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At Holly’s Nest, two macaws named Jimmy Buffet and Bruce Springsteen flap their wings and dance to the radio beneath a satellite dish. Blue jay BJ sits on a railing and poses for a glamorous photo. Meanwhile, outsiders in the wild – an albino fawn, a pygmy raccoon and a disabled squirrel – frolic in their enclosures in 90-degree heat.

These and hundreds of other wild animals live along a dirt road off Highway 501 near Holly’s Nest in Sanford.

Byron and Kim Wortham opened Holly’s Nest, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Sanford, in memory of their late daughter Holly, an artist and animal lover who died in a car accident during her senior year of high school 20 years ago.

At Holly’s Nest, Byron and Kim Wortham work tirelessly to assist injured and abandoned animals so they can be safely released back into the wild. Their animal kingdom includes hundreds of animals and buckets full of watermelon snacks, and just three people run the entire operation.

Humans are the greatest threat

A study of wildlife rehabilitation centers across the country found that nearly 40% of animals were admitted due to human disturbance.

“Between December 1st of last year and January 15th, I took in 25 injured owls because they had ended up in the garbage,” said Byron Wortham. “There was a McDonald’s bag with food in it on the side of the road. They were trying to eat, and then a car came along.”

Most of the animals Byron Wortham has seen are injured because people do not control their pets or because they remove vegetation that serves as a food source for wildlife.

“I held a little blue jay the other day and it was perfect,” said Kim Wortham. “They brought it in because it had been chased and bitten by a cat and was dead within two days.”

A baby raccoon and a baby gray fox relax in their hammock at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC, on Friday, July 5, 2024.A baby raccoon and a baby gray fox relax in their hammock at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC, on Friday, July 5, 2024.

A baby raccoon and a baby gray fox relax in their hammock at Holly’s Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC, on Friday, July 5, 2024.

18-hour working days

Since the beginning of the year, the Worthams have rescued 588 animals – 121 fawns, 234 songbirds, 59 birds of prey, 47 rabies vector species (raccoons, foxes, skunks), 29 waterfowl, three wild birds and 95 small mammals (opossums, rabbits, squirrels). Last year, Holly’s Nest rescued 1,293 animals, and since it opened, it has cared for animals from more than half of North Carolina’s 100 counties.

“It’s like Disneyland for animals,” said Mary Boerman, a volunteer at Holly’s Nest.

Kim Wortham holds baby raccoons being rehabilitated at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC on Friday, July 5, 2024.Kim Wortham holds baby raccoons being rehabilitated at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC on Friday, July 5, 2024.

Kim Wortham holds baby raccoons being rehabilitated at Holly’s Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC on Friday, July 5, 2024.

Janet Mason, founder of the nonprofit Horse and Buddy, said she discovered Holly’s Nest when she found an injured pigeon. She messaged Byron Wortham at 6 a.m. to ask if she should bring the pigeon, and he responded immediately.

As Mason began bringing in more animals, she became friends with the Worthams. The couple spends 18 hours a day, five months a year, feeding animals in need. Mason would stop by to bring food her mother had cooked for the Worthams, who sometimes didn’t come in for lunch until well after dinnertime.

April through October are the busiest months at Holly’s Nest – that’s when all the babies are born. Around the house you’ll find oranges, watermelon, chicken, vanilla cookies, old-fashioned oats – the Worthams will try anything. Anything to get the babies to eat. They feed and care for them until they’re grown and ready to be released back into the wild.

Tim Sweeney, owner of Epic Games and developer of the video game Fortnite, gave Holly’s Nest 8,000 acres of land to release wild animals so they would never have to worry about humans again.

A baby great horned owl flies in its enclosure at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC on Friday, July 5, 2024.A baby great horned owl flies in its enclosure at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC on Friday, July 5, 2024.

A baby great horned owl flies in its enclosure at Holly’s Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC on Friday, July 5, 2024.

The rest of the year the Worthams spend repairing enclosures, spreading gravel, or caring for other animals that are brought in, such as owls. Byron Wortham also educates thousands of people about conservation at educational events in special education schools, the VA, parks, country clubs, and more.

He compares his work to farming. “You have to prepare for the next season,” he says. “And you’re always thinking about it.” Byron Wortham can only leave Holly’s Nest for a few days at a time. As an experienced and retired UPS driver, he can’t take a vacation. Who else would take care of the animals?

Does it ever get too much for me? “For me? Yes,” says Kim Wortham. “Yes, it does. Coffee helps. Naps help.”

She said she sometimes wakes up in the middle of the night, “so I check the incubators, check the babies.”

What makes the Worthams wake up every morning and do this work with enthusiasm? Ultimately, says Byron Wortham, it’s “the love of my daughter. She loved this.”

A photo of Holly Wortham is displayed on the refrigerator in Bryon and Kim Wortham's home in Sanford, North Carolina. The Worthams opened Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in memory of their daughter Holly, who died in a car accident in 2004.A photo of Holly Wortham is displayed on the refrigerator in Bryon and Kim Wortham's home in Sanford, North Carolina. The Worthams opened Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in memory of their daughter Holly, who died in a car accident in 2004.

A photo of Holly Wortham is displayed on the refrigerator in Bryon and Kim Wortham’s home in Sanford, North Carolina. The Worthams opened Holly’s Nest Animal Rescue in memory of their daughter Holly, who died in a car accident in 2004.

A beaver dam in a bathtub

Kim Wortham’s favorite animal is the beaver. “They just cry, they’re like children,” she said.

“Bucky, darling, it’s time to get up. For God’s sake!” she calls to the sleeping animal. Finally, she manages to wake Bucky the beaver from his nap and take a bath.

While Bucky builds a dam in the tub that used to be Holly’s, Kim Wortham talks about how she tries to stay close to her daughter. She talks about the tangible connections she has with her daughter – holly wreaths, stained glass made by Holly, spending time in Holly’s old room.

Bucky the beaver enjoys a peach while relaxing in a bathtub at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC, on Friday, July 5, 2024.Bucky the beaver enjoys a peach while relaxing in a bathtub at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC, on Friday, July 5, 2024.

Bucky the beaver enjoys a peach while relaxing in a bathtub at Holly’s Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC, on Friday, July 5, 2024.

Reflecting on how things changed for the couple and their three other children after Holly’s death, Kim Wortham said, “We all tried to do better. I think we tried to live for her.”

After the accident, she worked in the library and only saw school children. People always wanted to sit with her and talk about how she was doing.

Kim Wortham quit her job, then she and Byron got a small mammal care permit to care for squirrels, rabbits and opossums. Collecting those animals, she said, “made me want to get in the car and interact with people.”

A line from a Leonard Cohen poem stuck in her mind the whole time: “There’s a crack in everything, a crack. That’s how the light gets in.”

Young mockingbirds are fed at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC on Friday, July 5, 2024.Young mockingbirds are fed at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC on Friday, July 5, 2024.

Young mockingbirds are fed at Holly’s Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC on Friday, July 5, 2024.

Restoring the balance of nature

Over the years, the Worthams have read magazines and watched documentaries. It’s hard to know how to care for different animals because “when you go online and read things,” says Byron Wortham, “they’re opinions. There are five or six different opinions on the same thing.”

Most of the time, however, they learned from their experiences.

“I don’t want anyone to ever call me a wildlife expert,” said Byron Wortham. “I’m just a guy who cares deeply about the issue. And I do my best to help.”

Holly’s Nest receives no state or local funding. All expenses are paid for by donations or out of pocket.

To stay healthy, animals need to eat a lot. Byron Wortham says deer are the most expensive, at $600 a piece. “I’ve killed 121 so far this year,” he said. “So put that into a calculator.”

A fawn relaxes at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC on Friday, July 5, 2024.A fawn relaxes at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC on Friday, July 5, 2024.

A fawn relaxes at Holly’s Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC on Friday, July 5, 2024.

Five minutes of freedom

At Holly’s Nest, the Worthams don’t just care for the wildlife, they live among it. The basement of the house is home to several animals, especially those that need to cool off in the heat. The Worthams have given up their downstairs bathroom, which is down the hall from the kitchen, to Bucky the beaver, and other animals live in the room right next to Holly’s.

Although they don’t name most of the animals, the Worthams have fond memories of many of them. They spend weeks or months raising each animal – as long as it takes for them to be ready to leave the nest.

One of the red foxes being rehabilitated at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC is seen on Friday, July 5, 2024.One of the red foxes being rehabilitated at Holly's Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC is seen on Friday, July 5, 2024.

One of the red foxes being rehabilitated at Holly’s Nest Animal Rescue in Sanford, NC is seen on Friday, July 5, 2024.

But they are not afraid to let go. There are many more animals in line who need support from Holly’s Nest. “I’m not going to give you the whole upstairs bathroom,” Kim Wortham said, looking at Bucky.

Byron Wortham recalled the many times he has released a bald eagle back into the wild. “There’s just nothing there,” he said. “You just want to salute.”

Byron Wortham says it sometimes feels like these animals survive longer in their enclosures than in the wild. But, he notes, “at the end of the day, five minutes of freedom is better than a life in captivity.”

Learn more about Holly’s Nest

Holly’s Nest is not allowed to receive visitors under state law. To learn more about Holly’s Nest or to donate, visit hollysnest.org. Check out their Facebook and Instagram pages to see educational videos and animal releases.

The News & Observer’s Inside Look takes readers behind the scenes and highlights the people and places of our community.

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