A bald eagle was hit by a car and left with an injured left wing. An eastern rat snake has twisted its head through an air vent and stuck the rest of its body. A possum fell from a staircase at the side of a building.
These are just three of nearly 90,000 total patients – more than 200 different species – that the Virginia Wildlife Center has brought in for rehabilitation.
The Center, founded in 1982 and located in Waynesboro, Virginia, operates as a veterinary hospital for native wildlife. Bill Sykes, who started volunteering with the Center in 2011, said the Center’s mission is much more important than “fixing broken animals”. While that’s important, the real mission, Sykes said, “is to teach the world to care and take care of wildlife and the environment.”
Sykes used the example of throwing an apple core out of a moving car window to explain how people can harm wildlife without realizing it.
“People think, ‘An apple core is biodegradable, who cares?’ he exclaimed, raising his hands.
But the apple core attracts a mouse, which is seen by a hawk perched on telephone wires across the road, and the hawk instinctively dives to capture the mouse and –
“BAM! Sykes shouted. “The falcon gets hit by a car.”
Sykes said in many cases there is a human component to how wildlife is harmed. That’s why the Center’s outreach staff strive to educate the public about native wildlife and their needs.
Karra Pierce, director of veterinary services, said staff members rely on the public to get injured animals to the center as quickly as possible, if it is safe to do so. She said she encourages rescuers to call the Center before responding so staff members can walk them through the necessary steps.
After the rescuer delivers an animal to the Center, veterinarians perform a physical exam to determine how to help the creature.
There are two categories of animals at the Centre. First are the patients, who are brought to the Center after being rescued by members of the public. Second, the non-releasable education ambassadors. These animals were once patients but can no longer be released as they are no longer able to survive in the wild.
Outreach coordinator Connor Gillespie said normally an animal is humanely euthanized if it has serious injuries or is not adjusting to captivity.
“We certainly don’t want to put an animal through a stressful life. [if they can’t adapt] to humane care,” Gillespie said.
But once in a while, Gillespie said, a non-dischargeable patient meets the criteria to become an education ambassador; they have shown that they can adapt well to a setting like the Centre, which has the space and habitat for the species and the staff has the knowledge to care for them.
Gillespie said the Center is home to about two dozen non-releasable education ambassadors, deemed non-releasable for circumstances including blindness, traumatic brain injury and seeking humane care. Their goal is to educate the public, Gillespie said.
A former education ambassador, Sykes said, was a great horned owl. He was found trapped in a chimney and named Briscoe after the chimney sweeping company that saved his life. Although it fully recovered in the Center, injuries to both of its wings rendered it unable to fly silently – a necessity for the Stealth Bomber. Deemed not to be released, Briscoe was kept at the Center as an education ambassador.
Sykes said working with these non-releasable birds of prey is her favorite part of volunteering at the Center, but training to handle the birds is no easy task. Volunteers who want to work with birds of prey must demonstrate how to safely remove a bird from its enclosure, handle a bird perched on its glove, and use a jess – a thin strap used to tie an animal and prevent it from take flight – to maintain control over a bird. Sykes passed all the tests and was able to start working with the birds of prey.
Although getting to know the birds was the “peak” of his volunteering, Sykes said, there was a time when he thought his time with them would end. He ran an educational program with Misty, an almost completely blind barred owl. Misty was perched on a metal hoop and secured with a jess — “or so I thought,” Sykes said.
After showing it to the audience, he turned around to continue the program. When he turned around, he said, Misty was flapping her wings, hovering above the crowd.
He was one hour into a four hour program and freaked out but thought “the show has to go on”. He finished the presentation while Center staff searched for Misty, but she was never found and would likely never return due to her blindness.
Sykes said he felt guilty and terrified that the Center would never let him work with the birds again, but was grateful to find out the incident was just an equipment malfunction to which he did not. had no part.
Even so, he equated is to the “worst day of my life”.
Although the center is not a zoo, it provides additional in-person and virtual opportunities for the public to interact with the animals and runs programs for local schools. Some in-person events include Staunton’s Earth Day Celebration and Eagle Fest in Lorton, Virginia, where the public can see three of the Education Ambassadors up close.
For those who prefer to virtually encounter wildlife, the Critter Cam streams live from three different habitats within the Center on its website with staff-led discussion for questions. The Center will hold its 40th anniversary celebration online on November 9.
“A family postponed their vacation because [their student] was so excited to see an animal live on camera,” Gillespie said.
Education ambassador personalities are hard not to adore, Gillespie said. He said his favorite recent interaction with Education Ambassadors was between two barred owls named Gus and Athena. He said that every time he went outside, he heard the two calling to each other from their flying paddocks.
While educational animals are given names, patients are given numbers. The ultimate goal is to release patients into the wild, Sykes said, to remain anonymous in a bid to prevent staff from becoming too attached.
Pierce said a typical day for the hospital side of the Center involves treatments for patients such as administering medication, taking x-rays, creating a daily outline of care plans for each patient and carrying out physical examinations and diagnostics for newly admitted patients.
Lead poisoning is one of the most serious injuries Pierce said he has seen in his patients. Hunters often hunt with lead ammunition and leave animal carcasses behind, attracting other hungry animals. These animals then ingest tiny pieces of lead but can miraculously recover with the right treatment. It was the story of the survival of an opossum last October who, after five chelation treatments, was released the following month in Mechanicsville, Virginia.
Pierce said outdoor cats also harm wildlife. Their hunting instinct makes it one of the main causes of injured animals at the Center.
Along with saving wildlife, training veterinary and rehabilitation interns and externs is also one of the Center’s main goals, Pierce said.
“I really love the people I work with and the students I teach with,” Pierce said. “I work with a team of people who all have the same goal as me, which is to bring a wild animal back into the wild.”
Once patients have fully recovered and undergone testing to ensure they would survive in the wild, if possible, the person who originally brought the animal to the Center is contacted to return the animal to its habitat natural. Those who find a sick or injured wild animal can call the Wildlife Center for advice on how best to help. Gillespie said this is how the Center rewards those who have taken the time to care for the animal.
The National Wildlife Federation recognized the Wildlife Center of Virginia as the conservation organization of the year in 2007, a title Sykes said was well-deserved.
“They described the Wildlife Center as the world’s premier teaching and research hospital for wildlife and conservation medicine,” Sykes said. “I’m just honored to be a part of it all.”