Somewhere in Sevier County is a haven for injured and orphaned wildlife. These creatures are cared for by Tonique Renee at Smoky Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation. Renee is somewhat cagey about her exact location for good reason.
“I really need to talk to people first before they bring an animal to me,” she said. “Otherwise, I’d have people just dropping off animals in boxes, sometimes animals I am not licensed to care for. Also to make sure bringing them to me is the best solution.”
Renee received her permit from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency in June. She is not licensed for birds and raptors nor rabies vector species (coyotes, foxes, skunks, raccoons). What she can care for are squirrels (flying and climbing), opossums, chipmunks, rabbits, ground hogs, snakes and turtles, to name but a few. She emphasized that it is her home and facility that is certified.
“If I moved, I would have to resubmit my application for a new residence, I would have to start all over,” she said, adding that she is currently working on gaining 501(c)(3) status as a non-profit. “You have to prove it. You have to be established in what you’re doing. They don’t just give it to you on an idea.”
It all started simply enough for Renee. Now 35, she was born in Chattanooga, raised partly in Nashville and Knoxville but has spent most of her life in Sevier County. She had a heart for senior and special needs dogs and spent years caring for them in her own home and in various jobs at animal shelters.
“I have been in animal rescue in some form or another for years,” Renee said. “Caring for them, preparing and providing them to other people. These are animals that didn’t ask for any of this to happen to them.”
That background helped when she shifted focus into wildlife rescue. She already had contacts for finding donated or discounted materials, professional relationships with veterinarians and contacts to point her in the right direction. But, as “there is no money in animal rescue,” she still has a day job working in retail.
“I’m grateful and lucky to have a job close to home and that supports me in what I am doing here,” she said. She’s able to cut her hours back in spring when she is busiest with orphaned babies that require feedings every two hours, and when she is in desperate need of sleep.
Renee mentored under renowned East Tennessee wildlife rehabber Lynn McCoy, who is presently on hiatus from rescuing wildlife. She still relies on McCoy’s wisdom when a new problem presents itself because “there’s just not much she hasn’t seen.“
While there are a lot of things to communicate to the public about when and when not to intervene with a wild animal, Renee said the most important things are to go to the TWRA’s list of licensed rehabbers and call the nearest one for the animal in question and to not attempt to feed the animal.
“People’s hearts are in the right place when they see an animal in need and want to help it,” she said. “And I want to help them do it the right way.”
To learn more about Smoky Mountain Wildlife Rehabilitation or to make a donation go here.
Enjoy this carousel of photos of some animals under Renee’s care.
Beth Kinnane is community editor for KnoxTNToday.com.