Several years ago my family and I attended a harvest festival at Sam Houston Jones State Park. Music wafted through the trees and crafts entertained the kids – all pretty low-key. What I remember most about the event was a woman who came with several wild birds and animals. I was fascinated by the owls and spoke with her briefly. Her name is Suzy Heck and she runs Heckhaven, a wildlife rehabilitation center south of Lake Charles.
After that festival, Suzy and her organization were always in the back of my mind. I wanted to know more and finally satisfied my curiosity yesterday when Andrew and I went to visit Suzy and her menagerie of injured animals and abandoned babies. What this woman does out of her love for animals is nothing short of amazing.
A young black vulture.
Litters of baby opossums and raccoons, squirrels, foxes, and rabbits, from tiny pink infants the size of your thumb to temperamental adolescents and birds of a myriad of species – wading birds, raptors, owls, many with broken wings or legs or injuries from gun shots or car accidents. Suzy also takes in abandoned exotic pets such as ferrets, chinchillas, reptiles and cockatoos. They are all welcome at her wildlife sanctuary. Many of the animals arrive via Animal Control or the Department of Wildlife and Fisheries. Some are brought by people who find injured animals in their backyards. Her goal is always to rehabilitate them and release them back to the wild. But if an animal is permanently injured or for some other reason cannot survive on its own, the animal becomes a permanent resident.
A very talkative and charming cockatoo. "But he'll bite your finger off," says Suzi.
Suzy does not consider any of the animals, even the permanent residents, as pets. “They’re wild animals. You can’t pet them or snuggle with them.” But I suspect she becomes attached to them (and they to her) nonetheless and she cares for them like family. She does, after all, name the animals, at least the permanent residents. During Hurricane Ike in 2008, her property flooded. Her home filled with three feet of water. Suzy, her elderly mother, and “five dogs, three cats, two raccoons, and a pot belly pig” escaped to the attic. For three days!
Young curious raccoons.
Heckhaven sits on a mere five acres, but the property does not feel overwhelmed by animals. The acutely injured and very young reside in the “hospital” which is the back of her house. She has no idea how many animals live on her property at any given time, but there are hundreds. Over 100 are permanent residents. Ducks, geese, and other wading birds live by the pond. A baby goat, chickens, and other birds hang out in a large fenced-in area beside the house. Many animals such as her treasured golden eagle, several owls, older raccoons, foxes, a monitor lizard, and more live in large enclosures in the back yard. A herd of deer roam the nearby woods. Six peacocks have free rein of the property. And she single-handedly cares for them all! She receives no federal or state funding, but relies primarily on donations from the community.
Calcasieu, the golden eagle. Shoo-shoo, for short.
With the help of several of her permanent residents, 67-year-old Suzy goes on the road locally to festivals and other events, schools, and the Children’s Museum to educate people about ecology, wildlife, and what to do if you encounter a wild animal. (If it is injured, call Animal Control or Wildlife and Fisheries. If it appears to be an abandoned baby, it probably isn’t. The mom is likely nearby, so just leave it alone. If you are certain it is abandoned, call the animal authorities.)
This little guy was brought in by Animal Control while we were there.
Suzy came to Lake Charles from the Dallas area in 1986 and started Heckhaven at that time. She had done some wildlife rehab in Texas, and according to her mother, Suzy has been “doing this all her life.” Only God knows how many animals she has helped over the decades, but she says she takes in approximately 1,000 animals a year.
Great-horned owls. Rather comical. Reminded us of Laurel and Hardy.
Geese finding shade by the pond.
Heckhaven is a 501c non-profit organization and completely self-supported. Suzy says it is the only wildlife rehab center in southwest Louisiana. The public is welcome to visit the center, but legally they must stay behind the fences. She gladly accepts donations of money, feed, and materials (cage wire, lumber, fencing, roofing, cages and pens). For more information or to make a donation, call 337-477-6129, email firstname.lastname@example.org, or see her website, www.heckhaven.com.