Mother nurturer: Why Hope Swinimer dedicated her life to wild animals
Hope Swinimer’s name has become synonymous with wildlife rehabilitation in Nova Scotia and beyond, and her fervour for the field has had a marked impact on how people think about the natural world.
As Hope Swinimer scoops a pine marten pierced with porcupine quills from a cardboard box, she gasps and appears to choke back tears.
It’s only the third time she’s ever seen the endangered weasel-like mammal at Hope for Wildlife, her charitable facility in Seaforth, N.S., despite having worked in wildlife rehabilitation for more than 25 years.
“My whole life, I’ve had a passion for these critters,” said Swinimer, noting there are only about 100 female American martens left in the province after being trapped to near extinction in the 1940s and 50s.
“They’re so agile and quick and they run through the treetops … but never, ever in my life have I seen one in the wild.”
Swinimer, 61, has come a long way from her humble beginnings as a manager at Dartmouth Veterinary Hospital in the mid-1990s, where she first began taking in injured wildlife.
Her name has become synonymous with wildlife rehabilitation in Nova Scotia and beyond, and her fervour for the field has had a marked impact on how people think about the natural world.
Standing atop a 12-metre-tall metal tower overlooking her vast 8.5-hectare property and the seaside community she has called home for more than two decades, Swinimer is unassuming about her remarkable life and abounding accomplishments.
The way she sees it, “I’m just living the way I want to live.”
“It’s actually the most amazing life, and I’m very happy with my choices,” said Swinimer, undaunted by the tower swaying in the wind.
Swinimer’s early years
Her love for animals blossomed as a young girl growing up in Argyle, N.S., a small coastal community with a large Acadian population on the province’s southwestern tip.
There, she spent much of her time immersing herself in her natural surroundings. She recalled her mother bringing her injured animals that she would find while gardening.
“My mom was a very strong influence, but I think also my personality type. I was very shy and tended to keep to myself a lot when I was younger,” she said, her voice gentle.
“I spent a lot of time in nature observing and learning, and I think that had a big impact, too. If you open your eyes and look around you, there are so many things to see and learn from.”
Swinimer said although her family was poor, “I didn’t know it.”
“I think it made me into the person I am today because material things don’t really matter at all to me,” said Swinimer.
“My dad’s idea of a fun Saturday night was to load us in the car and take us up to the blueberry fields and see how many black bears we could count…. I can remember some nights counting eight or nine black bears getting their fill of the berries.”
Although wildlife wasn’t always her primary focus during her younger adult years, her love for the natural world never wavered. But it was her time working as a certified veterinary practice manager at the Dartmouth Veterinary Hospital across the harbour from Halifax that solidified her destiny.
Swinimer, who is an accountant by trade, began taking an interest in the wildlife that would come through the doors of the clinic. Her first official wildlife patient was in 1995 — a robin that had been attacked by a cat.
At first, she didn’t have formal training in caring for injured animals. But as she started to learn, her future began to take shape.
“That’s when I got to stop and think, ‘All these dreams I’ve had my whole life, I could make it all happen.’ It wasn’t planned, I have to say, but it just happened and I embraced it,” said Swinimer, who gained more skills by taking courses through organizations like the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association and by visiting facilities all over the world.
Soon after, she started rehabilitating animals at her home in Eastern Passage, N.S., setting up cages in her backyard and a makeshift nursery inside a bedroom.
When the province’s Department of Natural Resources caught wind, it was determined a permit was required. But such a permit didn’t exist, and so Swinimer worked with the province to establish a licensing process in what would be the inception of her ongoing and sometimes arduous relationship with government.
Swinimer said many people don’t realize the red tape involved in saving wild animals. Her perseverance has broken down barriers — she was the first in the province allowed to rehabilitate white-tailed deer — and her media savviness has continually brought wildlife issues to the public eye.
In 1997, she moved to Seaforth, a community she found reminiscent of her hometown, and started the first privately owned wildlife rehabilitation centre in the province, which took in about 200 animals a year.
But as demand grew, so too did the need for a larger facility. And so, Swinimer relocated within Seaforth to a property she dubbed “the farm,” equipped with a 100-year-old barn and space to grow.
Fast forward 20 years, Hope for Wildlife — which is entirely solar powered — is now composed of an array of bustling sites including a veterinary hospital, intensive care unit, marine unit, bobcat enclosure, deer enclosure, nurseries, flight cages, fox cages, drop-off building, educational centres, gardens and intern living quarters.
About 5,500 animals come through its doors per year, and although helping those animals is at the top of her priority list, another big part of Swinimer’s mission is to educate the public in an effort to promote the coexistence of humans and wildlife.
The facility often welcomes school groups and the general public to tour its outdoor enclosures and interpretive centres.
“I want people to be more connected to nature, to understand what to do and what not to do,” said Swinimer, noting that only about one in every 10 calls results in an animal actually coming into the facility and much of her time is spent educating callers.
She’s also the subject of a documentary series — the aptly named Hope for Wildlife TV — which offers a behind-the-scenes look at the hard work, struggles and victories of wildlife rehabilitation. Season nine is currently in production.
Her skills as an accountant and veterinary practice manager are put to great use as the director of Hope for Wildlife. Along with helping rehab animals, she also takes care of payroll, maintenance and repairs, human resources, accounting, site design and overall management of the facility.
And she is resourceful. The operation, including its 12 employees, is funded through a number of revenue streams, including donations, raffles, gift shop sales and grants.
Tragedy at sea
Despite her seemingly unwavering positivity and drive, Swinimer has experienced great hardships, including the sudden death of her partner of 14 years, Reid Steward Patterson.
“I can remember when I first met him, I asked him what his dream was, and he said he was happiest when he was a fisherman,” said Swinimer, describing the 58-year-old man as introverted and funny with an endearingly grumpy demeanour.
On July 19, 2018, Patterson excitedly told Swinimer he was going swordfishing. She asked him not to go — the two had an agreement that he wouldn’t swordfish because she found it “very difficult to handle” given the dangers involved.
“He left, he gave me a kiss, he said he loved me, and I never saw him again,” said Swinimer, as a mother duck and several ducklings waddle down the driveway nearby.
Looking around the picturesque Hope for Wildlife property — lush with trees the pair planted together — Swinimer is constantly reminded of Patterson, who helped build many enclosures and buildings.
“I feel him here,” she said.
She smiles as she recalls Patterson feeding several fawns at once, skillfully juggling multiple bottles in each hand.
“He truly understood me and I think that was the hard part,” she said. “It’s not often in life you have somebody who accepts you for all your craziness.”
A way of life
When Swinimer is not meeting volunteers delivering new patients at the front gate or checking in on injured animals, she can often be found sitting at a wooden desk dotted with Post-it notes and papers in her apartment on the top floor of Hope for Wildlife’s three-storey Fenton Farmhouse.
Surveillance screens are spread across two monitors, allowing her to watch over the animals and employees as she sips a coffee and fields phone calls — sometimes upward of 150 a day.
She recognizes that living in the same building as nurseries, offices, a marine unit and intern bunkhouse is unusual, but it allows her to quickly respond to emergencies and facilitate the arrival of new patients at the around-the-clock operation.
She’s also easily able to connect with the staff and visitors of Hope for Wildlife, many of which she has had a lasting impact on.
For Erica Day, Swinimer changed the course of her life.
She started volunteering at Hope for Wildlife when she was just 11 years old, helping to clean out cages. Now at 26, Day will soon start training to become a veterinary technician.
“She has been a mentor for me personally, teaching me how to become a leader,” said Day, describing how the Hope for Wildlife team is like a family.
“I definitely was not a people person before I started working here. I’ve learned a lot of people skills and how to interact as a team member thanks to Hope.”
Swinimer said she has been inspired throughout her life by the courage and resolve of her family members.
Her mother and father got their Grade 12 equivalencies late in life, which taught her that it’s never too late for anything.
And her brother — an avid traveller — met a Russian woman in Africa and married her, despite the illegality of the nuptials at the time. The ordeal meant they had to go back to Russia for a time, but eventually both landed in Canada.
She attributes her success to her staunch commitment to the cause. She thrives off developing and evolving her goals, and is always dreaming up new projects and initiatives.
“I need two lifetimes to fulfil all my dreams. I have so many left to do,” she said with a laugh, noting she would someday like to be allowed to rehabilitate every species native to Nova Scotia.
‘I couldn’t be happier’
Swinimer’s childhood dream was to build a sanctuary for wildlife with no enclosures; a place where animals could roam free and live in harmony.
She chuckles and concedes that while that format wouldn’t work for obvious reasons — the food chain, for one — she has essentially brought the vision of her seven-year-old self to life.
“I see my dream having been realized and then some. I never thought for a moment that we could have the impact we probably have, and not just for the animals but for the people that come here,” said Swinimer, describing how she becomes teary-eyed reading letters from past interns who tell her she changed their lives.
“I wouldn’t want it any other way…. It’s busy and there’s times that I get really tired, but it’s my choice and I’m living the way I want to live, and I couldn’t be happier.”