Wildlife Rehabber Combines Nature and Nurture on City’s Far North Side
Above: Connell-Marsh in an older photo, working with a fawn. Photo courtesy of Nottingham Nature Nook.
Cheryl Connell-Marsh lives on the wild side. She isn’t shy about saying her basement is a bit squirrely or that the upstairs living spaces have gone to the birds. Her front, back and side yards are a sanctuary filled with native grasses, mature trees and shelters made for and by animals.
Since 2008, Connell-Marsh has provided a healing place for injured and orphaned animals. The animals have feathers or fur, four legs or two, and are big, small or somewhere in-between. Most come to her through people who have found them roadside or in their yards, others through like-minded wildlife organizations seeking her capacity for care. She’s licensed by the State of Michigan, and in 2013, she transformed her work into a non-profit that serves Clinton, Ingham, Shiawassee and Ionia counties.
Nottingham Nature Nook sits on 10 acres on the northern edge of the Towar Gardens neighborhood in East Lansing. Connell-Marsh lives with her husband in one of the two houses, adjacent to a horse barn. Most of the bedrooms in her homes are shut off; one serves as an aviary for injured birds, another as a rehab room for all types of baby squirrels. Behind another is a comforting area for a raccoon on-the-mend. And a basement, she said, is an intermediary area for mature rehabbing squirrels, complete with means of ingress and egress to help their transition back to the wild.
“I’ve always loved animals,” said Connell-Marsh. “It doesn’t matter what they are. Once you get out into nature, once you really experience it, I don’t know how you can’t love it.”
Baby flying squirrels ready to retake flight after their rehab. Photo courtesy of Nottingham Nature Nook.
Although she grew up in the Detroit suburbs, Connell-Marsh was never far from nature. She was a Girl Scout. She camped. She took long walks with her dog. And her parents supported her passion for horses, enabling her to ride, attend camps, and pursue a dual degree at Lake Erie College in biology and equestrian science.
Connell-Marsh met her husband while attending a horse camp. She was a rider. John Marsh worked in the hay fields. In the early 1980s, they moved to East Lansing and attended Michigan State University. The two took up residence on Towar Avenue next door to a 10-acre horse barn where Connell-Marsh worked. When the horse barn went up for sale in 1987, she and John knew it was a natural fit, so she bought it.
Since then, Connell-Marsh has led the equestrian life. She boards and trains 40 horses through the Nottingham Equestrian Center, and teaches Mid-Michigan youth how to ride—both competitively and as a hobby. And she travels the circuit as a nationally-recognized judge for dressage and other riding events.
Then in the early 2000s, Connell-Marsh added another dimension through a random act of kindness. A student in her horse barn found a baby black squirrel on the grounds and asked if Connell-Marsh could save it.
“I had no idea what to do,” she said. “But I couldn’t say no. That’s how it all got started.”
Connell-Marsh called a friend who put her in touch with a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. Rather than take the squirrel off her hands, the rehabilitator offered to teach Connell-Marsh how to take care of it, setting her on the two-year path toward becoming a licensed rehabber herself.
“I have Peanut to thank for all this,” smiled Connell-Marsh. “Who would have thought all this would start by raising one baby black squirrel?”
Rehab for release
In the last 12 months, Nottingham Nature Nook has rehabbed 300 songbirds, 185 squirrels, 265 rabbits, and an occasional groundhog, chipmunk, raccoon and mink. Most every animal was released back into the wild. She also rehabilitates foxes. Seven red and one gray currently live under her care in an outdoor area she plans to expand.
Community members bring injured or orphaned animals to Connell-Marsh after finding them near their homes or properties. Other animals come through referrals from local veterinarians, wildlife organizations and MSU. Many animals, Connell-Marsh explained, have been displaced by construction, tree-trimming and landscaping that destroyed their habitats and exposed them to hazards or predators. An increasing number, too, have been exposed to toxins, chemicals, or pesticides which manifest in symptoms that look like injuries, but are actually signs of serious, often fatal, neurological conditions.
“My goal is to provide a place where animals are safe, comfortable, and around people who care for them,” said Connell-Marsh. “If we do have to euthanize an animal, we don’t want them to end their life afraid. I want them surrounded by love. That’s just as important a role as the ones you save.”
Recently, Connell-Marsh began enlisting college interns to help with increasing needs—particularly during the summer. She’s also expanded her volunteer base. In the coming year, she may be licensed to care for injured or displaced fawns—something the state highly regulates because of chronic wasting disease in the deer population.
A ruby throated hummingbird gets stronger during a recent stay. Photo courtesy of Nottingham Nature Nook.
As a 501C-3, the Nature Nook is completely support by donations, many that come through individuals or through fundraisers put on by local businesses or groups. Preuss Pets and Wild Birds Unlimited are two that help.
Sarah Zarka, the franchise co-owner of the East Lansing Wild Birds Unlimited, first met Connell-Marsh 14 years ago. Since then, Zarka has helped build awareness among her customers of the rehab services provided by the Nature Nook. She also encourages her customers to donate an occasional $5 or more in exchange for incentives like a seasonal gift bag or free bird feeder washing.
“Cheryl is a much-needed resource,” said Zarka. “She donates all her time to take care of these little animals, so we can donate a little money.”
For Connell-Marsh, the community support she receives validates her found purpose of preserving, protecting and advocating for wildlife. Her goal for 2019, she said, is to continue to grow, rehab and release more types of animals, and strike a balance for herself.
“To me, it’s important to have that purpose in your life and to do what you can to make the world better,” she said. “Sometimes I think, how many people can say they’ve walked with deer or been kissed by a squirrel? The blessings I receive are 10-fold to all the work I do.”
Want to donate? Have a question about what to do if you find an injured animal? Visit Nottingham Nature Nook at nottinghamnaturenook.wordpress.com or call 517-488-7451 or 517-351-7304.