Small Miracles at the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation
t’s a sunny Saturday morning as I pull into the driveway of a ranch home on County Road 346 in Silt. The house is a beautiful old sandstone affair, shaded handsomely by tall trees and hidden almost entirely from view. If I hadn’t known what I was looking for, I might have driven past without a second thought.
The property is situated within a couple hundred yards of I-70, so you too have probably passed by without realizing that just west of the Silt exit lies one of our area’s most fascinating and impactful nonprofits: the Pauline S. Schneegas Wildlife Foundation. For more than three decades, the group’s founder Nanci Limbach and her small-but-dedicated team have been operating a rehabilitation center there, caring for Colorado’s most vulnerable wild creatures until they are well enough to be released back into nature. It’s the only facility of its kind on the Western Slope.
I park my car and step out, expecting a cacophony of animal noises. I am greeted only by the faint and pleasant hooting of an owl—one whose remarkable story I will soon learn. How appropriate that this rehabilitation center sits alongside a small irrigation canal called Last Chance Ditch, considering that the only creatures who come here are those on their proverbial last legs: injured, orphaned, forgotten, dismissed. For countless animals that have received its care, the Schneegas Wildlife Foundation offers a final chance for survival.
Limbach greets me in her office.
“Welcome,” she says. “Yeah, it’s pretty quiet out there right now. The animals aren’t very active when the temperature starts to rise.” Bubbly and quick to smile, but also wise with years of experience, Limbach exudes an energetic mix of compassion and pragmatism—perhaps the perfect combination of traits for someone in her line of work.
“I was always the neighborhood kid that any injured animal went to,” she recalls, laughing. “There was the squirrel hit by a car, plus birds and that sort of thing. For as long as I can remember, I wanted to do rehabilitation.”
Today, her life’s work is evident in many facets of the foundation. What Limbach founded as a small project in 1984 has now grown into a fully-certified nonprofit center, complete with educational initiatives and the licenses needed to work with the full spectrum of wild animals. Within its four-acre grounds and multiple satellite facilities, the foundation cares for everything from the tiniest deer mouse to the biggest black bear.
“We get calls from all over the state of Colorado,” Limbach notes. “It really just depends on the decisions of local wildlife officers as to whether we receive the animals or not.”
Over the years, the foundation has forged close partnerships with officials in Garfield and Pitkin counties. If you live in the Roaring Fork Valley and have ever called to report a limping red fox or a flailing young hawk in your neighborhood, chances are the animal was ultimately transported to Silt.
“We do also receive animals brought in directly by the general public,” Limbach reports. “But we always recommend safety and common sense first. Call and report it, ask for help. If an officer can’t get the animal to us right away, we might have a trained volunteer who can assist.”
Once animals arrive at the rehabilitation facility, they are assessed and treated according to their individual needs. How long they remain there depends on their progress and other important factors such as the optimum season for release. “For example,” Limbach says, “with bears, we aren’t going to drop them back where they came from, at some random point, just because they have stopped needing medical care here in Silt. We utilize a satellite facility near the backside of Sunlight Peak, at about 8,000 feet, where we can safely hibernate our bears in winter. It’s kind of like a ‘halfway house’ where they can wait and transition to being released in February or early March.”
Limbach guides me through other areas of the facility that are typically closed to the public to keep human-animal interaction to a minimum.
First we see a small number of permanent residents, animals that remain with the foundation as living components of its educational outreach initiatives. Several birds are on loan from the State of Colorado because they could not be released into the wild. Others, like the Mexican gray wolf named Apache, had been kept illegally by irresponsible owners earlier in their lives; without skills for living in the wild, they cannot be released. These creatures now serve as ambassadors for all wildlife wrongly held in private captivity.
“We do a lot of children’s educational programs here,” Limbach says. “We saw maybe 700 or 800 kids last year. Our permanent residents help the kids understand why it is never OK to keep a wild animal as a ‘pet’.”
Limbach then takes me to view some temporary residents undergoing rehabilitation, animals that will hopefully be released back into the wild as soon as they are well. There is an orphaned fox, a baby marmot, a young red-tailed hawk, a bear that is being monitored for neurological damage, and many more.
Next, Limbach opens the door to a large flight cage where four majestic great horned owls swivel their heads, turning their attention to our entrance.
“Wow,” is all I can manage to say. One of these fellas must have been responsible for the hooting I heard when I stepped out of my car earlier. The largest owl takes flight, soaring overhead for a few glorious moments before returning to perch beside the trio of smaller ones.
“There goes our foster dad,” Limbach says.
Foster dad, I wonder?
“Those three younger ones—two from Carbondale—came to us really young,” Limbach explains. “So we placed them with this older male who has now sort of ‘adopted’ them. He is teaching them how to hunt and basically just be owls so that they’ll be prepared for release back into the wild. See how he is keeping an eye on them?”
I do see, and it’s fascinating to witness. The center is full of stories of second chances—small miracles, really—where animals that might otherwise have perished are granted a new shot at life.
“Almost every animal that ends up here comes because of some type of human action: cars, power lines, accidents, you name it,” she says. “This is a small way of giving back to the animals, considering all the things that humans have taken from them.”
I ask if this is why Limbach persists in her work after all these years.
“Really it’s about trying to equal things out a bit. We’ll never be able to fully equal things out, but…” she adds, “we can always keep trying.”
To date, Limbach and her team have helped rehabilitate and release more than 5,000 wild animals from across the state of Colorado.