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ON THE SCENE: Adirondack Wildlife Refuge’s unexpected gift

Adirondack Wildlife Refuge co-owner Steve Hall poses at the wolf enclosure. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Sometimes when you’re down, help comes in unexpected ways. In the case of Steve and Wendy Hall, the founders and co-directors of the Adirondack Refuge Center in Wilmington, they not only received a life-affirming gift but, in turn, were able to do the same for the Hanczyk family, who had reached out to them.

At the time, the Hanczyks were dealing with nearly unbearable grief, the loss of their 25-year old daughter Kayla to cancer.

The Halls’ anguish began with the embarrassment of two bears in their custody escaping and on the lam in Wilmington’s forests. Two years later, that embarrassment turned to grief with losing their license to accept, rehabilitate and care for raptors: eagles, hawks, owls and other birds of prey. It was surely a death knell for a wildlife refuge, one might think. The Halls, however, survived because they still had many mammals and other critters in their care needing their skills. Plus, there was the arrival of the Hanczyk family.

The Halls started the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge two years after buying the former home of portrait artist Slayton Underhill in 2000. The house is located on 60 acres along the West Branch of the AuSable River just above where it becomes Lake Everest. The setting has everything a reclusive artist like Underhill and a would-be wildlife refuge could want: lots of privacy in a natural environment yet easy access being located along the Springfield Road. Furthermore, Underhill’s sprawling ranch house had plenty of rooms for raising a family and caring for wounded animals.

The Halls had arrived from Alaska with a wolf-dog hybrid named Chino and lots of experience rehabilitating wild animals. In 2004, Chino died of old age and was replaced two years later with Cree, a wolf pup. Within nine months, having developed to full size, Cree needed to be enclosed. And then came another wolf and a live-in crow leading to the establishment of the wildlife center in 2007. The Halls’ educational outreach programs soon became a hit as they took various raptors to meet and educate people of all ages about the challenges the birds face.

Adirondack Wildlife Refuge and Rehab Center co-owner Wendy Hall, far left, poses with Erin and Annette Hanczyk on Sunday, Sept. 6 at the refuge’s Kayla Hanczyk Educational Center in Wilmington. Kayla, who died of cancer at the age of 25, was the daughter of Annette and sister of Erin. (Provided photo — Naj Wikoff)

Kim Lawrence specializes in raccoons and similar species and describes the refuge center as a dream facility. She said it’s a place where staff, resources and volunteers come together in the interest of the animals living here in the Adirondacks. Debbie Philp, who rehabs turtles, and pollinator rehabbers Jackie and Kevin Wood all agree and stressed the importance of the center’s educational programming.

In the spring of 2018, two bears — Ahote and Luvey — escaped. They had been adopted the year before to help educate the public about bears. The good news is that they were separately sighted within a couple of weeks, as by then everyone in town was on the lookout. Then the problem became how to get the bears home. Using a tranquilizer gun so they could place the bears in the back of a pickup was the last thing they’d consider.

“I’m 72 years old, 4 miles from home with a bear that’s not going to get in my truck,” said Steve Hall about finding Ahote at a parking lot near Stewart Mountain. “I’m thinking, ‘OK, general, what’s your plan?’ I called Hannah at the refuge and told her to get over to Stewart Mountain. She arrives, and the only thing I can think of is, let’s walk home and see if Ahote follows, and that’s what happened. Two days later, a neighbor, who lives a mile away, called and said I’m pretty sure your other bear is here. She was, and Caroline and Hannah walked her home.”

In the fall of 2019, following a record-breaking summer with more than 50,000 visitors, state and federal regulators came down hard on the Halls. The refuge had grown organically over the years, as expected with the Halls’ free-spirited creative approach to life that enabled them to adapt to changing circumstances. When it came to caring and rehabilitating animals, and educating people, the Halls excelled. When it came to staying-abreast of state and federal forms and regulations based on a more zoo-like, veterinarian-like management approach, they were not up for the task.

“I made a mistake,” said Wendy Hall. “There are so many wounded animals, even more now with COVID. I can’t stop doing paperwork and interact with bureaucrats. That’s my bad. And it is, as that’s the way it works.”

The loss of their ability to house, rehab, release and educate with raptors was like a death in the family, especially for Wendy, who excelled in aviary care. Birds that she knew as well as any mother knows her children were taken away. Her grief was as profound as any parent who lost a child or person who lost a beloved pet.

Into this darkness came Erin Hanczyk seeking a favor.

Erin told the Halls that her sister-in-law Kayla, a graduate of the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, had died of cancer, which shattered her family. Erin said that the family wanted to give back to an environmental wildlife-supporting organization and that the refuge immediately came to her and her husband’s mind. She said Kayla’s love for wolves and the Adirondacks made the decision a no-brainer. Initially, Erin pitched the Halls if they could donate money to cover food for the wolves to honor Kayla. The Halls readily agreed.

The Hanczkys then launched a Facebook-based fund drive. Their vision soon expanded to include upgrading the wolf enclosures. Kayla’s employer, Northline Utilities, kicked in $10,000. The family, many living four hours away near Fulton, made the drive up, throwing themselves into the work of transforming the Wildlife Refuge Center. The Halls felt that Kayla deserved greater recognition, suggesting using the Northline donation to help fund an education center in her name. In no time, it was done and dedicated this past Sunday, Sept. 6.

“The family put this whole thing together themselves,” said Wendy Hall. “It’s the most incredible act of love I have ever seen. It helped me get through a very rough time. It shows that in a time of doubt, pain, chaos and unknowing when people are losing everything, we can see a family held together by love and hope. The Hanczkys will be creating a garden here as a memorial for people who have lost loved ones. The building of this education center is just one step; there are more to come.”

“We lost our daughter. Nothing will change that,” said Kayla’s mom, Annette Hanczyk, addressing those assembled for the dedication on Sept. 6. “Because of all of you and all your support, we will hold on. We have expanded our family; everyone in the wildlife refuge and Kayla’s friends have become part of our family. Building this place has been a time of healing. It’s great knowing that Kayla’s spirit will live on here.”

Later Annette said that her family’s bond has always been solid no matter the circumstances. She said working at the center until she was utterly exhausted helped with her healing, and now the Halls and their staff are part of her extended family. She credits the Halls as helping her family heal and find a path out of their darkness.

“I’ve learned courage,” said Wendy Hall. “When everything was coming down on my head, because of things I did wrong, every time I looked around and didn’t see my birds, I knew it was my fault. It was heartbreaking. My attention was diverted by watching the Hanczyk’s build and build. Then COVID came. I assumed they’d stop coming, but they didn’t. They taught me what determination is about and to be determined myself. I’m now a different person.”

Steve Hall said that he, Wendy, their family and their team are getting stronger and more professional. Hannah Cromie has taken over the raptor side of the equation. State inspection is on hold because of COVID, but once done and their upgrades are approved, Hannah will get her rehab license, allowing them to rebuild that aspect of their services.

In the meantime, they are busier than ever, and the Kayla Hanczyk Educational Center in Wilmington will soon be offering educational programming.