JACKSON COUNTY, Ala. - At Shamballa Wildlife Rescue, John and April Russ work in connection with the Alabama Department of Conservation and Natural Resources to rehabilitate animals no one else in North Alabama is licensed to help.
They're one of just a few permitted wildlife rehabbers. But they're the only ones in the area that will help rabies vector species, like raccoons.
"We usually take on orphans. The mothers have been killed on the road, or shot, or relocated," April noted. Sometimes that involves bottle-feeding the animals. They spend a lot of time observing the wildlife, researching how to help it survive, and eventually releasing it back into nature.
Right now, Shamballa has several raccoons, a baby bobcat, and some fawns. That's why, when we wanted to meet our own "trash panda" to celebrate the new minor league baseball team coming to Madison, we turned to them for expertise.
Shamballa is not a place just anyone can go to view the animals. The rescue is not an exhibitor, meaning you can't treat it as a zoo. They make it clear that even when the animals are there, they're treated as wild.
"Once they are weaned, there is no lovey-dovey on them. They have to get used to the weather, the environment, and get prepared for their release," Russ said. "I'm not tempted to talk to them. I move quickly. I don't pet them."
Three male raccoons at Shamballa right now have grown up enough to be on the verge of release.
"It's one of the most intelligent, versatile, mischievous little animals that you are going to get," Russ said of the species. "They are resourceful, they are good teammates. They are very strong."
We asked her what she thinks about the new baseball team name.
"I think it's a very good name," she said about the new minor league baseball team, the Rocket City Trash Pandas. "I think it's very exciting!" She joked that raccoons might be good baseball players, "If they're willing to give back the balls! They'll catch the ball, but they'll run away with it!"
Raccoons get into just about anything, known as curious creatures with a habit for cleanliness.
Russ pointed out: "People think they are washing their food, but really they produce very little saliva so they need to wet their food to eat it," she explained. "Also their hands are very soft, like a baby's hand. While they are nocturnal animals, they don't actually see very well at nighttime. And one of their ways to see their way around is to actually touch. They touch their food, they touch things to understand the shape, the intricacy of it. They figure out if they can eat it."
April told us Trash Pandas may have earned their name because they are omnivores.
"They eat everything," she said, "from eggs, vegetables, fruits, meat. They love meat most of all! We do have to supplement them with high-protein dog food sometimes," particularly close to their release.
Russ said she likes to feed them a balanced diet, including grapes and vegetables. "I try to get them used to natural foods too, so when I walk in the woods I get grubs and insects and worms. I go fishing," she noted, "and get little brim."
She said it's her job, as a rehabber, to basically teach the animals (in this case, the raccoons) to be adults. That means taking them out into the woods, hiding food so they learn to go find it on their own, and eventually, teaching them not to rely on humans.
"We teach them how to be raccoons. Teach them fishing, climbing, foraging," she said.
Shamballa has been around since 2013. It has been a dream of Russ's. She said since she came to the United States, she knew rehabilitation is something she wanted to do.
"I've been fascinated with these animals since I was a toddler, but I never lived in a place where there were raccoons. So when I came to the U.S., I said, 'I knew exactly what I want to do!'"
Specially-permitted animal rehabilitators are there when they're needed to take in animals in specific cases. The state doesn't manage them, but it does regulate them.
"They are the one issuing our permits," said Russ. "They also inspect us once a year to make sure the animals are properly kept and also are kept in the right state. That they are not pets. They are here for release."
"Just keep them in the wild," Russ cautioned. "I have a chance that very few people have. I have a close look at observing these animals and to help them to be where they should be."