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Searching for sanctuary

Wild Earth Refuge

After nearly three years, Kelli Polsinelli had to close the doors of the Wild Earth Refuge at her home after the city found the house wasn’t properly zoned to take care of wild animals.

By Joel Wittnebel/The Oshawa Express

You see it in the movies.

The pounding of feet, the thumping of hands on doors, the voices shouting, “How much longer are you going to be?” It’s the morning bathroom chaos of a busy household.

However, at the Polsinelli residence, add in the slapping of webbed feet and the honking of a trumpeter swan looking for its bath.

Over nearly three years, Kelli Polsinelli and her family had become accustomed to having animals around the house while operating the Wild Earth Refuge, Oshawa’s only sanctuary for sick or injured wildlife.

The padding of web feet and honking of swans is gone now, after the city decided, due to zoning regulations, Polsinelli had to stop her operation and the animals had to go.

Now, Polsinelli is hoping to find her own sanctuary, where she can operate her refuge and do what she loves: rescue wildlife.

“It’s definitely not about me. It’s about the animals and about the community and helping the community,” she said. “I coexist with them.”

Wild beginnings

It started from the smallest of sparks: a tiny, orphaned and injured baby squirrel that Polsinelli happened to come across on the sidewalk.

As an animal lover, there was no choice in the matter, and she took the squirrel into her home and tried to find a place to take him to be treated.

“And in the process of trying to find a place for him to go, or what to do with him, I called around and couldn’t find anywhere,” she said.

“It was really alarming the lack of knowledge and resources that were around.”

Over the phone, she heard options running the gambit from leaving the squirrel outside and nature will take its course to drowning the animal.

So, she decided to raise the squirrel herself, naturally turning to the Internet for assistance, something she shakes her head at now.

From that encounter, the Wild Earth Refuge was born. Since its inception three years ago, the refuge has treated nearly 200 animals a year, ranging from squirrels, bunnies, possums, reptiles and various types of birds and grown into a not-for-profit organization.

Before being shut down in April, Polsinelli had already tripled her intake from her first year in the first three months of 2015.

“It’s obvious that the need is there,” she says.

Polsinelli also visited schools to educate children on dealing with wildlife.

With the help of vet techs and her own personal studying, Polsinelli has worked 365 days a year healing, rescuing and transporting wildlife to new homes or back into the wild.

Authorized by the Ministry of Natural Resources, Polsinelli converted her basement into her home base, along with cages on her back porch and a wooden squirrel enclosure tucked beneath a large tree in her backyard.

A notification is posted on the Wild Earth Refuge website that they are no longer permitted to take animals.

Yet, she still receives approximately 20 calls for help a day.

“Without me, there’s that void. So a lot of people, what I’m finding is, by taking the calls and not being able to do much…people aren’t comfortable handling the wildlife, they don’t want to interfere, so a lot of the times the animals are dying,” Polsinelli says.

And for Oshawa’s animal sympathizers, they are left with little options now that the Wild Earth Refuge has closed its doors.

Animals can be taken to Shades of Hope, a refuge in Pefferlaw about an hour outside the city, or two hours away to Sandy Pines in Napanee or Woodlands Wildlife Santuary in Minden.

“It changes everything when you have that resource available to you. People will make better choices. Right now, people don’t want to drive an hour, so they’ll put the animal back outside. There’s nothing I can do,” she says.

“It doesn’t make much sense to me that they should be left or they should die because of politics.”

No wildlife zone

It’s an issue of zoning. Under the city’s zoning bylaw, a wildlife refuge is not permitted in a residential area.

However, according to the bylaws, a refuge is not allowed anywhere because the bylaw makes no mention of the type of operation Polsinells is operating.

Animal hospitals and kennels both appear in the bylaw. A kennel, which would be the closest to the Wild Earth Refuge in terms of use, still doesn’t work as the bylaws definition only refers to domesticated animals, not wild ones.

“We had discussions with Kelli, and our planning staff identified there is, quite frankly, going to need a rezoning to put her in a place where she needs to be,” says Jerry Conlin, the city’s director of municipal law enforcement and licensing.

“These aren’t domesticated animals. So really, in order to be permitted, there needs to be a classification in the zoning bylaw that permits that,” he added.

Paul Ralph, the city’s commissioner of development services, recognizes the service provided by the Wild Earth Refuge is needed in the city, and says they are working to be able to get her back up and running, but in a new location.

“There isn’t one zone that would permit this type of use and so what we did say to her was that if they found a suitable location, then we would look at whether or not a rezoning would be required, or a committee of adjustment, depending on what location that she finds,” Ralph said.

Moving the business out of her home isn’t a problem Polsinelli says, as her operation has outgrown her small basement quarters.

However, it’s more so about finding a location, most likely in an industrial area, and finding a landlord that would lease to someone who doesn’t take a salary.

“My name on a lease means nothing,” Polsinelli says.

Yet, with the help of a realtor, she is looking for a new location for her operation and is also looking for financial backing.

The Wild Earth Refuge survived solely on donations and the tireless work of volunteers, but to take the next step, she says they need help.

“It’s difficult to ask people to invest in something that you can’t see,” she says. “It’s been a real challenge, even though I get support, the money is the real challenge, that’s what it comes down to.”

She hopes to raise $25,000 to help her find a new location and sign a lease to allow the refuge to get back up and running.

To donate to the Wild Earth Refuge to assist in finding a new location, visit