By Harriet McLeod
ST. GEORGE, South Carolina (Reuters) - Deep in the piney woods of South Carolina, Janet Kinser runs a shelter for animals that many people know only as road kill -- raccoons, rabbits, opossums, beavers, otters, mink and squirrels.
Keeper of the Wild, a nonprofit shelter on rural land about 50 miles inland from Charleston, takes in thousands of injured, orphaned or displaced wild animals a year.
With the help of about two dozen volunteers and "foster mothers," Kinser, 59, rehabilitates them and releases them back into their natural habitats.
She calls the round-the-clock work a ministry.
"We don't consider one life useless just because it's a possum," said Kinser, a former interior designer. "If God thought it was special enough to create, who are we to say he didn't do a good enough job?"
At the shelter this week, she opened cages in a large, dim room with a concrete floor that has to be hosed down and disinfected three times a day. She scooped up baby raccoons, cuddled them, let them climb around her neck and called them by name.
"Everybody deserves a name. We start naming them after plants after a while. Mimosa. Twig," she said.
The shelter gets the occasional bobcat and has hosted a small black bear, she said.
It won't take alligators, foxes or coyotes, which the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources manages. And Kinser said she had to tell one caller not to bring in a baby rattlesnake.
"Each year the demand gets greater and greater because we're losing habitat," she said.
According to the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, wildlife shelters across the country often operate with little or no public financial support. Kinser and husband James, a contractor, foot much of Keeper of the Wild's expenses -- about $60,000 to $100,000 a year for vaccines, food and gasoline to pick up animals from nine counties, she said.
She has been rescuing wildlife for 25 years. One of her first rescues, a raccoon she named Annie, died in the parking lot of a veterinary hospital, Kinser said.
"No one would help me because she was a raccoon," Kinser said. "I just boo-hooed. I said 'Lord, you're going to have to get somebody else to do this. It's just too hard.' The sweetest voice said 'What about all the other Annies?'"
Veterinarians are now on Keeper of the Wild's board, Kinser said.
"There's a lot of debate about what we do, caring for individual animals instead of populations," said Jim Elliott, executive director of the Avian Conservation Center in Awendaw, South Carolina.
The center, a nonprofit that also operates without public funding, rehabilitates about 500 birds of prey a year and has a medical oil spill cleaning facility for wading and shore birds.
"There's a bias in the minds of plenty of people for birds of prey. They're predators," Elliott said. "But it's an ecosystem. All of these animals have a part in it. You can't like some and not like some. It's a balance."
Kinser has her own charming way of battling the perceptions of local farmers and hunters who don't always understand why Keeper of the Wild saves critters they view as pests.
"A builder said to me 'I understand you take in the nuisance animals,'" Kinser recalled. "I said, 'Baby, everybody is a nuisance to somebody. Who are you a nuisance to?'"
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Jerry Norton)