Home Nonprofit organization Homeless as a teenager, Tracy Belle now rehabilitates Iowa birds, coyotes, raccoons and more through her nonprofit, Wildthunder WARS

Homeless as a teenager, Tracy Belle now rehabilitates Iowa birds, coyotes, raccoons and more through her nonprofit, Wildthunder WARS


Kaylin Butterfield/Little Village

When animals get sick or injured, they go to the vet. But what happens to wild animals like owls, coyotes and deer when their lives are at stake? Tracy Belle, director and founder of Wildthunder Wildlife & Animal Rehabilitation and Sanctuary (WARS) comes to their rescue, alongside her team of generous volunteers. From baby raccoons to majestic bald eagles, Wildthunder WARS strives to give every animal new life.

Located in Independence, Iowa, Wildthunder WARS is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization that is both state and federally licensed in animal welfare and rescue. At the helm is Belle, a master class wildlife rehabilitator who has been saving wildlife for over 25 years. The organization works with many injured and orphaned species, including bobcats, coyotes, foxes, deer, reptiles, bats, raptors and more! The ultimate goal of the organization is to monitor the treatment and rehabilitation of these animals by reintroducing them and eventually releasing them into their natural environment.

Belle’s story is difficult, full of hope.

“I’m a former homeless street kid,” Belle said of why she was drawn to helping animals. “I left home at 15 and was virtually homeless until I was 18…I learned what it was like to be scared, to be hungry, to be alone and to be undesirable.”

She was introduced to animal care after staying with rehabilitators in the 80s, but really got into it in 1995. She studied under a masters in wildlife rehabilitation and joined the Raptor Academy at the University of Minnesota, where she studied raptor medical care, management and release, and ambassador care. After school, Belle started Wildthunder WARS in 2000, which became a nonprofit in 2016.

She sees a direct line between her struggles growing up homeless and her organization.

“We usually work with animals that no one else will…to give them a second chance,” she said. “It was a path I was put on so I could help others today. I want others to know they are not alone.

With the help of volunteers and the community, Wildthunder WARS has turned into an incredible care center with a medical suite complete with anesthesia machines, metal operating tables, incubators, oxygen chambers and more. Volunteers are essential to her growth and Belle is always looking for people to tend the lawn, build and modify enclosures and help the animals.

At the end of November, they will unveil their new 100ft flight enclosure. This will give hawks, hawks, eagles and other raptors a chance to exercise their wings before returning to the wild. The facility also has access to acres of forested area and streams where rehabilitated animals are released.

Of course, running a facility like this comes with a big bill. Generous donations from the community keep the lights on, the medical machines running and the animals fed.

They also partner with other organizations such as Saving Our Avian Resources (SOAR) in Dedham, Iowa, and work alongside humane societies and the local sheriff’s office to bring in injured and unwanted animals. So if you find an injured creature, be sure to reach out. Although it is tempting to treat the animal yourself, it is best left in the hands of experts.

Tracy Belle founded Wildthunder WARS in 2000. It was granted non-profit status in 2016. – Courtesy of the org

If you’re looking for a new furry, feathered or scaly friend, there are currently several animals up for adoption at Wildthunder WARS And if you can’t bond with one, Belle strongly encourages people to adopt from shelters and local shelters.

When Wildthunder WARS isn’t busy with his patients, he hosts information sessions at libraries and state parks. They even teach classes, like Pet CPR, at their educational center.

Running a rehab center isn’t always pretty. While the hope is to return all animals to the wild, not all patients survive. Belle explained that television and Hollywood give the wrong impression of what really goes on in drug treatment centers.

“[People] see that animal come in, and you have this big, beautiful way out, but what people don’t understand is that it’s not the percentage. They don’t understand the broken birds, the broken animals, the maggot infestation…they don’t understand the percentage of days you feel like you can’t keep doing this,” Belle said.

Volunteers can spend weeks caring for an animal to regress it. Sometimes patients recover, but due to a debilitating injury that would make life in the wild nearly impossible, they are humanely euthanized. It may be a hard thing to hear, but not all animals can be made into ambassadors for the establishment. If there is no quality of life, the nicest thing to do is to end their suffering.

Fortunately, many stories do not end in tragedy. Belle fondly remembers going to rehab for a newborn deer named Stinky due to the smell of his wound.

Injured deer Stinky had a successful rehabilitation at Wildthunder WARS – Courtesy of the org

“He had a fractured skull. He had one eye that he couldn’t blink properly, and that was a problem. But the one-eyed deer can survive! He has integrated very well into the herd. Later that fall we released him and we have pictures of Stinky trotting along with the rest of the deer.

Stinky is just one of many animals Belle and her team have rescued. A snake named Big Hoss has been found wandering in Waterloo. He had pneumonia and was not expected to survive. But after a few weeks of intensive treatment under the right temperature and humidity, he fully recovered.

Some cases are even more difficult.

“Scrimshaw came to us a tiny little baby raccoon,” Belle said, adding that he was bitten deeply. “[He] had holes in its face, and as it grew, it ate and water came out!

Despite all this, and after extensive medical treatment, he was still able to fish and spend the winter at the facility. A niche served as a cave and it stuck its head out to feed. Like Stinky and Big Hoss, Scrimshaw survived and joined the wild.

Success stories are what keep Belle and her volunteers going. You can watch many amazing releases on their Facebook page.

Without Wildthunder WARS, countless animals would suffer needless suffering or never find their way back to the woods. Fortunately, Belle and her team are there to save the day.

Erin Casey (her), urban fantasy author and founder of the Writers’ Rooms, spent several months volunteering at a raptor rescue center. This article originally appeared in Little Village issue 312.