If you go

What: Keeper of the Wild Oyster Roast & Silent Auction

When: 1-4 p.m. Feb. 24

Where: Magnolia Plantation and Gardens

Cost: $25 (children age 12 and under are free), includes admission to Magnolia, oyster roast, chili, veggie table, desserts, soft drinks and coffee. Tickets must be purchased by Feb. 20. To purchase, contact Debby Hill at 761-3400 or Debby@KeeperoftheWild.org or at Pet Vet (307 Mill St., Mount Pleasant), Dorchester Veterinary Hospital (5617 Dorchester Road, North Charleston) or Maybank Animal Hospital (1917 Maybank Highway).

More: www.keeperofthewild.org/index.html

Of all the orphaned and injured mammals that the nonprofit Keeper of the Wild volunteers to treat, the raccoon is the one that adorns the shirt of its founder and director, Janet Kinser.

For a woman who has a missionary-like calling to save animals that she often refers to as “babies,” the raccoon is special because of a heart-breaking experience in the late 1980s.

An animal control officer had brought her an orphaned raccoon, which Kinser named “Annie.” Kinser later learned that the raccoon had a heart defect.

“Annie wasn’t growing the way she should. One day, she started going downhill. I went to all the vets trying to get help, and none would help me because she was a raccoon,” recalls Kinser of the aversion many have toward raccoons because of the animal’s potential for carrying rabies.

On her last stop at a vet clinic in Mount Pleasant, Kinser was turned away one final time.

“I sat in the parking lot and watched little Annie die right there. And I just boo-hooed,” says Kinser, recalling that she then prayed.

“I said, ‘God, you’re going to have to get somebody else to do this. It hurts too much.’ A sweet voice spoke back to me, ‘But what about all the other Annies? Are you going to let the ministry die for all the other Annies?’ ”

A quarter-century

Listening to that voice has given Kinser the strength to endure more than witnessing the suffering of animals since she started Keeper of the Wild 25 years ago and made it an official nonprofit in 2000.

The 61-year-old is a hands-on volunteer leader who has logged hundreds of thousands of miles and often struggled to pay for gas, upkeep of vehicles and medications and other supplies.

Without volunteers and a very supportive husband, she stresses, Keeper of the Wild would not exist as it does today.

Seven local veterinary clinics and at-home trained rehabilitators combine to pick up close to 4,000 orphaned and injured mammals in nine coastal counties of South Carolina, from Horry to Jasper, every year. Many animals are released on large plantations where the owners welcome them.

The structure of the organization is described as a wheel, with Kinser being the hub and the volunteers the spokes, which, like the spokes of a wheel, can be vulnerable.

The recession hit Keeper of the Wild hard, not only in donations but in volunteers. Many had to stop helping because their families lost jobs and even homes.

Kinser had to reorganize efforts, leaning harder on veterinarians to keep and treat animals. Those veterinarians include Pet Vet and Veterinary Specialty Care in Mount Pleasant, Bee’s Ferry Veterinary Clinic and Charleston Veterinary Referral Center in West Ashley, Dorchester Veterinary Hospital and Veterinary Emergency Care in North Charleston and Maybank Animal Hospital on James Island.

Vets & vols

Dr. Brian King, owner of Pet Vet, has been working with Keeper of the Wild for about 14 years and describes Kinser as “an amazing woman who works tirelessly for wildlife.”

King, who also serves on the board of Keeper of the Wild, says that while few offer rehabilitation and release of mammals in the area, it’s a rewarding experience.

“I really believe in and have grown to love this organization and Janet,” says King.

Dr. Bruce MacKinnon, owner of Dorchester Veterinary Hospital, says if it weren’t for the efforts of Kinser and her volunteers, most of the animals would die.

Debby Hill, a retired first-grade teacher and volunteer education director for Keeper of the Wild, says the common denominator among everyone who volunteers with the group is a deep love of animals.

Kinser, however, has something more.

“She’s a very, very giving person and has a special place in her heart for these little creatures,” says Hill, who also handles the raising and reintroduction of orphaned fawns.

“We love her heart and what she does, but we also worry about her, especially during baby season (spring), when she wears herself out.”

An innate quality

Kinser started her professional life as an interior decorator, but the signs that pointed her to her mission were apparent from early childhood.

“I’ve always loved animals since I was a child. I was always bringing something into the house, like a baby bird, and Mama was always telling me to take it back,” she recalls.

On her radical departure from interior design, Kinser likes to note that “people joked I traded in my high heels for snake boots.”

The Fayetteville, N.C., native moved to Summerville with her first husband, who worked for the Kroger supermarket chain.

She married her second husband, James Kinser, shortly after she started rehabilitating animals.

He has loyally stuck by her and her mission through often frustrating times. Until 2000, she took care of many of the animals at their house.

“My problem is that I love my wife and I want her to do whatever makes her happy,” says Kinser, who rents properties and runs a home remodeling business.

“She is dedicated to saving these animals and spends all her time on the road picking them up,” he says, adding that he believes in the cause, too.

“We want to do whatever we can to help these animals,” he says.

‘Nuisance’ animals

Janet Kinser knows that many don’t feel for common animals as they do for more exotic or endangered animals or their pets, but she challenges anyone who questions their worth.

She recalls an education talk she gave when she took a fawn, an otter and possum, the latter of which had been kicked and suffered a spinal injury.

A man came up to her and questioned why she treated “nuisance” animals, especially a possum “because they are so ugly.”

“I told him, ‘To tell God that his creation and what he cared enough to put on this Earth is not good enough to take care of ... that he didn’t do a good enough job — that’s simple arrogance.

“If he created a creature and it needs help, we’re going to love it and take it in,” she says.

“Our babies aren’t the elite animals, such as beautiful tigers or lions. They are little guys laying on the side of the highway that people consider nuisance or expendable.

“We are a ministry, and I feel with all my heart that as long as God gives us this job, we have to do it.”