By Tracy Crump
Valery Smith has been bitten, clawed, pecked, and chewed. But she keeps coming back for more.
In her work as a wildlife rehabilitator, the 66-year-old great-grandmother has cared for all species native to her north Mississippi home — and some non-native species. Bobcats, eagles, beavers, and even cuckoo birds have passed through her loving hands. However, Val’s work has reaped more eternal rewards than returning animals to the wild.
God’s purpose for the ministry became clear through an incident that started with a desperate phone call. “A bird hit my window! Can you help?”
When Val arrived later that morning, the caller held a tiny sparrow nestled in her palm. A verse from Luke flashed in her mind: “Aren’t five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God’s sight” (Luke 12:6). Glancing up, Val was surprised to see tears streaming down the woman’s face. Quickly doing what she could for the injured bird,
Val sat the woman down and asked what was wrong.
“My husband just told me he wants a divorce,” the young mother said between sobs. “He’s found another woman.” She had been contemplating suicide when the sparrow flew into her window. “After that, all I could think about was finding it help. I began calling vets, and they sent me to you.”
Thank you, Jesus! thought Val. For the next two hours, she shared how God had walked her though dark times in her own life. The woman left with renewed hope, and Val discovered the heart of her ministry.
“ God was using the animals to allow me to share Christ.”
“That’s when I knew God was using the animals to allow me to share Christ,” remembers Val. “I began by doing something I loved, but what I thought was a simple ministry for God was actually something much bigger because of the diversity of people who brought me animals.”
Val had learned how to doctor wild things as a young child, taught by her Native American grandmother. As she grew up, married, and raised children, people occasionally brought her injured or orphaned animals. However, it took a sudden, but temporary, spell of blindness to bring Val’s life into sharp focus. After receiving a diagnosis of multiple sclerosis, the cause of her transient loss of vision, she realized her time could be short. Val dedicated her talents to God and decided to become a professional rehabber.
At age 50, Val applied to the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks (DWFP) for a permit to contain wild animals for rehabilitation, as required by law. Knowing the DWFP rarely issued new permits and aware of bureaucracy’s snail-like pace, she felt she’d embarked on an impossible task. Val prayed God would make His will clear. A record three weeks later, Val received her permit and established Mississippi Wildlife Rehabilitation (MWR).
Still, the road to professional rehabber was far from smooth. At first, she was a one-woman show, caring for animals, seeking donations, and overcoming her fear of public speaking to present programs to school and community groups. Few professionals took her seriously. Only one veterinarian, of a dozen she called, agreed to help her treat the animals she received.
“I found that if I was going to have any credibility, I would have to convince others I was not just making pets out of wildlife,” said Val. “It was very serious to me.”
She took college classes, networked with state biologists, and joined professional wildlife associations. When early newspaper articles portrayed her as an “eco-nut” with wild animals scattered all over the house, she learned to take control of interviews. Slowly, Val built a reputation for herself as a wildlife authority.
In time, vets began referring animals to Val, and some even asked her advice on treating different types of wildlife. That gave Val the confidence to do something she’d dreamed of since opening MWR. She applied for a federal permit which would allow her to rehab federally protected species, such as birds of prey.
It took two years of plodding through stacks of paperwork, building cages, and overcoming mounds of red tape to get her permit. One of the first hawks Val treated exemplified her determined spirit.
The 3-month-old male red-tail was severely dehydrated and malnourished when a rescuer brought him to MWR. Injecting steroids to counteract shock and tube feeding small amounts of liquids both day and night were all Val could do for him. The rest was up to God. For three days, the hawk hovered between life and death. Then one morning, Val uncovered the cage to find him perched, his unblinking eyes staring into hers.
For several weeks, Val fed the red-tail his favorite diet of mice and watched him gain weight and strength. She moved him to an outdoor cage for conditioning and finally released him onto her 60-acre farm. It soon became apparent why the hawk had arrived in such bad shape. He had never honed essential hunting skills before his parents left him to fend for himself. What’s more, the hapless hawk could only be described as clumsy.
Normally, a red-tail will “hit” something on the ground and lift off, never missing a beat. Day after day, Val threw live prey onto the ground and watched her valiant hunter skid into trees or the backhoe. Sometimes he crashed, flipping head over tail, because he dove too fast to recover. Each time he got up, shook his feathers, and looked at Val as if to say, “I’m never going to learn this.” But he kept trying.
And so did Val. After she proved she could stand as an equal among wildlife professionals, multiple sclerosis reared its ugly head again, threatening to end her ministry. She battled interminable fatigue, memory loss, and intolerance to heat, but she never gave up.
More than 15 years later, Val is far from retiring. In fact, she is well on her way to realizing what she calls “a dream as big as God.” Thanks to her persistence, a nearby state park awarded MWR an “outgrant” of 154 acres on which to build a full-scale nature center.
Experts have drawn up a master plan for the $5 million center, and volunteers are raising funds and seeking grants. In the meantime, Val continues to faithfully nurture the wild animals entrusted to her care. Though she is anxious to see the nature center become a reality, she refuses to worry about it. Raising $5 million might seem like an impossible task, but Val knows God is in the business of doing the impossible.
Tracy Crump lives in Nesbit, Miss., and is married to her high school sweetheart. Her articles and stories have appeared in dozens of Christian publications and anthologies. She was recently promoted to grandmother and will talk about Nellie to anyone who listens. Visit Tracy at WriteLifeWorkshops.com.
This article originally appeared in the October, 2012 issue of Mature Living. Subscribe