by Kathy Johnson
Averaging seven new patients a day, the Wildlife Center of Virginia, located in the Lyndhurst section of Waynesboro, is one hospital where the unusual truly is the norm. Mealworms, crickets, acorns, and sunflower seeds are on the daily menu along with peanut butter, carrots, blueberries, and birdseed. And a birthing experience can vary from one to seven or even 13. Patients here may have been shot, attacked by dogs or cats, hit by cars or trucks, trapped in asphalt, or simply flown into a window or vehicle.
“We get about 2,500 patients a year,” said Amanda Nicholson, Outreach Coordinator and Rehabilitation Supervisor. “Pretty much any sort of native wild animals. Probably a little more than half our caseload is made up of birds – songbirds, raptors, and waterfowl. We also get a lot of mammals.”
“One of our top three reasons why patients come in here,” she explained, fall under the category “should have been left alone.” Many are genuinely orphaned, but a significant portion of the animals brought to the center are what the organization considers “kidnapped.” Those are baby birds out of its nest or fawns found without a doe nearby. “They just need time to be reunited with their moms,” explained Nicholson. “Fawns and rabbits must be among our most frequently kidnapped animals. They are both among the animals that are designed to be by themselves during the day. They don’t always have mom right there. People see them by themselves and think they have been abandoned.”
The center is a busy place with three full-time veterinarians, assisted by interns, along with full and part-time administrative, educational, development, rehabilitation and volunteer staffers. Its mission includes not only being a hospital for native wildlife, but also “teaching the world to care about and to care for wildlife and the environment.” Education plays an important role at the center.
“We are the only wildlife hospital in Virginia. There is another wildlife center up in the Winchester/Front Royal area. We are the only teaching hospital with vets on staff. We get a lot of vet students coming through here to work,” said Nicholson as she moved through a large treatment area stocked with diagnostic equipment, bandages, and bottles and jars filled with various ointments and medical supplies.
In one of the treatment rooms, Nathou Attinger with the Rockfish Wildlife Center in Schuyler had brought in a very small opossum for a little vet care. Attinger said that in the near future the Rockfish Wildlife Center will relocate to the Miller School in Crozet. The move will provide them with more space and easier access to the Virginia Wildlife Center for animals that need veterinarian care.
“In the spring and summer, our ICU tends to be more of our orphan room,” Nicholson said. “Lots of young animals in here. We have incubators for the little guys. Right now it’s full of little baby squirrels.” The room is filled with small cages on desks and shelving. Most are covered with what resemble infant blankets to keep the cages warm. Baby squirrels in various sizes, some a little wobbly, moved toward the noise in anticipation of food. Many bear healing wounds from cat attacks.
Littering along the roadside—discarded foods are an attraction to turtles, squirrels, and opossums, drawing them to the edge of the road—causes many animals to be struck by vehicles and either suffer injuries or die on the roadside. Many people who would not consider throwing paper along the side of the road don’t realize the injuries they may cause by throwing food out the window thinking “something will eat that.” Something may be killed or injured trying to eat it.
Another common vehicle victim is the box turtle. Their habitat is typically small (not much larger than a football field), and they get hit trying to cross roads.
Another problem, particularly in the spring, are housecats left outside to prowl. Baby birds, squirrels, lizards, skinks and other small wildlife suffer harm at the hands of cats (or dogs) left outside. Currently they are seeing a lot of injured baby squirrels. In the next month or two it will be migratory hawks flying south. “In the winter time it tends to be a lot of owls that are out hunting,” Nicholson said.
Asked if she has an animus against cats because she treats so many victims of cat attacks, Nicholson said, “No. A lot of us are animal people. We love cats, we have cats, but we don’t let them outside because of so much havoc they cause with wildlife. We encourage people to keep their cats inside. Some of these little guys may have gotten picked up by dogs. It may not be an attack, but just because they’re dogs and they bring them to their owners. Sometimes we do see fawns that are attacked by dogs, because they run. We get a fair amount of turtles in, too, that are chewed on by dogs.”
In another nearby room a cacophony of chirps rose from the infant birds anticipating food. In the kitchen and food prep area, cards hang on door handles setting out menus for the different animals.
A typical bear meal might include strawberries, blackberries, blueberries, broccoli, cucumbers, carrots, peanut butter, crickets, tuna, dog food, corn on the cob, acorns, sunflower seed and birdseed. Meal preparation is one area where the center needs volunteers. Currently there are some 30 to 40 different types of volunteers at the center with an additional 100 plus volunteer transporters located around the state.
Behind the center’s main building is a fenced enclosure with numerous animal pens. One of their better-known patients is a bobcat that was found several years ago by a couple that thought they had a little orphaned kitten. With regular feeding and care, the family suddenly realized the kitten grew more quickly than their young children. They brought him to the center, where he was identified as a bobcat. He could not be released back into the wild and was adopted by Maymont in Richmond.
The buildings are also the home for non-releasable raptors that may become education animals or be sent to other areas, Nicholson said. All have some sort of permanent injury, such as the loss of an eye or a beak that healed crooked, that prevents their release to the wild.
“When they become education animals, we usually will name them. We don’t name our patients,” she explained. A one-eyed, red-tailed hawk, unnamed as yet, is in training to see if he can learn to sit on a gloved hand. “The loss of the eye makes it very difficult for him to hunt for his prey. It’s always possible he could compensate, but the likelihood is that he would starve to death,” she said.
Another cage contains an American kestrel, its feathers beautiful in the dappled light coming through the trees. A Barred Owl watched from his perch, looking much like a very old person trying to make his dentures fit properly.
‘Misty,’ a Barred Owl found in Richmond a year ago with both eyes damaged, is coming to the end of glove training. “She’s about ready to make her debut. She’ll start traveling on programs.” Misty’s vision is probably limited to shapes and shadows. A return to the wild would probably ensure her of a slow death by starvation.
About 30 percent of patients return to normal activity, according to Nicholson. “When you’re dealing with wildlife, unfortunately, you’re dealing with a lot of traumatic injuries. A lot get hit by cars.”
“We have lots of flight pens of different sizes depending on the species of the birds and where they are in their progression of getting out of here,” Nicholson said. “And we have five different aviaries, but we combine a lot of birds in there. So right now we have, I think, a group of 12 young robins. We may add in some other species if they are the type that get along with each another. We can kind of juggle everyone. But I think in the height of it all it’s not uncommon for us to have 200 or 250 [avian] patients here in May, June and July.”
The center plans to build another eagle flight pen this fall, paid for by a grant. “Last year we had a record-breaking number of eagles. We saw 40 bald eagles for the year. So we could definitely use another flight pen.
“Buddy (a Bald Eagle) is our little resident celebrity here. He’s from the Norfolk Botanical Gardens.” Buddy was hatched on the web cam at the gardens on April 27, 2008. Soon a growth was noticed on his beak and he was removed from the nest on May 22 and sent to the Wildlife Center for treatment of Avian Pox. The pox grew so quickly it was even noticeable on the web cam at the gardens. Viewers could see it growing.
“Unfortunately he was very little and it was growing so rapidly that it ended up twisting his beak out of shape so he has a crossbill now.” At the end of his fourth year he will get his white head. “He is on the smaller size for an eagle. Buddy currently weighs around seven pounds. Male raptors tend to run smaller.”
A large cinder block enclosure can house bears. “We get, probably, eight or nine a year. Sometimes it’s young cubs, sometimes it’s injured adults.” While they get animals from all over the state, Nicholson said, “a lot of times they’re from around this immediate area. Seems like there are just a fair amount of bears here. We get some that try to cross the Interstate on Afton Mountain and get hit.”
When other options don’t present themselves, an animal who will suffer from chronic pain or who lacks the required disposition for life as an education animal will be humanely euthanized. It is not the outcome that staff and volunteers hope for.
Bobcats are among the most rarely seen patients. “We get maybe one a year,” said Nicholson. In 2009 the center patients included 1,083 mammals (280 Eastern Cottontail Rabbits and 252 Virginia Opossums); 160 reptiles and amphibians (81 Eastern Box Turtles); 294 Raptors (64 of those were Red-tailed Hawks); 682 songbirds (107 American Robins); and 315 other birds (75 Mourning Doves and 42 Mallards).
Those interested in volunteering will find a wide range of opportunities. “Probably the most popular is working with our rehab staff, doing all of our daily meal preparation and delivering meals to all of the patients, hand-feeding our orphaned animals, which include baby birds, squirrels, opossums, and doing raptor exercise conditioning.” The only skill needed is a desire to help. The center provides training.
“Transporting is just basically being on a list. Say someone in Crozet finds an injured animal and they just can’t get it over here, we have folks we can call on to go get them.” The center also has a need for volunteer groups to assist in repairing trails around the center that are used for school programs. The center hopes to have handicapped accessible trails in the future.
Karen Cooke, a volunteer from Afton, said, “I have a strong affinity for wildlife and the preservation of it. They’ve taught me so much about wildlife and the value it has and how it balances our life. I’ve learned not to fear wildlife, but to respect it and enjoy it.”
Private donations and big fundraisers account for most of the center’s nearly $1 million annual budget. Their 2009 annual report shows individual donations of $521,778, along with corporate and foundation gifts of over $100,000, with additional funding coming from special events, education fees, miscellaneous and the Wildlife Center Foundation ($153,500).
The center’s fall open house dates are set for Sunday, Sept 12; Sept 26, Oct. 10 and Oct. 17. There will be three tours daily, at 12:30, 2 and 3 p.m. Tours are usually full and early registration is recommended. Call 540-942-9453.
To learn more about the center, visit their website at www.wildelifecenter.org. The center is located at 1800 S. Delphine Avenue, just south of the Lyndhurst exit on Interstate 64.