One foot into the log cabin home of Max Soaper and his girlfriend Linda Williams, which sits on 500 acres in Henderson, Kentucky, and you realize it’s a cabin occupied by more than just two humans.
A playful skunk waddles through the dining room, while two cats lay at your feet with bellies up and a dog begs for a head pat. The living room fills with sounds of baby raccoons’ purrs eager for their next round of bottle-feeding. Just beyond those four walls the ultimate goal awaits the animals the couple rehabilitates through their sanctuary Misfit Island Wildlife Rescue Center — releasing those creatures back into the wild.
Outside of the cabin doors less than 50 feet away the couple’s dream is realized as more than 20 deer descend the hill to wait for feeding time, while several more graze in the front yard and watch the catfish splash in the pond. Squirrels, ducks, geese, peacocks, opossums, pigs, even a beaver named Tyler, who just celebrated her first birthday, all have a home at Misfit Island, which was founded as a nonprofit in 2011. Williams is a permitted licensed wildlife rehabilitator through the Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife, who provides medical care to the sick, injured, and orphaned animals. She has been rescuing animals for nearly 15 years since she began dating Soaper who has made it his life for the past 35 years.
“Every animal we have can come and go as they please,” says Soaper, who works on burping two baby raccoons after being bottle fed, “but they choose to stay.”
As of early April, Misfit Island has rescued 491 animals and released 473, leaving just 18 that either were shared with its network of rehabilitators who could possibly better care for the rehabilitated animals or they were euthanized. Misfit Island does a soft release with their animals; they are released on to Soaper’s property, which has been in his family since 1775, and continue to feed the animal for the rest of its life.
“If they are ever hurt or sick, they will come back,” says Williams.
“The bonding that we do now,” adds Soaper as he observes Williams feeding two-week-old raccoon babies, “some rehabbers say you shouldn’t bond with them and you should always wear gloves, but since we release them on the property, when they get injured, we want them to come back, and they do — and they bring their little ones.”
The task requires a lifestyle completely dedicated to saving the lives of animals and continuing to feed them. During the spring season, Williams and Soaper rarely sleep as caring for orphaned newborns occupies their time and the phone never stops ringing. Callers report foxes trapped in septic tanks, raccoons in attics, or injured deer on their property.
“It’s an amazing thing what we do, because we can coexist with animals,” says Williams. They acknowledge that coexistence is becoming less and less common.
“People really don’t care that much about wildlife,” says Soaper. “They like it, but they really don’t want it in their yards — they want to see it in a neighbor’s yard, in a zoo, or in a magazine.”
Soaper explains that people don’t realize that their homes and suburbs were once a wild animal’s habitat or breeding ground that has been uprooted. When the animals return each year to have their babies, they are having them in a newly built residential community. Members of the community will call the police department or the Department of Fish and Wildlife and those calls are later forwarded to Misfit Island.
The dedication of Williams and Soaper goes even further than losing sleep and opening their home to these furry creatures. Because the nonprofit has not yet received its 501(c)(3) designation (they are currently in the process of submitting the paperwork), the donations they do currently receive are not enough to keep the wildlife rescue center functioning. Soaper covers the cost to care for the animals including food, medical supplies, and vet bills. Misfit Island spends about $1,200 each week on food. Last year, the center spent about $38,000 in vet bills.
The high costs of running the center were a major influence on their decision to grant permission to JWM Productions, a production company based in Takoma Park, Maryland, to film their work in a four-part one-hour reality show titled “Bandit Patrol” on Nat Geo WILD, a sister network to National Geographic Channel. The show premiered in January 2014.
Soaper says he hopes the show’s popularity will entice people to donate supplies, their time, or money to help keep Misfit Island alive.
The show follows Williams and Soaper as they answer calls from the community and law enforcement, and the process it takes to rescue and care for the animals. The filming for the second season began in April and will last four to five months. The air date has not yet been announced. When the producers at JWM Productions first began pursuing the show idea and leaving voicemails in August 2013, Williams says she thought it was a prank — until the calls kept coming.
Soaper finally encouraged Williams to answer the inquiry one evening. One month later, after a practice taping for a promotional video for the network, they were “jumped to the top of the stack and were chosen over 1,000 other programs,” he says.
Filming lasted about four to five months beginning in February, just in time for the influx of newborn wildlife in spring as the producers followed the couple and two other local rehabbers Nancy Reynolds of Manitou, Kentucky, and Kristin Allen of Owensboro, Kentucky, during their rescues and rehabilitation work.
Soaper is quick to say that the care of the animal comes first and nothing is staged. If the crew misses a moment or it didn’t turn out how they wanted, Soaper says they don’t repeat it and it’s all real.
Soaper built the log cabin where he and Williams live on the edge of the farm about a mile into the woods, instead of living in the historic house visible from the road across from Henderson County High School where his family grew up. Signs warn trespassers and poachers to turn back, a common problem with their well-fed deer, and three separate gates can deter entry. Misfit Island is open for tours by appointment due to the couple’s hectic feeding schedules and rescues.
Both Soaper and Williams reiterate that they prefer spending time with animals rather than people.
“These animals suffer and no one pays any attention, because they are silent,” says Soaper. “When you look an animal in the eye, you know what it is thinking. It knows when you are trying to help it. We’ve walked up and let coyotes out of traps. They could tear you up, but they know you are there to help them and they won’t even growl at you.”