‘A Forest Has Opened’: Their Daughter’s Death Created a Vital New Mission | News
Holly Wortham was beautiful, happy and an only child. She loved critters of all kinds as well as her mom and dad.
Photos of her in Byron and Kim Wortham’s home in Sanford are starting to show their age – a little faded by the sun, an outfit a little less fashionable than before – but her presence is as real as the thousands of animals her parents rehabilitated, freed and rescued her, all in the name and memory of their daughter.
Seventeen years ago, on a winding country road, a car missed a bend and hit a tree. Holly died instantly. She was 18 years old.
Holly’s Nest is the reason Byron and Kim are still around. Byron may report more conservation statistics and animal stories than National Geographic, but he still struggles to articulate this time period.
“It was bad. We both knew we were in bad shape.
Kim likens the experience to the assortment of animals she now adores. Everything that happened to them to end up in Holly’s Nest was “a tragedy too; these animals too have lost everything.
Finding his voice and losing the lump in his throat, Byron pulls himself together and resumes his role as Crocodile Dundee and gentle giant. “When I said Holly’s name, I meant joy, not pain. That’s what this place is: pure bliss. Holly’s Nest is a joy for us.
“I’d like to think animals feel that joy and know that we’re going to take care of them as best we can and get them back to where they’re meant to be.”
Driving in the compound is a bit like driving in the Discovery Channel. Various buildings made of recycled objects dot the property.
A large satellite dish serves as a roof for one of the birdcages. A wooden cradle hangs in the sprawling “catio” which serves a mix of big cats. Wortham explains the need for the enclosure as follows: “I can’t let all these cats eat all these songbirds that I set free. Did you know that 2.5 billion birds are killed each year by cats?
Termite, the monstrous Maine Coon cat, peeks lazily from the cradle of the thrift store. He seems oblivious to this statistic but also perfectly content with his current digs.
After replacing a pair of mud-encrusted boots with another equally muddy pair – “These were my boots for feeding the pigs, these are my beautiful boots”, he says – the tour begins.
Jimmy Hendrix and Stevie Nicks are 35 and 39 year old macaws. They can live up to 90 years. Byron Wortham saved one “from a little old lady who was terrified that when she died her family would let the bird go.
“I couldn’t say no.”
He moves from dwelling to dwelling, occasionally slowing down to adjust a piece of recycled siding or move a leaning feeder. He is the ringmaster par excellence in this three-ring circus of love.
Animals trot closer or stick their heads out of their perches or hiding places when they hear his voice. Wally the beaver sleeps next to his personal 17ft cement outdoor pond. When he hears Byron, he comes out to say hello and have a quick bath.
The two pigs have very different arrival stories. The 700-pound one was supposed to fit in a purse, “like a small dog, I guess” and the owner was stunned when the pig suddenly didn’t. The 500-pounder was hiding in the back of a Smithfield truck. The lorry driver called Wortham and said, ‘I’ve never seen him. He was hiding in the back somewhere. Can you come pick it up? I can’t tell anyone that I haven’t seen this thing.
Neither the Smithfield Pig nor the Purse Pig seem to care about their new surroundings.
Two miniature horses that look fit for a young princess prance around enjoying the sun and their freshly served lunch. Now a healthy 300 pounds, they were skin and bones when Wortham rescued them, tied to a dead tree, barely alive. They too seem pretty cool with the turn their lives have taken.
Bobcats, deer, chickens, possums, ducks, barred owls, crows, the assortment of songbirds – they stretch, yawn and chirp casually among themselves as their stories are told. Most of their injuries seem to involve humans.
Last year, 135 fawns were rescued and released from Holly’s Nest. Each fawn costs about $600 each. Byron Wortham has an idea about this.
“Here’s a thought: When a builder tears down the homes of these animals, the company should be required to donate to find a new home for the animals.
“Or all these federal wildlife rescue laws that we have to follow should come with funding for rescues. And anyone who throws trash out of their car should be kept watching the horrific injuries they cause to hungry animals every day.
“Don’t get me started on that part. I inflames me.
One of North Carolina’s largest animal rescue centers, this nonprofit organization didn’t happen overnight. Holly’s Nest has been a labor of time and paperwork as well as love.
The training, certification, mentoring and licensing process is not for the faint-hearted. And that’s not even including the steps to becoming a North Carolina National Nonprofit Society. Or pay for it all. Or receive preventive injections (“that don’t tickle”). Or manage a website. Or learn to ask for donations.
“Loving animals is easy,” says Byron. “The rest of that stuff, it’s not exactly my thing.”
He’s a little humble at this point. After all, there’s a good chance he’ll host his own PBS show, “Urban Wild,” for the 2023 TV season. Most of the episodes have already been taped, and the plan is to start with PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC -TV), then maybe a nationwide takeover.
The man with the brown box
Wortham drove for United Parcel Service for 38 years, mostly doing routes in his brown box truck through southern Moore County, before retiring in 2020. Prior to that, he was in the Army of the air. He enjoyed it all, but “that’s what I was supposed to do”.
“I will never do anything else.”
Wortham has been instrumental in animal rescue in Moore County for years. He rescued and released the bald eagle found in Seven Lakes two years ago. It is often the first number called for the various police departments and the sheriff’s office. Just last week, he rescued two newborn great horned owls – brother and sister – who had fallen from their nest and onto the Whispering Pines golf course.
“Moore County has a great group of community members and rehabilitators who know the steps to rescue and protect injured or displaced wildlife,” he said. “It’s nice to know that most people here want to do the right thing.”
The Whispering Pines Owls straighten up when Wortham reaches the cage near them. Wortham wants to have a good time with his friend, the blind owl who was hit by a car. The royal jumps for a moment until he realizes it’s his friend. The owl settles on Wortham’s hand as they “talk” to each other softly.
The owl will not survive in the wild. When this happens with a few animals a year, Wortham and his wife make the decision to keep them.
Many animals decide on their own to stay, but most long-haulers are there because it’s their only option. A pigeon runs up and down the basement steps where Kim has taken some old boots and stuffed them with hay. Byron laughs and shares that this girl has been “released” 12 times. The couple gave up trying. The happy bird looks up from the wooden step and at the right time jumps into a boot, perfectly happy not to steal the chicken coop.
Baby owls get all the attention. Staring and flapping their fuzzy wings that bear no resemblance to their future wingspan, they are hungry. On the menu: mice. Wortham dips into his recent $1,500 frozen delivery and bends down to serve new guests at Holly’s Nest.
Like a dad spooning drained peas to the baby in the high chair, Wortham uses tongs to feed the owls tiny bites of mice. “I place this same order about six times a year.”
It doesn’t take a mathematician to silently add up the various financial elements of this rehabilitation nirvana. People are constantly contacting the Worthams and asking what they can do. The list is endless.
“Everything helps,” says Byron. “If you are a club or organization looking to fundraise for a project or if you are a benefactor looking for a good cause, or if you would like to donate your allowance, we are here. As soon as the money comes in, we place another order or get another animal. It never stops.
Kim Wortham underwent surgery Friday morning for congestive heart failure. After being told for two months that she had pneumonia, doctors at Wake Med told her on Tuesday that 80% of her heart was not working.
Byron fed the animals, did his long list of chores and organized the spring fundraiser before returning to the hospital. He knew that was what he had to do. He would “pace a hole in the ground if I didn’t do something with my mind.”
“Last year, we collected 680 wild animals. Animals do not wait for your situation.
The assortment of sleeping dogs lying on the porch receive loving petting before Byron Wortham enters.
“I know Holly would be so proud. You know how they say ‘when one door closes, another opens’?
“For us”, he says, “a door has closed and a forest has opened”.