Marty Rush, 69, of Mt. Juliet, TN, widely known for her work rescuing and rehabilitating wild animals, died Friday, January 8, 2016, at Summit Hospital after a brief illness.
She had dedicated more than 30 years to the care of animals, first as director of volunteers for the Cumberland Wildlife Foundation and then at her home in Mt. Juliet, where she lived with her husband, songwriter/producer Alan Rush and two children, Gregory (Nayla), now living in Alexandria, Virginia, and Carrie (Brian) O’Connor, of Lebanon, TN.
Friends and associates lauded Marty as a tireless champion for animals and an advocate for respect and compassion for all living things.
“She taught thousands of kids about raptors and other animals and why they were important to our world,” said Doug Markham, public information officer for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, referring to the programs she carried into schools and camps, part of a wide educational outreach.
“She always emphasized that every animal has its place,” added Nancy Garden, director of education at Owl’s Hill Nature Sanctuary in Brentwood from 1996-2013, “even the skunks and snakes and spiders, things they might not like.”
After Cumberland Wildlife Foundation closed its doors and its eagle hacking program was transferred to Dollywood, “people started calling Marty at home,” said her husband. She obtained state and federal permits and turned their home and yard into the Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation Center. It served as triage, ICU, recovery ward and therapy clinic for everything from mice to mountain lions, from cardinals to vultures—essentially every mammal and large bird native to Tennessee.
“I can honestly say there were only a few she never got,” said Carrie, “and that would be a black bear and a bobcat. And besides the native birds, she’d get migrants, including a seagull, broad-winged and Harris’s hawk. Along the way, there was a ptarmigan, an alligator, an emu and a Patagonian mara. She usually didn’t take in domestic animals in, but she’d help them find a home.”
The phone would ring, said Alan, “at any time of the day or night. Many times on Thanksgiving or Christmas we’d be going to pick up an animal and work on it.”
She spoke to groups ranging from pre-schools to retirement homes, from scout troops to college classrooms, letting people get up close and personal with animals and sharing a message of conservation and respect. She did presentations at the Wilson County Fair and the Tennessee State Fair, and had an exhibit and program at the Nashville Lawn & Garden Show for over 20 years. Those speaking engagements, profiles on Nashville television stations, and an early appearance on Animal Planet expanded her reputation greatly. She got animals, according to Carrie, “from practically every state that touches Tennessee and some that didn’t.”
“She got calls from England,” added Alan, “and she finally decided she wasn’t going to be able to do much with those, since everything operated on donations.”
“It went from a couple of calls a day to 30 or 40 a day,” said Carrie. “I think the first year it was about five or six hundred animals, and by the next year it was over a thousand.” The peak was 1,400 animals in one year. Many were too sick or injured to be rehabilitated, but those that weren’t were cared for until they could be released or used in programs.
“She was the one we called if someone called us about an injured hawk on the road or something like that,” said TWRA’s Markham. She took in a lot of birds, and it was a relief to us knowing she was there. She had a great conscience and she worried about getting them rehabilitated and back out into the wilderness as often as possible. She was very conscientious about it and cared as much as anybody I know about the animals she was trying to rehabilitate.”
That compassion ran deep.
“Somebody had a white duck and it was blind so my mom said she’d keep it and take care of it,” said Carrie. “It was in a cage but one night a raccoon chewed off half its beak. My mother spent a year-and-a-half preparing food for that duck and hand-feeding it three times a day. It died on the operating table having a prosthetic beak put on.”
“She never turned anything down,” said Jean Buchanan, director of Owl’s Hill from 1990-2009, “and if she had a starling, it got the same attention as a barn owl or great horned owl. She was never going to turn anything away. She was sometimes up with baby animals three or four times a night, taking care of these orphaned birds, until they were feathered out and began to be self-feeding. At the time there were three or four others doing rehab, but they had very stringent controls, like they’d only do deer or raccoons or songbirds. With Marty it was whatever and she gave them very good care and lots of attention, and she wasn’t in the best of health herself. I think often it was a struggle for her.
“With our hacking box, she was just like a mother hen, wanting to make sure everything was going to be alright with them. She brought countless birds to us that she had raised as orphans or had been injured until she thought they were ready to release to the wild. During the years I was there, we released 181 birds of prey to the wild, and I would say 150 of those came from Marty. I don’t know how she did it.”
Her presentations at Owl’s Hill, which had day camps for children, were extremely popular.
“You never knew what she was going to arrive with—not just hawks and owls, but opossums, skunks, mice, whatever anybody brought to her,” said Buchanan.
“Children sometimes came year after year,” added Garden, “and those who’d been there before would always ask, ‘What day is Marty coming?'”
“Her house,” said Buchanan, “was wall-to-wall cages and animals. People would drop them off in the middle of the night and she wouldn’t even know who had brought them. She brought them to us when she thought they were ready to go.”
All of those animals, of course, required a lot of food.
“Hunters would donate carcasses,” said Carrie. “Sometimes they’d keep the good stuff and give her the rest, and she’d be out there with giant cleavers hacking it up. Sometimes they weren’t field dressed at all and the animals would get the benefit of the entire animal.”
“I would call her when I saw a deer on the side of the road,” said Carolyn Sells, a friend from her days on Music Row. “She and Alan might come get it or she might say, ‘Freezer’s full right now,’ but thanks for calling!’”
“I remember Mom had to tube feed one of the birds of prey,” said Carrie, “and she had to liquefy the food. She got an old blender and put frozen dead mice in it and was able to put that in a blender and tube feed that bird. She was tough.”
“We did have separate blenders!” added Alan.
Marty was born Martha Joan Ragland on January 22, 1946, in Oklahoma City, one of seven siblings, including Cynthia Johnson of Yukon, OK, Alice Rose Streigel of Marysville, WA, Mary Beth Slonicker of Whidbey Island, WA, and Peter Ragland of Oklahoma. She was predeceased by two brothers, John and Walter, and by her parents, Hal and Jessie Ragland.
“They were very poor,” said Alan. “They had two small houses, like sharecropper cabins, and they slept in one and had the kitchen and living area in the other. They had an outhouse. When it was time to go back to school, her dad would take some cardboard and draw around each of their feet and go buy shoes. They each had one pair through the school year and in the summer they would be barefoot.”
She went to McGinnis High School and married Alan on March 14, 1966. Alan had signed a songwriting deal with Combine Music, and they moved to Nashville.
“When the kids got big enough,” said Alan, “she started working,” and she spent a number of years at Combine Music and Monument Records. The Music Row community served as extended family, as did some of the animals that, because they couldn’t be released, became “permanent residents.”
“There was a crow named Waldo who thought she was his mom,” said Carrie, “and even when he was 14 years old, he greeted her like a baby crow would. He always wanted mom to hold him and he’d jump up on her and sit on her lap when he could.”
“She had a groundhog named Pig Boy who just ran around the house like a dog and hibernated in the winter,” added Buchanan. “And she had this barn owl named Bobby, and he was just her special owl. She brought him out and did programs with the summer campers and when he got old and arthritic she wanted to know if we’d build him an exhibit so he could retire him to Owl’s Hill. He was with us for another three or four years before he died.”
“She had adopted the wildlife rescue catch phrase ‘Saving tomorrow’s wildlife today,’” said Alan. “It was her motto.”
A memorial celebration will be held from 4-7 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 20, at the home of Wayne Hamblen, 1518 N. W. Rutland Rd., Mt. Juliet.
In lieu of flowers, contributions can be made to https://www.gofundme.com/MartyRush.