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Wildlife Center Poised to Set Record, Seeks Volunteers to Help

Wildlife Center of Virginia

The Wildlife Center of Virginia reports an especially large number of patients this year.  Over 3,000 animals have been treated at the veterinary hospital in Waynesboro. 

It’s been a wet and windy summer here, and that has taken a toll on squirrels according to Ed Clark, executive director of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

“The nesting material eventually becomes waterlogged, and the nest simply falls out of the tree and babies right along with it.”

Clark says it could have been worse if this region had been hit by Hurricane Dorian.

“Because the last week of August, first couple of weeks of September is the time in which gray squirrels have the second litter of the year, and one year I think it was Hurricane Bonnie hit the Virginia Beach area, and within 48 hours 500 baby squirrels were brought in for care.”

Credit Wildlife Center of Virginia
The center is now caring for 30 baby squirrels after heavy rain and high winds knocked nests from trees.

Right now, the center is raising about 30 baby squirrels with the help of wildlife rehabilitator Kelsey Pleasants.

“This is where all of our squirrels live.," she says, gesturing to shelves filled with glass tanks. "This shelf here are the babies that require multiple hand-feedings per day.  They’re just currently housed in these 10-30 gallon aquariums until they’re moved outdoors, but we always put a layer of dry leaves from outside and we give them branches so they can start learning to climb.  Now this one, it looks like he’s playing with or eating a corn cob?  Yes. Corn is a really great item.  They tend to start by sucking on it, and then they realize they can chew it, and they can get pieces off of it, and they’ll work up to birdseeds, fruits, vegetables and cracked nuts.”

In addition to squirrels, the center cares for birds and rabbits, possums and raccoons, deer and bear, reptiles and amphibians, in part because people keep building homes in what was once wild animal habitat.  

“There are more animals hit by cars or poisoned," says veterinarian Ernesto Dominguez who runs the wildlife center’s hospital.  "If there are more people there are almost more pets – dogs and cats – especially outdoor cats that will be hunting or playing with songbirds, baby squirrels, baby bunnies.”

And, he adds, climate change means shorter, sometimes milder winters that have led many creatures to skip their annual migration.

“More animals are staying in Virginia and on the east coast because they can still find food, and people are still providing them food – bird feeders, those kind of things.”

In fact, director  Clark says we don’t need to feed wild animals – especially this year.

“We’ve got a good acorn crop this year.  Animals should be able to fatten up and get ready for hibernation, and if we have a rough winter that’s what they need.  If we have an acorn crop failure, as we did a few years ago, then baby animals that should be fed by their mothers in the woods are coming out of the woods.  Baby bears are being taught to raid bird feeders, and it can take years for that training and that experience to wane a little bit in wild populations.”

What people can do is to help the center with healthy baby animals that have lost their mothers.  Clark says families and retired people might find it rewarding work that’s not too difficult. 

Volunteers Needed

The Wildlife Center of Virginia is on track to set a record this year.  With more than three months to go, it’s already treated about 3,000 animals.  That’s why – in collaboration with other sanctuaries around the state – it’s issued an appeal for volunteers to help raise orphaned babies.

Sandy Hausman reports

Credit Wildlife Center of Virginia
This baby owl is part of a record inflow of animals in need of care. The Wildlife Center hopes volunteers can help.

Many of the animals brought to the wildlife center in Waynesboro are injured or sick.  Most will be treated and released, but others don’t need to be hospitalized according to Executive Director Ed Clark.

“Easily a third of the animals coming in the door are going to be healthy animals.  They’re animals that are displaced.  They’re orphaned – their parents have been killed.  They’ve had an interaction perhaps with a predator or somebody’s pet or a child for that matter that caused them to run away from their nest or burrow.”

And sometimes, he adds, well-meaning people bring in creatures that should – instead – be returned to their homes.

“Baby bird falls from the nest.  A child runs up, picks up the baby bird, brings it in, shows his or her mother or father, and they immediately say, ‘Oh you’ve touched it.  We can’t put it back in the nest because the mother bird will smell the scent of humans and reject the baby.  That story has been going around certainly as long as I’ve been alive, and there’s not a shred of truth to it.”

But if that baby has been away from its mother for some time, it may have to be raised in captivity, and the wildlife center is looking for people who’d like to help.

“We’re not looking for people who want to have a pet squirrel.  We’re looking for people that recognize the importance of rearing orphaned wildlife in a proper way so that it remains wild and can return to its natural habitat. The way to take care of dogs and kittens is to socialize them.  The appropriate way to take care of baby wildlife is to avoid socializing them.”

And, he adds, caring for wildlife in your home can be  pretty easy.  Take baby birds for example.

“Every time they open their mouths you poke a little food in and keep them clean and that’s pretty much all there is to raising many species of baby birds.”

Which makes the job ideal for families or people who are retired.

“An active mind can really be all that’s necessary for someone to perform a wonderful service to nature without having to get in the car or have the stamina to go work for hours in some nature center.”

Squirrels can be more challenging. Wildlife rehabilitator Kelsey Pleasants says you have to be careful around critters with sharp teeth and claws.

“They do become pretty rambunctious and sassy, and they will try to bite, so we take precautions and wear leather gloves when handling them at all times.”

That aside, the most challenging thing about caring for wild animals in your home might be getting a permit from the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries. That’s why the Wildlife Center is partnering with sanctuaries near Roanoke, Winchester and Lovingston to offer training online and in person along with assistance in completing the permitting process. 

Click here for more information about training

Sandy Hausman is Radio IQ's Charlottesville Bureau Chief
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