If you happen to live in East Hampton and need to evict a family of squirrels that has taken up residence in your eaves, free a young buck that has gotten its antlers tangled in plant netting, or get help for a wild turkey that was clipped by a passing car and left struggling on the roadside, who would you call? Chances are that for much of the past decade, it would have been Dell Cullum, the founder of Wildlife Rescue of East Hampton, Inc., who, it seemed, could be found anywhere a wild animal needed help — at all hours of the day and in any weather, to boot.
With his shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair and mustache, tattoos covering both his arms, Mr. Cullum looks like he’d be more at home in a biker bar (he confesses to having once owned a Harley-Davidson) and not as a compassionate soul cooing softly, “It’s okay Sweet Pea,” to a panicky raccoon trapped in a deep window well, or a crow that has managed to get itself stuck inside a chimney.
But those days are rapidly coming to an end. Mr. Cullum and his wife, Dee, are moving at the end of August to a house they recently purchased on a big lake in central Massachusetts.
The rescue operation has largely been turned over to Mr. Cullum’s trusted sidekick Robin Conklin. “I’ve known him since high school,” Mr. Cullum said. “He’s a local guy, and he’s great with animals. We look at them the same way.”
Mr. Cullum said there are plenty of reasons for him to walk away from his calling. He says too many people simply hate the animals that devour their flowering shrubs or burrow under their pristine lawns, and that wears on his patience.
Plus, he said, too often, he has had to watch animals die. “It’s hard being the last person there, the last person who can help,” he said.
And a third reason is his own health. In 2017, in the midst of a rescue, he slipped off his ladder and suffered a broken back in the fall. Lately, at age 57, the chronic back pain he has felt ever since the accident has only gotten worse. “I went back to the original surgeon, and he told me, ‘If you keep doing what you are doing, you could do something that would not allow you to walk again,’” he said. A former smoker, he said he noticed he was getting short of breath after very little exertion. A diagnosis of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which has since been kept in check by prescription medicine, convinced him it was time to pass the torch.
But Mr. Cullum plans to keep busy, sharing his love for wildlife with children, both through his “Scurry the Squirrel” series of books and by bringing a small menagerie that includes Athena, a blind screech owl, Bob, a Pueblan milk snake Mr. Cullum retrieved from a house where renters had left it behind, and Scooter, a squirrel that has replaced the late Scurry.
“I’ve been trying to educate the adults, but I finally realized how to make this work,” he said. “Forget the adults, go after the kids. They are the ones who are going to have to clean up this mess.” Although he will focus his attention on Massachusetts, Mr. Cullum said he expected he’d be back in East Hampton to visit elementary schools on a regular basis.
Mr. Cullum said he has always had a natural rapport with wild animals going back to his childhood, but it took the death from leukemia of his 3-and-a-half-year-old son, Brandon, in 1992 for Mr. Cullum to realize it.
The epiphany came when Mr. Cullum, who had spent a couple of years wandering around the country after his son’s death, returned to East Hampton in the mid-1990s to visit his aging parents. He went to the nature trail in East Hampton Village, which had always been a favorite haunt.
“It was 5:30 or 6 in the morning. I was thinking of my son. I was upset,” he said. “But then a doe and two fawns came walking up. I thought I’d be real still and see how close they would get.”
To his surprise, they walked to within a couple of feet him and allowed him to take dozens of photos.
“Somewhere in the middle of this, it dawned on me — I had this overwhelming feeling that my son was in me, in my heart,” he said. “He was connecting with these wild animals and he was letting me know it was okay.”
Mr. Cullum continued his peripatetic lifestyle for a while, but eventually moved to Texas, where he met his wife, and found work on a ranch, whose owner, an elderly woman, didn’t want to slaughter the cattle and goats she owned and instead wanted them to be allowed to live out their lives peacefully. She provided Mr. Cullum and his wife with a house, truck and food, and they oversaw the ranch, caring for both domesticated and wild animals. But the dream didn’t last. Her son took over the ranch. “He liked to drink and he liked guns,” Mr. Cullum said. He soon convinced his mother to let him run the operation and he turned it into a hunting preserve, where wild animals were fed corn to bring them within easy range of the hunters. “I didn’t want anything to with it,” Mr. Cullum said, “so we packed it up and left.”
A self-taught photographer, Mr. Cullum and his wife next moved to Idaho, a short drive from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, where Mr. Cullum spent hours photographing wildlife. He also met a rancher, who trapped coyotes and wolves to protect his cattle. But unlike other ranchers, who would typically kill the animals, he would bring them into the wilderness and release them. He passed the skill onto to Mr. Cullum, who, after six years in a place where it snowed eight months a year, decided to return to East Hampton.
Once back home, Mr. Cullum became a licensed trapper. While Department of Environmental Conservation regulations required trappers to kill the raccoons they caught before leaving the property, Mr. Cullum said he simply refused to comply. “I told them, ‘New York State has no authority to force me to kill another living thing,’” he said. Those regulations have since been revised.
Eventually, his fame grew. “I became known as the guy who wouldn’t hurt the animals,” he said. It turned out to be good for business, and Mr. Cullum began to attract a following, especially from celebrities. The rise of Facebook helped as well, and soon Mr. Cullum’s posts — like one showing him wearing steel-lined gloves and reaching into a chimney to retrieve a family of baby raccoons — added to his allure.
So did his “Shoreline Sweep,” a gathering on the beach every Earth Day to collect trash, which is now in its 10th year.
As he prepares to leave, Mr. Cullum said he thinks he has had impact on people’s regard for wildlife. “People have seen what I’ve done,” he said. “They realize every-day people can do this and it has to be done.”
He said he would like to see the town take more steps to manage wildlife by lowering speed limits, allowing fewer houses to be built, and changing the code to eliminate things like properties that are fully enclosed by tall fences.
“We’ve pushed animals out of our lives,” he said. “We consider them a nuisance. When we hit them with our cars, we consider them a nuisance, when they get into our gardens, we consider it a nuisance. That has to change.”