WALTON — An 1885 farmhouse serves as the home for Dawn Unruh and a host of four-legged friends.
Unruh used to breed Yorkies, so having five dogs in the house may not seem that unusual. What catches a visitor's eyes — and ears — are the cages containing squirrels, opossums and other wildlife brought to her for rehabilitation.
"I've loved critters my whole life. My mama always used to let me drag home everything," Unruh said.
For the past two years, Unruh has operated Tinybits Rescue, focusing on rescuing baby animals who lose their mother or have sustained injuries.
"Usually, if the mom's found dead, people try to bring the babies to me," Unruh said. "The humane society has my number, because they can't take wildlife."
She has taken in squirrels, opossums, raccoons, skunks, rabbits, cats, turkeys, chickens and guinea fowl.
"Everyone wants to help until it comes to cleaning cages," Unruh laughed.
Last year, she took 17 feral cats to be spayed or neutered.
"I had six mamas and litters dropped off this year," Unruh said.
Raccoons — one of her favorite animals to work with — are similar in personality to a cat, Unruh noted. Their heavy-duty outdoor cage includes a hollow log.
"You collect June bugs to put in there so they know where to look for them in the wild. You have to teach them how to find food," Unruh said.
As she spoke, Unruh juggled a young female raccoon named Reba in her arms, shifting her out of reach from the shining metal of her necklace.
"Their hands are amazing. They grab everything," Unruh said with a smile.
Unruh has released 10 raccoons so far this year.
"That's where they belong — they belong in the wild," Unruh said.
She likes to release litter mates together so they have a better chance of survival.
"We usually don't have babies this late in the year, but with our winters being so mild the last few years, we've had a lot of babies in the fall," Unruh said.
Many of the babies she has taken in recently are another favorite animal — squirrels.
"They all start off on milk and then, generally, they move to baby food," Unruh said.
If they survive long enough, the squirrels move on to fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and ferret food.
"I had three last week that fell from a tree and didn't make it," Unruh said.
She took in a squirrel she named Parker a few weeks ago.
"He fell out of a tree and had a concussion," Unruh said.
Parker's tilted and bloodied head has since healed and he has learned to balance while walking again.
Unruh networks with other rehabilitators around the area, placing animals with those who specialize in their care and sharing knowledge.
"You learn who does what. They know that I do squirrels and raccoons, those are my main things," Unruh said.
She finds it hard to turn away any animal in need, even those others find ugly. She cradled a baby opossum her grandchildren nicknamed "Mufasa" that was barely the size of her palm.
"Their favorite food is ticks, so anyone who has pets should enjoy having opossums around," Unruh said. "They generally don't knock over your trash like a racoon does. Racoons are destructive because they're curious."
Though the people who bring her animals will sometimes leave donation of money or pet food, she ends up paying for many of the supplies herself.
"I'm trying to build up a nest egg to build a bigger shed out here so not all the cages have to be in my house," Unruh said.
Each animal is special to her, whether they live in her home or in the wild.
"I give my heart and soul to the critters. I mourn the ones I lose," Unruh said. "The point is to release them back into the wild. Generally, they take off and they do fine."
Tinybits Rescue is located at 8024 N. Woodlawn in Walton. For more information, call 316-217-1418.
Contact Patricia Middleton by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her stories on Twitter at @MacSentinel.