Wildlife rescue center is 10 feet from trouble
Newhouse Wildlife Rescue in Chelmsford is appealing a town ordinance that requires enclosures to be set back from the property line. The estimated cost? $60,000.
Jane Newhouse looks in an enclosure to check on a pair of baby otters that may be displaced if a town ordinance is enforced.
By Cindy Cantrell, Globe Correspondent

CHELMSFORD — Inside the rehabilitation room of Newhouse Wildlife Rescue, founder Jane Newhouse checks on two river otters she is babysitting. The 3-month-old orphan pups chirp and play together while assorted baby bunnies, squirrels, and groundhogs recover from their own traumas in nearby incubators and cages.

The only other creature stirring is Nibi, a beaver who developed a fan following when a video went viral last fall depicting her joyfully damming the doorway to prevent the return of her nemesis, another beaver called Ziibi.Rising now from her blanket, the normally nocturnal Nibi commences an extensive grooming routine to pass the time while her outdoor semi-aquatic enclosure was being cleaned.

Ziibi made a pile of mud and sticks and escaped over the semi-aquatic enclosure in June. Newhouse staff was building a second enclosure for Nibi — who has been determined not ready for release — and the otters at the rescue when Newhouse received a cease-and-desist order.

She had dedicated the last five years to overseeing the intake, triage, and rehabilitation of injured and orphaned wildlife at her home without incident until June 29. That day, according to Chelmsford Town Manager Paul Cohen, an aggrieved neighbor (whose name has not been disclosed) alleged in a phone call and two follow-up emails that Newhouse released a raccoon that attacked and killed the neighbor’s chickens.

Despite Newhouse’s reassurances that raccoons are not released from her property — they are set free within 5 miles, or 5 miles from where they were found — the complaint triggered an Aug. 1 onsite visit that Chelmsford building commissioner Jose Negron described as “positive and pleasant’’ — though it did reveal a different issue. Newhouse was consequently instructed in a letter dated Aug. 3 to relocate the structures on her property that violate the town charter, which states that detached accessory buildings “shall be at least 10 feet from any side or rear lot line.’’

“Essentially, every enclosure we have is in violation,’’ said Newhouse, who intends to apply for a zoning variance. Otherwise, she estimates it would cost $60,000 to demolish and rebuild the two semi-aquatic enclosures constructed atop foundations as well as multiple other enclosures that cannot be moved due to their cement bases.

“I knew I didn’t need a building permit [for the outdoor enclosures], but not looking at all the town rules was pure ignorance and I do accept blame for that,’’ Newhouse said. “I feel so much guilt because the enclosures were built with donor funds. Even more upsetting is having to displace the animals for months while we try to rebuild.’’

In 2004, Newhouse was working full time as a veterinarian technician in Georgia while studying to become a veterinarian when her daughter, Sarah, was born with a rare congenital anomaly. Newhouse left medical school and relocated to Massachusetts so Sarah could be treated at Boston Children’s Hospital, where she passed away at age 6 on Dec. 21, 2010.

By 2018, Newhouse had transitioned to a career in construction when a local plumber discovered two emaciated baby raccoons days after removing the presumed mother from his warehouse.

“I called so many rehabbers, but it was baby season and they were all full. So I got my [wildlife rehabilitator] license to save them,’’ recalled Newhouse, who now has a 13-year-old son and a 6-year-old daughter. Her fiancée, Jonny Theriault, has become a member of her team, helping with animal care, building, and maintenance.

“I was going to do [wildlife rehabilitation] on the side, but then more and more people began reaching out’’ for help with animals, Newhouse said. “Slowly, it grew into what we have now.’’

She caps the number of animals in her care at 60, and estimates she has treated more than 1,000 raccoons, skunks, chipmunks, rabbits, squirrels, otters, beavers, and foxes among other species through donations to her nonprofit. Since wildlife rehabilitators are licensed but not paid by the state, she makes ends meet with funds from her Patreon subscribers, who receive exclusive content, including videos.

Newhouse said she also is deeply grateful for the 127,000 followers of the Newhouse Wildlife Rescue page on Facebook, as well as wider community support, which she calls “touching and a little overwhelming.’’

“It’s all the feelings. I’m so proud. I’m so grateful. I feel so much love. I’m also terrified about disappointing people,’’ Newhouse said. “But I tell my team we’re not alone, and that is enough to keep us going.’’

Tom Christiano, who interviewed Newhouse for his “Chelmsford News’’ show on local cable in October 2019, posted his letter of support on Facebook and encouraged others to submit their own to the Zoning Board of Appeals. In a phone interview, Christiano said he has long admired Newhouse as a “kind and warmhearted person.’’

“I’m a big animal lover,’’ he said, “and I’m thrilled that she and all of her helpers and volunteers are doing so much good work helping animals survive and thrive.’’

Animal control officer Casey Smith said her team at Billerica & Tewksbury Animal Control works with Newhouse on a weekly basis. Recent rescues include a red fox suffering from sarcoptic mange; an opossum that was badly injured in an attack; a coyote pup that required help removing a plastic container from his head; and a raccoon that needed to be monitored for rabies.

“Some rehabbers only take certain species, but we text a photo to Jane and her answer is usually, ‘Bring it to me,’’’ Smith said. “It’s a blessing that she’s full time and so close, which means we can tend to more animals. I don’t know where we’d be without her.’’

Mary Petrino, who has been a licensed wildlife rehabilitator since 2007, recently worked with Newhouse to rescue an ailing porcupine and a skunk whose foot was pinned in a rat trap.

“The rehab community is behind Jane 100 percent,’’ said Petrino, who lives in Chelmsford.

Waltham resident Sue Benoit, a volunteer who captures injured wildlife and transports them to licensed rehabilitators, praised Newhouse’s efforts to diagnose and then rid a sickly squirrel of tapeworms.

“He went from death’s door to releasable,’’ said Benoit. “Jane is able to pull off miracles with these animals because she cares so much.’’

According to Evan Belansky, community development director for the town of Chelmsford, the Zoning Board of Appeals has received “dozens and dozens’’ of emails on Newhouse’s behalf. After her application for zoning relief is received, he said board members will likely make a site visit prior to the public hearing, with abutters within 300 feet notified in advance.

Newhouse said she is currently working on the paperwork to submit her appeal application by the Sept. 7 deadline for a public hearing.

Cohen, who clarified that the matter is “solely within the realm and responsibility’’ of the Zoning Board of Appeals, said, “The town has to respond to the complaint. That’s how we serve the public.

“But everyone values Jane’s services to our community and wildlife. You’re seeing that type of spirit from the public response.’’

Cindy Cantrell can be reached at cindycantrell20@gmail.com.