Angels of Mercy
At wildlife rehab centers across the state, injured animals get a second chance.
By Rusty Middleton
It’s late May and “baby season” is in full swing at Austin Wildlife Rescue. As a new wave of young animals arrives in the natural world, the pace of animal rescue shifts to hectic. An emaciated fawn with an IV lies on the treatment table in the front room, tongue drooping listlessly. It can hardly move.
“It’s probably not going to make it,” says wildlife rehabilitator Preston Doughty, shaking his head as he adjusts the drip. “Somebody dropped it off a little while ago. They said the mother was badly wounded on a fence post and ran off. This is really a last-ditch effort, but we’re not going to give up on him. As long as he keeps trying, we’ll keep trying to help him.”
Unfortunately, the fawn later died, but many outcomes with rescued deer are far happier. Doughty, the president of Austin Wildlife Rescue, says about 90 percent of the deer treated there survive. Most are released back into the wild.
Deer are just one species of the nearly 4,000 injured, sick or orphaned animals that wind up in this rescue center (or with affiliated individual rehabilitators) each year. The cramped quarters of AWR are crowded with young raccoons and opossums with sad eyes. A few paid staff and a host of volunteers tend to squirrels, turtles, cottontails, a multitude of birds and many other animals.
“This place couldn’t function without volunteers,” says Doughty, who also volunteers. “We have about 40 volunteers at this facility, and 10 are licensed wildlife rehabilitators. You have to really enjoy doing this because there’s not a lot of money in it, even for the paid staff. I think some of them keep real jobs only so they can continue rehabbing.”
The bustling AWR isn’t the biggest facility in the state. That status goes to the Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in Houston, which treats or shelters about 8,000 animals a year in a spacious facility staffed by four salaried workers and up to 300 volunteers. The center sounds like a jungle and looks like a mashup of a combat medical unit and a zoo.
Many workers are engaged in patiently coaxing the young or injured wildlife to eat and drink. Much of the center’s budget goes for food. Many species eat a highly specialized diet, so the center’s menu features a wide variety of insects, mice and fish. At the lower end of the scale, a single songbird costs $20 to rehab and release, but other animals can cost far more. The larger the animal, the higher the cost. Multiply that by the hundreds of animals that may be in the center at one time, and it adds up.
In spite of these daunting numbers, the center is capable of ramping up for much more when needed. In the aftermath of Hurricane Ike, for example, a flood of some 2,000 animals came in very quickly. The center is capable of caring for 1,000 oiled birds simultaneously. In fact, oil spill response is an important component of the services. The Houston wildlife center has 60 people trained and ready to treat wildlife oil spill victims on short notice. The center also has access to two General Land Office-owned trailers, which are specially equipped for rapid and efficient oil spill response.
“Our goal is to give treatment and get them back into the wild as soon as possible,” says Sharon Schmalz, executive director. “With one or two exceptions, we don’t give them names [the exceptions include unreleasable birds used in the center’s extensive education program]. We don’t want the babies to imprint on humans. We want them to be wild.”
Schmalz has been rehabilitating wildlife for more than 26 years, but she has received a salary for her efforts only for the past three years.
“It’s been a passion for me for a long time,” she says.
Passion is the common thread that runs throughout the wildlife rescue and rehabilitation community. For many, the passion becomes a life’s work. In one case, described in her recently published book The Scoop From Bird Poop, author and wildlife rehabilitator Bebe McCasland relates how caring for wildlife actually helped save a woman’s life. Gayle Barnes, a rehabilitator in Lubbock, was seriously depressed over the premature death of a family member when she was given a young barn owl to care for.
“That bird saved my life,” says Barnes, “because it kept me so busy. [Wildlife rescue] has become a way of life for me. This is not a hobby. I think it is what I was called to do.”
Such sentiments take their largest physical manifestation, in Texas at least, at the 187-acre Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation facility north of San Antonio near Kendalia. Most of WRR’s efforts go into wildlife rescue, but the center also serves as a sanctuary for both native and non-native species.
Most wildlife rescue centers function like animal emergency rooms. Urgent care is given on site, and longer-term care is turned over to individual rehabbers, who usually use some part of their homes or property as a care facility. While the animals usually return to the wild after rehab, sometimes animals cannot be released because of injuries or extenuating circumstances. In those situations, there are two options: euthanasia or permanent sanctuary.
Providing sanctuary is what makes WRR different. Only tigers are not accepted because of abundant existing facilities for tigers, but all others are taken in, including domestic animals. If a research facility has laboratory animals that are no longer needed, places like WRR (and a few others around the country) will get the call. Scattered around the property are huge, high-fenced enclosures that contain animals like African lions, mountains lions or black bears. Rows of enclosures house myriad primates such as ring-tailed lemurs, capuchin monkeys and marmosets. The grounds around the WRR compound are filled with ducks, geese, emus, sheep, dogs, cats and a host of other species.
“It feels great to be able to get these animals out of labs or whatever their situation was and give them trees and grass and each other and as much freedom as we can,” says founder Lynn Cuny. “People ask us, ‘Why bother with a possum?’ That possum wants to live just as badly as we do. We just want to give them their lives back.”
WRR is not open to the public for animal viewing. “We want to give the animals the respect and privacy they deserve, and not have people staring at them,” says Cuny.
Aside from organizations like these that provide care for distressed wild animals, hundreds of individuals in 75 Texas counties around the state also provide care for wildlife. Many specialize in certain species and may be permitted to work only with those animals.
The vast majority won’t get paid for their work. Those individual rehabbers, working out of their own homes, pay for the specialized food, cages, fencing and other necessary materials. Although the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department licenses rehabilitators and inspects their facilities, there is no available state or federal funding for salaries.
How can you become a wildlife rehabilitator?
“Locate a permitted rehabber and become a volunteer,” says Shelli Miller, an Austin rehabilitator who has been taking care of wildlife for more than a decade. “It can take up to two years of on-the-job training with permit holders to get one of the key requirements for a permit from TPWD.”
Those requirements include letters of recommendation from two verifiable permit holders who are willing to attest that the applicant is appropriately trained and experienced. (For other requirements, see www.tpwd.state.tx.us/ publications/pwdpubs/media/pwd_br_ w7000_0694.pdf .)
“Some animals can require extensive and expensive long-term care. It can be incredibly time-consuming,” says Miller. “It is important to learn if this is really what you want to do. Some people begin by being interested in one type of animal and wind up wanting to treat others.”
Sometimes, separate permits are required for different species. Deer require one type of special permit. If a rehabber also wants to care for migratory songbirds, a separate permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is required.
“A wildlife rehabilitator needs to have several qualities,” says Miller. “First of all, you obviously need to really care about the animals, but you also need to keep a certain amount of emotional distance. You can’t keep them with you; you can’t make pets out of them. You can’t let the young ones imprint on you. And sometimes you have to euthanize animals.
“A general rule for this kind of work is to always do what is best for the animals,” she emphasizes. “That may not always be what you want to do. A rehabber in training needs to find out those things about themselves before they take the final step. All that said, it can be incredibly rewarding work.”
In spite of all the sacrifice and expense, the one word that wildlife rehabilitators consistently use to describe their work is “rewarding.” Many have been rehabbing for decades and cannot imagine doing anything else with their time.
Perhaps Margaret Pickell, operations manager at Houston’s Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center, says it best when she describes her work: “It’s one of the few jobs where you smile when you go to work in the morning and smile when you come home in the evening.”
Houston’s Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center (now the Wildlife Center of Texas): 713-861-9453, www.wildlifecenteroftexas.org
Austin Wildlife Rescue: 512-472-WILD, www.austinwildliferescue.org
Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation: 830-336-2725, www.wildlife-rescue.org