Wildlife Center of Virginia Founder & President to Retire

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Ed Clark at a recent eagle release. He will retire in March. Submitted photo.

Ed Clark has weathered the difficulties faced by all hospital administrators, plus a few more. His patients sometimes destroy their rooms, throw their food, refuse to sleep, attack their doctors, demand diets of insects and mice, and find ingenious ways to escape.

Clark, 73, will retire in March after co-founding and leading the Wildlife Center of Virginia for 41 years. Although he spent many of the early years cleaning cages and feeding injured animals, Clark’s not a man who prefers animals to people. “I’m a people person who loves animals,” he said. He’s likely to credit the center’s achievements to amazing coincidences and donors stepping forward at just the right time, but Clark’s ability to form lasting connections and reach disparate audiences has been crucial. 

It all started, he said, because of another trait he may or may not have outgrown. “As a very competitive young man, I took it as a challenge when anyone said something couldn’t be done.” He and his former wife, Nancy Sheffield––at the time a veterinary technician––knew there was a need for a place that sheltered injured, sick, post-surgical and abandoned wildlife until they could be returned to the wild. They discussed it with Sheffield’s veterinary studies professor, who listed all the reasons why creating such a place would be impossible, maybe even crazy.

That challenge drove the couple to turn a family-owned but unused century-old barn in Waynesboro into a small wildlife rehabilitation hospital. When that property was sold, they moved to a donated property in Weyers Cave, and set up the clinic in a double-wide trailer, bought at cost with the help of another donation. When they had to move from that property, DuPont, then a huge presence in Waynesboro, donated a piece of land that became the site of the present Wildlife Center of Virginia. 

Clark makes it all sound easy, as though the donors appeared out of thin air, but he did plenty of tiring outreach, appearing at hundreds of school and civic groups, often accompanied by a falcon or an eagle. “I’ve eaten plenty of rubber chicken and boiled peas,” he recalls. 

In early years, the budget was small, so every contribution made a difference. “Our yearly budget then would maybe get us through a Monday and into Tuesday morning now,” he said. In its infancy, the center had four part-time volunteers: Now it has 36 full-time staff members.

It helped that Clark was already known in Virginia conservation circles. A long-time lover of all nature, he’d grown up spending many months in a primitive southern Pennsylvania cabin owned by his uncle, and found it to be the place he loved best. This led him to volunteer for conservation-oriented state groups, and finally to be named as the executive director of what is now the Virginia Conservation Network. He’s characteristically blunt about this early-career post. “I was a complete failure,” he said. “I knew nothing about raising money or lobbying.” 

The young man made up his mind to learn everything he could, so he’d never be stranded without resources again. As he did, he earned the respect and often the friendship of state conservation professionals, both public and private. 

He’s also angered his share of people. He was called on to put a dollar value on the huge number of predatory birds shot by gamekeepers at the Kluge estate. “They’d also shot a number of dogs and other animals and buried them all in one big hole,” he recalled. The idea was to encourage the population of pheasants, so wealthy visiting hunters could have a successful shoot.

No one had put a value on wildlife before but Clark, leaning on knowledge painstakingly gained from a number of sources, came up with a formula that included replacement value, and scarcity value (only one in three predator hatchlings makes it to maturity) so that some kind of fine could be computed. As a consequence, he became an expert witness in all kinds of wildlife violation cases all over the country. So far, he said, an Alaskan walrus has the distinction of bringing the highest replacement value. 

He butted heads with several regulatory agencies that weren’t doing their job of preventing deadly agricultural poisons from poisoning wildlife and, in one memorable case, people.  With the help of an indignant staff member who, aided by Clark’s father, smuggled documents from Washington to Waynesboro, he proved that officials knowingly falsified information about the pesticide Furadan, outraging the officials but cementing his place as a formidable crusader. 

Clark’s crusade against Furadan began with a poisoned bird, revealed chicanery at the highest level, and ended with a ban on the agricultural poison.

There was another tense moment during a trip to Venezuela. Clark, who had visited Central and South America many times to consult with wildlife experts, directed his staff to put together some thorough guidelines for emergency treatment of animals living in the tropics. The books, in Spanish, were designed so veterinarians could find all the information they needed in individual chapters for, say, monkeys or parrots. The books were shipped, and Clark arrived to make a presentation.  Soldiers and veterinarians welcomed him with signs in English. Unfortunately, Clark said, Venezuela’s top general was not so welcoming. “He happened to ride by, saw the signs, and suggested that we should quickly leave the country.” They did, but “We left the books,” he said.

Other events in his tenure at the center were more upbeat: In a visit to a Texas wildlife center, he encountered a gorilla who had learned sign language. Clark, who had taught at the School for the Deaf and the Blind in Staunton, knew sign language and was asked to have a conversation. “I can’t say we had a high-level philosophical talk,” he said, “but he was pretty good at telling me what he wanted.”

Then there was the time in 2011 when the center was given some eagle chicks from Norfolk that already had a following of ardent fans all over the world watching their every move via a camera trained on the nest. The mother was killed by an airplane, and state wildlife experts determined the father alone would not be able to feed them adequately. Some of the fans were irate that they’d been moved, or that they could no longer watch them. Some were just concerned about their welfare.

Whatever their motives, 175,000 people sent emails to Waynesboro on the chicks’ first day there, crashing the website, Clark said. The attention convinced the staff that they should set up their own live feed from the eaglet’s new nest. The chicks were electronically returned to their fans after a couple of days, and Clark made a deal with the viewers. If they’d lay off the emails, he would chat with them as many hours a day as he could manage, answering all their questions. The eagles thrived and so did their new home: the fans boosted the Center to first place in several non-profit competitions, and also boosted the active donor rolls by 25 percent. 

Clark takes a strict view on treating wild animals as pets or anthropomorphizing them. He doesn’t name them, and doesn’t allow human interaction unless necessary. His main goal all along has been to educate people about wildlife, including the need to return them to the life they should live without depending on humans. 

Every now and then, though, there’s an animal that simply cannot make it in the wild. Two of them––a golden eagle and a peregrine falcon—became teachers. The eagle accompanied Clark for years to schools and other venues as a representative of the Center. The falcon escaped and returned, escaped and returned, once after traveling 25 miles to land in the yard of a Center volunteer. “He taught me that there are definitely influences in this world that we cannot see and will never understand,” Clark said.  

He was able to take wildlife education to a wider audience when the wildlife center was featured on three shows:  Virginia Outdoors, Animal Planet’s Wildlife Emergency, and the PBS show Untamed, which won multiple awards.

As Clark prepares to leave, his announcement has been met with praise he finds flattering but extravagant, including remarks that he’s irreplaceable. “Don’t believe it,” he said. “In fact, I could leave tomorrow without a replacement and things would go fine. My staff is that good.” He jokes that they’ve already turned his office into a recording studio. There’s a national search for a new leader, whose duties will include overseeing a major expansion that will take years, he said. “That’s why I’m leaving now. I don’t want to leave in the middle of a huge effort like that.” 

There’s another reason for his retirement: He said that after all his efforts to protect the rivers, woods and wildlife of Virginia, he’d like some time to experience them himself. “I have several kayaks and canoes in my yard,” he said. “Lately, the only time they get wet is when it rains.” 

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