.
“Unfortunately, with this line of work, you’ll have some who don’t make it,” she said.
Hancock has quickly developed a passion for the job, whether that’s syringe-feeding a baby bat or tending to a possum’s wounds.
Animals find their way to her in various ways. Shortly after getting licensed, she responded to a request for a rehab specialist through a community Facebook page, “and it just kind of took off from there,” she said.
Last month, Hancock got a call from the Greenfield-Hancock Animal Management center to pick up Spice, the baby possum in her care.
“She was just a little bloody but didn’t have any gaping wounds. She might have gotten into a scuffle,” said Hancock. “The squirrels are super cute too. Two of them were caught in a mouse trap, and one of them attacked by a dog,” she said.
Rehabilitate & Educate
Six of the bats she’s caring for are brown bats, while one is a small silver haired bat named Pearl that weighs just 9 grams.
“I weigh them weekly to make sure they’re still healthy and not losing weight,” said Hancock, who loves educating the public about wildlife through videos she takes of animals in her care.
To show just how small Pearl is, she posted a video showing that a Chick-fil-A ketchup packet on the same scale weighed 29 grams, more than three times the weight of Pearl.
“I like to educate people and show them the importance of these guys and why they matter. My hope is that people become more aware of how each type of animal can be beneficial to the environment,” said Hancock, who has even been able to convince her husband of some of the positive benefits of bats.
“My husband will show people the bat house we put up on the side of the house and tell them how we don’t have any mosquitoes anymore thanks to the bats, and we’re surrounded by woods. I’ve come a long way with him,” she said with a laugh.
Posting videos of her wildlife brood helps educate the public on the importance of each animal and the journey to saving each one, said Hancock, who puts motion-cameras in each animal’s cage to record their behaviors when she’s away.
“There is a super cute picture that I took the other day where it looks like Spice (the possum) is praying over her food,” she said.
While some rehabbers focus on just one or two animals, Hancock is focusing on small mammals of all kinds.
“I’ll take anything as long as I have the space. Space is just the limiting factor,” she said.
Hancock is about at capacity with her current brood, but would love to be able to expand.
To help support her rehabilitation efforts, she started a state nonprofit to help solicit donations to pay for the equipment and enclosures needed for the job, and is working on becoming a certified 501(c)3 nonprofit.
She recently launched a T-shirt campaign to raise funds, and has enlisted someone to help with social media posts and advertising to spread the word about her services.
She’s also brought a few people onto her team, including a high school science teacher who is licensed to help care for animals at her home for up to 30 days, and a reiki and massage specialist who performs healing arts for injured animals in Hancock’s care. She’s also enlisted the help of a registered veterinary technician to help from a medical standpoint.
All team members — which includes Hancock’s husband Chad and daughter Kaitlyn — are volunteers who have been state-certified to help.
Hancock toyed with the notion of becoming a wildlife rehabber for years before finally diving in last September.
An animal lover since childhood, Hancock grew up in Greenfield showing horses, dogs and cats at the Hancock County 4-H Fair.
She always knew she wanted to spend her life helping out her four-legged friends.
When she was 16, she brought her dog along to interview for a job with Dr. John Hunt at Brandywine Animal Hospital, and quickly got to work as a kennel attendant.
As a college student, she worked at a pet emergency facility in Evansville, and worked for an animal hospital in Indianapolis over school breaks.
She eventually transferred from the University of Southern Indiana to IUPUI, where she earned a bachelor’s degrees in biology and medical technology.
Hancock spent 18 years working as a veterinary assistant before going to work for the Indiana Department of Health as a healthcare coalition coordinator, overseeing three districts from Muncie to Terre Haute.
“I basically work with the grant funding for the hospitals, basically just making sure they’re meeting grant requirements for federal grants,” she said.
Her wildlife rehabilitation work takes place on the side. Hancock said rehabbers are not state employees, nor are they paid, which she said are common misconceptions.
As spring approaches, Hancock is readying herself for “baby season,” knowing that the tiniest of wildlife are the most vulnerable, and can often end up in rehab.
In the meantime, she’ll keep caring for Pearl, Spice and all the rest as she continues to educate the public and seek out support to keep her mission growing.
To learn more, follow Hancock Wildlife Rescue & Rehabilitation on Facebook or visit HancockWildlife.net.