Who gives a hoot? They do

Friday, Dec. 18, 2009

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Staff photos by REID SILVERMAN
Lisa Fischer, left, and John Fischer add a new wrap to the injured wing of a young gray horned owl in the basement of their home in Mechanicsville. They found the bird after it had been found shot in woods in Dunkirk.

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Staff photo by EMILY BARNES
Lisa Fischer stands next to a new patient, a young male gray horned owl, at her home in Mechanicsville. She and her husband, John, found the bird after it had been shot in woods in Dunkirk. At top, the Fischers add a new wrap to the owl’s injured wing.

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Staff photo by DARWIN WEIGEL
Lynn Anderson of Waldorf holds an injured red-tailed hawk that was recovered in Gambrills. Anderson, who recently moved the Feathers and Friends Wildlife Rehab Center from her home to a new facility in Brandywine, is treating the hawk for a broken wing in her backyard. If the wing doesn't heal, the hawk could still be used for educational or fostering purposes, but if the wing has to be amputated, the animal will be euthanized.

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Submitted photo
Tailer enjoys a banana at Opal's Place: Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation in Port Republic. The opossum, which has a deformed tail, was nearly dead when Dave and Donna Quinn took it in six months ago.

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Katelin Welles, a wildlife rehabilitator based in Prince Frederick, lets a 3-month-old flying squirrel rest on her fingers. After caring for squirrels, she releases them in the spring.

Lynn Anderson was supposed to be on vacation when she and her husband, Lloyd, went on a New England cruise with some friends a few winters ago.

But while she was playing cards on the ship's deck, a woodpecker struck a nearby window. Everyone else ignored the stunned bird, but Anderson wrapped it in a sock, put it in her coat and smuggled it down to her cabin. There she mended it, sneaking it ashore when the ship docked in Nova Scotia and releasing it. She later heard that some New England woodpeckers migrate north to Nova Scotia, where the climate can be more temperate.

Retired from the College of Southern Maryland publications department, Anderson, of Waldorf, has spent the past eight years working full-time hours for no pay as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.

A lifetime animal lover, Anderson belongs to an unofficial network of rehabbers in Southern Maryland. Each has certain licenses, specialties and capabilities, so they all work together caring for wildlife and protecting it from well-meaning but uneducated humans.

All volunteers, most of them balance full-time jobs with their rehab duties. They can also spend thousands of dollars out of pocket each year on food, supplies and transporting animals to release points or other facilities.

Don't call it a hobby

Lisa and John Fischer of Mechanicsville didn't plan on becoming wildlife rehabbers. But then their son found a squirrel and the family went about learning how to care for it, John thought rehabbing would be a good way for Lisa and him to spend more time together.

Now licensed for five years, the Fischers run the nonprofit Suburban Wildlife: Rescue and Rehabilitation Inc. out of their home and often have so many animals to care for that duties must be split rather than shared.

"I thought it would be nice to do something of common interest together, and the effect was the opposite," John said.

Mary Martin and Matthew Wilkes of California operate Back to the Wild Rescue and Rehab out of their home as well. Martin and Wilkes work at Patuxent River Naval Air Station as a paralegal specialist and network security engineer.

But unlike Martin, who has been a licensed rehabber for more than 20 years, Wilkes never had his sights set on following suit until he found himself an accessory to Martin's passion. "First thing I ever did for her was build a cage, and it kind of snowballed from there," Wilkes said.

To receive his state wildlife rehabilitation permit, Wilkes went through the same process as every other rehabber — a two-year apprenticeship under a master rehabilitator while compiling at least 200 hours of hands-on experience in all four seasons. For the first year, apprentices may only work out of their mentor's facility. While they can work with animals out of their own home during the second year, it must be under the master's supervision. Once the apprenticeship is over, the master must sign off on an exhaustive list of criteria indicating that the apprentice gained all the requisite experience. Each apprentice must also meet minimum facility and continuing education requirements and identify a veterinarian who has agreed to work with them. Once all the requirements are met, the license is granted.

Katelin Welles of Prince Frederick began her training after attending a public address by Dave Quinn, who along with his wife, Donna, operates Opal's Place: Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation out of their home in Port Republic. Welles originally wanted nothing more than to clean cages and help the Quinns, but she eventually become hooked and served as an apprentice under Dave and now runs Little Wanderers Wildlife Rescue.

The Quinns began helping animals eight years ago when they lived in Clinton. The couple rescued two horses from a nearby horse track that were going to be euthanized, and two years later both of them earned their licenses.

But the state license only covers mammals that cannot contract rabies and three species of birds — pigeons, sparrows and starlings — Martin said. To care for other birds or rabies-vector species — an animal that can carry and transmit a disease — like raccoons or foxes each requires additional authorizations.

Martin has a federal migratory bird license and can also handle rabies-vector species, her specialty. The Fischers can also care for birds of prey and rabies-vector species and are among a handful of rehabbers in the state permitted to handle fawns.

Welles, a former Navy medic, specializes in squirrels but also cares for rabbits and raccoons. The Quinns deal mainly with opossums, but also handle non-rabies-vector mammals and "exotic" reptiles like iguanas and boas.

Anderson, the lone Charles County member of this loose affiliation, can rehab small mammals but prefers to focus on raptors and waterfowl.

Although they have different specialties, each rehabber shares the same dread — baby season, when each of them are inundated with calls from people finding, or believing they have found, injured or orphaned animals. Often, the rehabbers said, people mistake baby animals for orphans when the mother is somewhere nearby but out of sight. If a litter or nest of young is found without the mother, rehabbers suggest people observe from a safe distance to make sure the mother does not return. If she doesn't, do not handle the babies and call animal control or a wildlife rehabber immediately, they said.

During baby season, Welles said she works 20 hours a day feeding her squirrels and cleaning their cages. Martin estimates that during birds' baby season, from spring until summer's end, she gets about two hours of sleep each night. In addition to baby birds, which must be fed every 15 to 20 minutes, Martin said she and Wilkes once housed 129 raccoons at the same time last year.

During her baby season, Anderson wakes at 7 a.m. and feeds her baby birds every 20 minutes and any mammals she has every three hours. In between feedings she cleans cages and bedding. The birds wake as the sun rises and sleep as it sets. So things calm down after dark, but she still has to feed the mammals until midnight before she can rest up for the next day's volunteer work.

"I don't like to call it a hobby," Anderson said. "It's a job from morning, noon, ‘til night."

And as for her husband, Lloyd? "He puts up with it," she said.

‘We rehabilitate,

we do not resuscitate'

Such long hours may not seem so outlandish if they came accompanied with lucrative compensation. But animal rehabbers are not allowed to charge a fee for their services and can't solicit donations unless they are certified as a nonprofit organization, as Martin and Wilkes, the Fischers and Anderson are.

That doesn't mean they all can't accept donations, Welles is quick to point out. But with no federal or state funding, almost all of the expenses come out of their own wallets. Martin estimates she spent more than $20,000 last year on rehab-related activities and supplies and says she'd be lucky to take in $1,000 in annual donations.

For rehabbers, it's all about the animals and, in some cases, protecting them from people. Welles puts it bluntly — her mission is to "protect stupid people from doing stupid things to smart animals" which have to be euthanized if they defend themselves against humans.

"There's so much wrong information out there ... the world's flat, aliens are coming to get us and here's what to feed animals: milk and doughnuts," Welles said, adding, "most people are well intended, kind and have a genuine concern for the animal."

"I think most people mean well," Martin said. "They have very good intentions; they just don't know what they're doing."

In fact, some people care about the animals so much, they are wary of turning them over to a rehabber's care. "We do everything we can to keep the animal alive, but some people seem to think that we're just going to take it home and feed it to the hawks," said John Fischer, who works as a steamfitter.

The real goal for a rehabber can be bittersweet. The animals take a significant amount of time to rehab — six months for raccoons and foxes, three months for squirrels and baby opossums, a minimum of one month for adult opossums. And while each rehabber admits it can be difficult to not bond in with the animals they care for, they make plain the dangers of the animal becoming familiar and dependent on humans. Not only could it hinder the animal's ability to survive in the wild, but it could also endanger people if the animal is too comfortable approaching them.

The Quinns once got a call from a couple who had saved a baby snapping turtle from a group that was being preyed upon by birds. The couple kept the turtle as a domesticated pet until it weighed 35 pounds and — to their surprise — snapped and bit. They wanted to know what their options were, and Dave, who is retired from the IRS and now works as deputy director of the Washington, D.C., Returns Processing Administration, let them know there weren't many. He told the couple they needed to make a home for the turtle, which would not be able to fend for itself in the wild, and that they had made the decision the moment they took it out of its natural habitat.

Deer can be particularly dangerous, said Lisa Fischer, who home schools her and John's four children. Unlike a horse's, a deer's hooves are sharp and can easily break human skin. It's why only a few licenses to care for fawns are issued and any injured adult deer, which are too dangerous to rehab, have to be euthanized.

"After they're big enough, they can put a hole right through your chest," Lisa Fischer said. No one should ever approach a deer that has been hit by a car because it will already be stressed and all the more likely to kick out with its legs, Martin said.

For anyone unable to imagine an angry and deadly Bambi, Welles suggests a quick search for "deer attacks" on YouTube.

Squirrels, Welles added, can also be feisty and, although not quite as dangerous as deer, can bite and scratch humans who get too close. "Never trust a squirrel," Welles said.

So it's important to limit contact between the rehabber and the animals they care for, and it's common for interaction to be limited even further as the animal ages and approaches its release date. But rehabbers are by nature animal lovers, and for them the greatest joys come when the wildlife can leave the rehab facilities and return to their natural home.

"It's very rewarding," Anderson said. "There's nothing greater than releasing something and watching it go."

But even rehabbers have their limits. In late November, the Calvert County Animal Control received a call from a resident who had a bald eagle that couldn't fly. The office contacted Welles, who was in Florida at the time and told them to take it to Martin.

Martin gave the eagle an exam, vitamin, fluids and pain medication, but does not currently have the necessary facilities to rehab an eagle. So, when Welles returned to Calvert a couple days later, she met Martin in Prince Frederick, picked up the eagle and took it to the Tri-State Bird Rescue in Newark, Del., which has an enormous flight pen for eagles.

But after Welles dropped the eagle off, it was diagnosed with a fractured scapula — even if the bone healed, it would never fly again and needed to be euthanized.

Martin has been working for years to build an eagle flight pen at her home so Southern Maryland eagles can rehab nearby. In 2006, SMECO lent a big hand by donating and installing used power poles to help build the pen, which will measure 100 feet in one direction and 64 feet in the other to form an L shape that will allow rehabbing birds to bank and turn. But Martin cannot afford the rest of the cost of the pen herself and has not been able to find donors.

But no amount of donations will give Martin the capability to handle a call she received one day from a resident who had been referred by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. The caller had a dead deer in her yard and wanted to know what Martin could do. "We rehabilitate, we do not resuscitate," Martin told the caller, explaining that wildlife rehabbers only deal with living wildlife.

A welcome expansion

As one of the only rehabbers in Charles County, Anderson has been searching for additional space and help for some time. Up until recently, she operated the Feathers and Friends Wildlife Rehab from her backyard and garage.

But this past summer she began leasing a home owned by the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission in Brandywine and is currently finalizing the transfer of her cages and supplies from her home to the new center.

The property includes a garage, an old barn and plenty of space for release pens and boxes. She pays the commission a small rental fee and is responsible for the upkeep and bills.

Inside the house Anderson has a room of small cages for injured and baby animals. Once the animals heal or grow too large for the small cages, they move out to bigger cages in the garage. Finally, when the animals are almost ready to be released back into the wild, they are moved to one of three backyard pens and eventually allowed to leave at their leisure.

The winter is Anderson's offseason, and she usually spends the time taking care of personal and family matters. While her backyard pens were empty of animals, one lone squirrel as of Dec. 1 was still prowling the grounds in search of acorns and succor.

Knowing that the squirrel needs to eventually return to the woods, Anderson shoos it away if it gets too close.

"They're cute when they're little and you're hand-feeding and bottle-feeding them, but eventually you have to back away," she said.

There are, however, a few unwelcome guests at the new facility. Only two animals give Anderson the willies — mice and snakes, and she's seen her fair share of both.

There is also a meeting and education room complete with a green chalkboard. While there are still some renovations to be made — Anderson wants to replace the kitchen's stove with a bathing sink — her goal is to eventually use the new facility to train those interested to become wildlife rehabbers.

She even has hopes of it becoming a full-time animal hospital, using the Tri-State Bird Rescue as an example.

"I think that I'm really blessed that I get to handle these animals up close. They all have their own little personalities," Anderson said. "I've always felt it was important for people to give back to society in some shape or form … You can imagine a world with no birds. I myself would never want to see that. It's something we need to pass onto our children and our grandchildren."