WELCOME PARTY — John and Kate Watson, who run wildlife rehab and rescue non-profit Nora’s Ark, and their flat-haired retriever, Nora. Photo by Joshua Gordon.
EAST CONCORD — John and Kate Watson are what John calls “soul mates.”
“She’s superwoman. She keeps things running, throwing hay, feeding the animals, doing whatever needs to be done.”
Kate Watson, 52, deflected with a smile: “We have quite a bit of help from friends.” Watson, who studied animal sciences at Perdue University, also manages a kennel in Orchard Park.
John Watson, 53, is a master craftsman, now retired, who’s been working his whole life, he says, and has done it all, from woodwork, to plumbing, to building the house and barn on the couple’s property, part of it from rough hickory he found on Craigslist.
And Nora, well, Nora’s the dog who tried to “retrieve” this reporter’s notebook.
Together, they run Nora’s Ark, a wildlife rehabilitation and rescue operation out of their home in East Concord.
TWO BY TWO — John and Nora play fetch uphill from Nora’s Ark. The barn, which John built with the help of friends, houses rescued animals during the winter months.
The main focus of the ark is on rescuing white-tailed deer and re-introducing them into the wild. “Nobody else was doing it. We saw a need,” said Watson. The Watsons, who are certified wildlife rehabilitators by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, perform what they call a “slow hack.”
“We provide food and medical care,” said Kate Watson, in some cases taking fawns into their home – where playpens are often used to keep the fawns from getting into trouble, while affording them some space to move around – to bottle feed them. “But after we’ve weened them, the fawns are pretty much on their own,” she explained. The goal, she said, is to “get the deer back into the wild with a minimum of human contact,” and, as John put it, “keep the wildlife wild.”
The Watsons have established a fenced-in area at the back of their property, which can be left open when deer are ready to venture back into the woods. “Sometimes they hang around for a few weeks, but after that, they’re gone,” said John Watson.
The ark is currently home to 14 white tail fawns and one adult, which is “pretty much all we can handle right now,” according to Watson. Though he notes that, as peak fawn season passes and more deer are released, space will open up to accommodate future rescues.
The Watsons explained that some deer brought to the ark are injured or orphaned, often by tractors or cars, while others are “kidnapped” by well-meaning hikers. “After a few weeks, they realize the fawn they brought home isn’t doing so well,” said Kate Watson. That’s often when the Watsons get a phone call.
ANIMAL LOVER — John comforts Edna, a rescued emu, as a herd of curious llamas look on with much interest. Photos by Joshua Gordon.
John Watson explained that “from the time they’re born until they’re a week old, the fawns don’t move.” A doe will hide her young – sometimes in tall grass, in the hollow of a tree or whatever space is handy – and watch over them from a distance. At any sign of danger, the young fawns, still unsure on their hooves, will freeze in place. If a hiker approaches, “You can just pick them up and carry them, and the deer won’t do anything to stop you,” said Watson. “People will come across these fawns and think, ‘I’m saving this deer,’ but usually, the mother isn’t far off.” The best thing to do, when coming across a fawn, is to leave the deer where it is, said his wife, “unless it’s clearly injured.”
Nora’s Ark started five years ago, with a single orphaned fawn, found in Eden, and a lamb from a breeder. “The mother wouldn’t take [the lamb] because it was a runt,” said Watson. Instead of culling it, the breeder offered the lamb to Kate, who took it in.
The ark has since grown to include a handful of horses, goats, llamas, chickens, sheep and Edna, a 13-year-old emu, now on her second rescue, after being taken in by a man who later had a stroke, leaving him unable to take care of the bird.
While the deer under the Watsons’ care are released into the wild, the “companion livestock” are adopted out to trusted caretakers, or are allowed to “retire” at the Ark, according to Kate Watson, where they are cared for by the Watsons, friends, who donate time and resources, and a pair of veterinarians, who volunteer their services to the ark.
The Watsons are eager to recognize all the help they get from friends. “Networking is the key” to the success of their operation, said Watson. “Every little bit helps.” The ark goes through some 500 gallons of milk, 1,000 bails of hay, and 30 cubic yards of bedding, each year. Apples are harvested from the trees around the Watsons’ 50 acres of property, though the animals still go through about $23 in fruits and vegetables each week, according to John Watson.
Before there was an ark, Kate and John worked out of pocket and accepted donations for their work. They soon realized, however, that they could be more efficient as a charity. Two years ago, Kate Waston, with the help of a lawyer friend, incorporated Nora’s Ark – now a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. As a non-profit, donations are now tax-deductible.
The ark itself – a three-story barn that houses the livestock in the winter – was raised with plenty of help from friends. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” said John Watson. Even Nora pitched in. The 4-year-old, black, flat-haired retriever “supervised,” said Kate Waston, “taking people’s tools, taking their coffee cups” and watching the barn rise, from foundation to finish. “After that, we decided to call it ‘Nora’s Ark.’ It just seemed to fit,” she said.
What donations don’t cover, the Watsons pay for themselves. In years past, the ark hosted a garage sale, which defrayed some of their operating costs. This year, the Seneca Hose Fire Company has donated space to host a “Labor of Love Fundraiser Party” on Nov. 24.
The animals pitch in when they can. Goats provide some of the milk used to nurse young fawns. John Waston pointed out that the goat pen, a fenced-in area now containing a shelter and shade trees, “used to be covered in poison ivy and pricker bushes. You couldn’t even get through here,” he said. “The goats cleared all that out.” The horses, which, according to John Watson, “have the run of the property” during the daytime, keep the lawn short. “I don’t even have to mow this,” he said, pointing to the close-cropped grass, “that’s all [thanks to] the horses.”
The Watsons have taken to calling their dog “Nurse Nora, because she keeps the others company,” said his wife. “Others,” including 14-year-old Gulliver, who, like Nora, is a black flat-haired retriever, recently had a mass removed from his leg. Lately, a barn cat has taken to “looking after the fawns,” said Kate Watson, who dubbed the stray, “Nanny Cat.”
For the Watsons, “it’s a labor of love,” said John Waston. Himself a life-long hunter, he said he wants to give back to the wildlife that has given him so much. Since obtaining his hunting license four decades ago, this year will be the first he does not renew.
“This is the first year, since I’ve been 12 years old, that I haven’t gotten my hunting license. Last year, I went out and I didn’t shoot any deer at all, which is the first time that’s happened in a long, long time. I’ve hunted my whole life, and it seems like it’s time to give back, after all the deer I’ve taken from this earth.”
Donations to Nora’s Ark, Inc., can be sent to P.O. Box 14, East Concord, N.Y. 14055. For more information, call 592-2518, or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The ark also has a Facebook page at www.facebook.com/pages/Noras-Ark-Inc/369247453160102. Tickets for the Ark’s November fund-raiser, held at the Seneca Hose Fire Hall, 2801 Seneca St. in West Seneca, can be purchased by calling the number above, or by visiting the “Events” section of the Nora’s Ark Facebook page.