In spring of 2010, a fawn appeared in Jonathan Howard’s yard in the midst of his battle with kidney cancer. Although he was an avid deer hunter then, they connected immediately. He named her Lilly, and for the next two years, she wandered around Howard’s property by day and came to his door at nightfall to unwind on the papasam and sleep in his bed.
One night when Howard called for her, she didn’t come in.
“She turned around and looked at me, just the way she always did, and said, ‘nope, not tonight, daddy,’” Howard recalled, “And I never saw her again.”
The essence of their bond lives on through The Ark Wildlife Care and Sanctuary in Hilliard, where he continues to foster wildlife on a much wider scale. Howard launched the rehabilitation center shortly after Lilly left. In 2014, its sanctuary status was made official. The Ark is now a registered non-profit agency providing care, treatment and shelter to orphaned, surrendered, and injured wildlife.
Howard is currently caring for 83 animals - deer, raccoons, foxes, emus, coyotes, and an otter, among others. That’s just the count for the slow season. This year, the sanctuary took in 74 fawns, each of which was bottle-fed thrice daily by Howard himself.
The Ark’s ultimate goal is to release the animals back to their native habitat. But for those that are too frail to return to the wild, or that are dependent on human contact, The Ark becomes their permanent haven.
Serving as president of the organization, he alone does most of the work on the sanctuary. Every day, he’s up before the sun (well before it, during baby season) preparing bottles and formula. He feeds and medicates the animals, checks in with each one, and cleans the enclosures daily.
Howard takes calls for injured and orphaned wildlife and personally picks them up. He built dozens of the animals’ shelters himself. He treats dozens of animals each year, though unfortunately, some are beyond saving by the time that they get to The Ark - deer arriving there are prone to an extreme stress response that often leads to their death.
Volunteer veterinarians, Dr. Michael Paine and Dr. Alicia Emerson, are on-call and have generously treated The Ark’s wildlife well after office hours. With their help, Howard taught himself to suture, cast broken legs, and administer injections and IVs. The Ark has a small yet well-equipped medical room complete with an x-ray machine and surgery table, so the animals usually don’t have to leave the facility for treatment.
The vets share Howard's philosophy: they’ll do everything they can to save any animal with a will to live.
The sanctuary does not receive any state funding to cover costs, so help from the community keeps it running. Their feeding bill at the peak of baby season is more than $2,000 a month on top of the price of medical supplies, caging and bedding, and operating costs.Donations cover about half of the expenses for the year, and the board members’ families offset the rest. With no paid employees, the thousands of hours spent tending to the wildlife each year is volunteered.
“Every cent that's donated to us goes strictly to running the facility and caring for animals. I don’t know of any other charities that do that,” said Howard.
He’s saved hundreds of sick and injured animals, and buried almost as many. He tends to them with great devotion and mourns them in perfect grace.
“I bawled like a baby on some of them,” said Howard, “You put your heart and soul into saving one, you do everything you can, and you can't save them.”
Despite the heartache it creates and the continuous commitment that it requires (Howard hasn’t taken a vacation since 2009,) Howard is wholly dedicated to the sanctuary. He spends each day building and maintaining the sanctuary and caring for the wildlife. The animals adore Jonathan, and they are remarkably happy, well-fed, and loved.
Jonathan realized how fleeting life is when he had cancer, and how precious it is when he had Lilly. The wildlife continues to remind him of this every day.
“They come running to me when they won’t come to anyone else,” said Howard, “I’m their momma and their daddy and their security.”
To donate or volunteer, visit the Ark's website.