Holly Wortham was beautiful, happy and an only child. She loved critters of all kinds and her mama and daddy.
The photos of her throughout Byron and Kim Wortham’s Sanford house are beginning to show their age — a little faded from the sun, an outfit that is a little less trendy than it used to be — but her presence is as real as the thousands of animals her parents have rehabilitated, released and saved, all in their daughter’s name and memory.
Seventeen years ago, on a winding country road, a car missed a turn and plowed into a tree. Holly died instantly. She was 18.
Holly’s Nest is the reason Byron and Kim are still around. Byron can rattle off more conservation stats and animal stories than National Geographic, but he still struggles to articulate that time period.
“It was bad. We both knew we were in bad shape.”
Kim equates the experience to the assortment of animals she now dotes on. Whatever happened to them to end up at Holly’s Nest was “a tragedy too; these animals lost everything as well.”
Finding his voice and losing the lump in his throat, Byron gathers himself and resumes his role as part Crocodile Dundee and part gentle giant. “When I said Holly’s name, I wanted joy, not sorrow. That’s what this place is: pure joy. Holly’s Nest is a joy for us.
“I’d like to think the animals feel that joy and know that we are going to take care of them as best as we possibly can and get them back to where they are supposed to be.”
The Critter Collective
Driving into the compound feels a little like driving into the Discovery Channel. Assorted buildings made of recycled objects pepper the property.
A large satellite dish serves as a roof to one of the bird cages. A wooden cradle hangs in the sprawling “catio” that serves a medley of fat cats. Wortham explains the need for the enclosure as “I can’t have all these cats eating all of these songbirds I release. Did you know that 2.5 billion birds are killed a year by cats?”
Termite, the monstrous Maine coon cat lazily peeps out from over the thrift store cradle. He seems oblivious to that stat but also perfectly content in his current digs.
After changing out of one pair of mud encrusted boots into another pair equally muddy — “Those were my pig feeding boots, these are my nice boots,” he says — the tour begins.
Jimmy Hendrix and Stevie Nicks are 35- and 39-year-old macaws. They can live to be 90. Byron Wortham rescued one “from a little old lady who was terrified that when she died her family would just let the bird go.
“I couldn’t say no.”
He moves from one dwelling to another, occasionally slowing down to adjust a piece of recycled siding or shift a feeder that is leaning. He is the quintessential ringmaster in this three-ringed circus of love.
The animals trot closer or peek their heads out from their perches or hiding spots when they hear his voice. Wally the Beaver is sleeping next to his personal 17-foot cement outdoor pond. When he hears Byron, he pops out to say hello and take a quick swim.
The two pigs have very different arrival stories. The 700 pound one was supposed to fit into a purse, “like a lap-dog, I guess” and the owner was stunned when the pig suddenly did not. The 500-pounder was hiding in the back of a Smithfield truck. The truck driver called Wortham and said, “I never saw him. He was hiding in the back somewhere. Can you come get him? I can’t tell anyone I didn’t see this thing.”
Neither the Smithfield pig nor the purse-pig seem to mind their new surroundings.
Two miniature horses that look fit for a young princess prance around enjoying the sunshine and their freshly served lunch. Now a healthy 300-pound weight, 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 took.
The bobcats, the deer, the chickens, the possum, the ducks, the barred owls, the crows, the assortment of songbirds — they stretch, yawn, and casually chitter unaffectedly amongst themselves as their stories are told. Most of their injuries seem to involve man.
Last year, 135 fawns were rescued and released by Holly’s Nest. Each fawn costs approximately $600 each. Byron Wortham has an idea about that.
“Here’s a thought: when a builder tears down these animals’ homes, the company should be required to donate to find the animals a new home.
“Or all these federal wildlife rescue laws we have to abide by should come with some financing for the rescues. And everyone that throws litter out of their cars should be required to look at the horrific injuries that they cause everyday to hungry animals.
“Don’t get me started on this part. I get fired up.”
One of the largest animal rescue centers in North Carolina now, this nonprofit organization didn’t happen overnight. Holly’s Nest has been a labor of time and paperwork as well as love.
The process for training, certifications, mentorships and permits is not for the faint-hearted. And that doesn’t even include the steps to become a North Carolina Domestic Nonprofit Corporation. Or paying for it all. Or getting preventative shots (“that don’t tickle.”) Or running a website. Or learning how to ask for donations.
“Loving on the animals is easy,” Byron says. “The rest of this stuff is not exactly my thing.”
He is being a little humble at this point. After all, there’s a very strong possibility he is going to host his own PBS show, “Urban Wild,” for the 2023 television season. Most of the episodes have already been recorded and the plan is to start with PBS North Carolina (formerly UNC-TV) and then perhaps a pick-up nationally.
The Man in the Brown Box
Wortham drove for United Parcel Service for 38 years, mostly running routes in his brown box truck across southern Moore County, before he retired in 2020. Before that, he was in the Air Force. He enjoyed all that, but “this is what I was meant to do.”
“I will never do anything else.”
Wortham has been a big part of rescuing animals in Moore County for years. He rescued and released the bald eagle that was found in Seven Lakes two years ago. He is frequently the first number called for the various police departments and Sheriff’s Office. Just last week, he rescued two newborn great horned owls — brother and sister — that had fallen from their nest and onto the Whispering Pines Golf Course.
“Moore County has a great group of community members and rehabbers that know the steps to rescuing and protecting injured or displaced wild animals,” he said. “It’s nice to know that most people around here want to do the right thing.”
The Whispering Pines owls perk up when Wortham reaches into the cage near them. Wortham wants to spend some quality time with his buddy, the blind owl who was hit by a car. The regal being startles for a moment until he realizes it is his friend. The owl settles onto the hand of Wortham as they both “talk” to each other gently.
The owl won’t survive in the wild. When that happens with a few animals a year, Wortham and his wife make the decision to keep them.
Several of the animals just decide on their own that they are staying, but most of the long-haulers are there because that’s their only option. One pigeon hops up and down the basement steps where Kim has taken old boots and stuffed them with hay. Byron chuckles and shares that this gal has been “released” 12 times. The couple have given up trying. The happy bird looks up from the wooden step and hops on cue into a boot, perfectly happy not to fly the coop.
The baby owls horn in on all the attention. Peeping and flapping their fuzzy wings that look nothing like their future wingspan, they are hungry. On the menu: mice. Wortham dips into his recent $1,500 frozen delivery and bends down to serve the newest guests of Holly’s Nest.
Like a daddy spooning up strained peas to the baby in the high chair, Wortham uses tongs to feed the owls tiny bites of the mice. “I place this same order about six times a year.”
It doesn’t take a mathematician to silently add up the various financial pieces of this rehab nirvana. Constantly, people reach out to the Worthams and ask what they can do. The list is endless.
“Anything helps,” Byron says. “If you’re a club or organization that wants to raise money as a project or you’re a benefactor looking for a good cause, or you want to donate your allowance, here we are. As soon as the money gets here, we place another order or take in another animal. It never stops.”
Kim Wortham went into surgery Friday morning for congestive heart failure. After being told for two months she had pneumonia, Tuesday the doctors at Wake Med told her 80 percent of her heart was not working.
Byron fed the animals, did his long list of chores and set up the spring fundraiser before he drove back up to the hospital. He knew it was what he had to do. He was “going to pace a hole in the floor if I don’t do something with my mind.
“Last year, we took in 680 wild animals. Animals don’t wait on your situation.”
The assortment of sleeping dogs stretched out on the porch get some loving pats before Byron Wortham steps inside.
“I know Holly would be so proud. You know how they say ‘when one door closes, another door opens’?
“For us,” he says, “one door closed and a forest opened.”
Contact Sam Hudson at (910) 693-2464 or firstname.lastname@example.org.