Volunteers Remember Antler Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary as “A Magical Place”
For Sarah Bennett, it began with a bear cub spotted swimming in a lake with no mother bear in sight. For Missy Rowe, it was a cluster of baby raccoons who needed bottle feeding.
They knew that the animals needed help, and Kelly Corless Simonetti, founder of Antler Ridge Wildlife Sanctuary in Newton, convinced them that they were the ones to give it.
Though Antler Ridge didn’t attain 501(c)(3) nonprofit status until 2008, Rowe remembers Simonetti taking care of sick and injured animals in her garage with her husband Jim since 2002. Over the next 15 years, Antler Ridge would take care of at least 11,000 animals through the efforts of up to 65 volunteers at any given time, an operation funded entirely by donations.
But that work has now come to an end. Simonetti passed away in November 2022 after a battle with cancer. Without her expertise and resources from a lifetime of farming and animal rehabilitation, the organization has found it impossible to continue.
In February, Antler Ridge indicated that it would be closed for the 2023 season; in April, the Antler Ridge Facebook page announced that the sanctuary would close permanently.
On May 6th, longtime Antler Ridge volunteers met at Brook Hollow Winery in Columbia to host a final closure bazaar and sell the leftover items from prior fundraisers.
It was a well-attended event on a sunny day, though the mood was mixed: the warm camaraderie of volunteers who had developed close connections over the years, the worry that there would be fewer rehabilitators left to care for injured animals, and the bittersweetness of remembering a woman and an organization that left a lasting impact.
“Any conversation you ever had with Kelly, you would remember because she would make you laugh,” said longtime volunteer Jackie Murtha. “The world has changed forever.”
“When you when you were talking with Kelly, you’re the only other person alive,” said Kathi Cruickshank, the sanctuary’s treasurer. “She made you feel that way. She totally focused on you.”
Bennett remembered Simonetti as a strong personality who would push people out of their comfort zones in order to do what needed to be done for the animals. “She was a driven individual,” Bennett said.
Helen Sallitt goes further: “She was not the easiest person to work with,” she remembered with a laugh. “But when something happened, she would always have your back.”
The sanctuary certainly needed a strong, organized personality to helm its many moving parts. From humble beginnings in the garage on the Simonettis’ 120-acre farm, the sanctuary grew to include multiple beginnings to accommodate animals at different stages of development.
The infants would be housed in a building that the volunteers called the nursery school. Then, once the animals grew, they would be relocated to the next building, dubbed the grammar school.
Eventually, the animals would be moved to the area “out back,” which offered the most freedom to roam and the greatest isolation from human contact, where they would live until they were ready to be released back into the wild.
The sanctuary’s daily operations required a tremendous effort from its all-volunteer staff. Working in three shifts that often stretched much longer than their allotted time, the staff might have to feed up to 100 fawns a day.
Volunteers would have to log the intake of each individual animal to monitor for sickness or malnutrition, wrangling crowds of animals that had no interest in standing still.
Then, of course, came the inevitable consequence of feeding vast numbers of baby animals. “You’re gonna clean more poop than you’ve ever seen,” Cruickshank laughed.
At the sanctuary, animal poop claimed a long list of casualties: equipment, many pairs of jeans, a cell phone more than once, and the continued service of some first-time volunteers who got a glimpse of the required cleanup and then never returned.
Not all of the volunteer work was so full of hilarity. Some of the animals would come in injured beyond their ability to save, and volunteers would be tasked with the emotional strain of putting a dying animal to rest.
Despite the long hours, filthy work, and emotional difficulty of the worst cases, however, Antler Ridge volunteers talk about the sanctuary in glowing terms.
“It’s always been my happy place to regain my sanity,” said volunteer Gloria Burbage. “I was there every Saturday, as long in the season as I could go. My four hour shift usually turned into eight. Where else am I gonna go that’s any better than this?”
“The first time I drove up there, it was like going to Disney World,” Bennet said. “It was a magical place.”
All of the volunteers have stories about specific animals they remember. There’s Doodles the blind raccoon, Sophia the therapy pig who would knock down plastic bowling pins with her ball, albino squirrels that became education animals, and Meadow the duckling who took a long time to remember that she was a duck.
With Antler Ridge shutting down, the closest animal rehabilitation centers are now at some distance. Antler Ridge’s remaining animal rescues and much of its equipment went to Wildlife Freedom Rescue, run by Dolores “Dee” Garbowski in Wanaque. Woodlands Wildlife Refuge in Pittstown is also open. Wild Baby Rescue in Blairstown is not open this season.
There are daunting obstacles to anyone hoping to open their own wildlife rescue. “It’s a huge commitment,” Cruickshank said. “You have to have the property. You have to have the will. You have to have finances, because before you can legally raise funds, you’ve got to go through the IRS process to get your 501(c)(3).”
The process of becoming an officially licensed animal rehabilitator with the state of NJ is also an extensive process, including a one-year apprenticeship at minimum in addition to other requirements.
In the meantime, Bennett has some advice to offer anyone who comes across an injured, sick, or abandoned wild animal. “Do not handle wildlife without proper equipment, meaning heavy gloves. You use a blanket or a towel. If it’s a bird, call the Raptor Trust… or somebody that knows what they’re doing, because you could do a lot of damage on an animal you don’t know anything about. Wild animals can do major damage if they’re scared.”
The various volunteers from Antler Ridge hope to continue some animal rescue work where they can. Many of them expressed gratitude for the rigorous mentorship and animal care lessons that Simonetti taught them.
“I would say we miss Kelly tremendously, because she was so dedicated to this organization,” said volunteer Jean Scapicchio. “She put her whole heart into it. She gave so much of her time and energy and taught us so many things, not only about how to take care of animals, but just her friendship.”
The friendships that formed with and around Simonetti at Antler Ridge formed fast and continue strong. “It was like therapy for a lot of people,” Bennet said. “It really was. We all stayed together for the animals and we made so many of our new best friends that we would have never met, from different personalities, different backgrounds. Lifelong friends.”
As the closure sale wound down, the last of Antler Ridge’s volunteers began packing. It had been a long day, and they were in the mood for Brook Hollow’s wine smoothies. They made their way to the winery as a group, everyone in their Antler Ridge shirts for one last time.
Chip O'Chang, Contributing Writer
Chip O'Chang is an educator, fiction writer, and lifelong resident of New Jersey. He has also written for My Life Publications and NJ Indy. He lives in the NJ Skylands with his partner, two cats, and and a bearded dragon.