Wild Ideas: Wildlife rehabilitators needed; passion required

Rappahannock wildlife rehabilitator Amo Merritt feeds a noisy young Carolina wren some meal worms.
Rappahannock wildlife rehabilitator Amo Merritt feeds a noisy young Carolina wren some meal worms. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
What does it take to be a licensed wildlife rehabilitator? A little bit of crazy mixed with a whole lot of passion for animals, according to some rehabbers.

Animals come to wildlife rehabilitators because they are sick, injured or, in the case of young animals, orphaned or abandoned by their parents. Most injuries occur from collisions with vehicles, according to the Wildlife Center of Virginia. Often animals are attracted to roads because of what we throw out our car windows, which creates risk up and down the food chain. For example, a tossed apple may attract an opossum or mouse, which in turn attracts predators, such as hawks. If any of these animals are killed by a vehicle, vultures and other scavengers are then likely to come, also risking injury.

Domestic cats are also a huge source of wildlife injuries. According to the brochure of the wildlife rehabilitator organization Native Wildlife Rescue Inc., cats “are responsible for more wildlife injuries than any other animal,” accounting for nearly 30 percent of wildlife that come to rehabbers with traumatic injuries. “Even with our care,” the brochure says, “almost 80 percent of these victims do not survive or need to be euthanized.”

Rescue calls may come in to the Wildlife Center or to the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF), but rehabilitation is usually shifted to licensed rehabilitators, Rappahannock County rehabber Amo Merritt says. Although the Wildlife Center keeps a few “ambassador” animals at its facility in Waynesboro, she notes, it is a teaching hospital for wildlife veterinarians and does not do rehab.

Culpeper wildlife rehabilitator Judie Graham feeds a baby opossum by inserting a feeding tube.
Culpeper wildlife rehabilitator Judie Graham feeds a baby opossum by inserting a feeding tube. Pam Owen | Rappahannock News
Most species that come to rehabbers are common, even overabundant in some cases, such as deer. So why expend so much time and effort on saving them? Beyond their love of animals, those working in wildlife rescue often acknowledge that what they do is not about just saving one animal but about supporting the public’s concern for wildlife and fostering a conservation ethic.

Rehabbers tend to specialize in certain types of wildlife. When I recently talked with Amo about bird rescue (see my July 30 column), one of her specialties, along with small mammals, she said she became a rehabilitator after retiring from a career in forestry. She always loved wildlife, she said, and discovered the rehabilitator program when she found an injured turtle by the road and was told to take it to a rehabber.

The path to becoming a rehabber is not easy. In Virginia, before they are licensed, rehabbers must undergo a two-year apprenticeship with someone who is already licensed. They also must get six hours of continuing education in their field every year. VDGIF oversees the volunteer wildlife rehabilitator program in the commonwealth, including state licensing and inspection of rehabbers’ facilities.

And getting licensed is only the start of a process that requires a lot of hard work and dedication. Taking care of very young songbirds, for example, requires feeding them every 15 minutes during the day, according to Amo.

Judie Graham, a Culpeper resident, became a wildlife rehabilitator after raising three kids. I first met her in 2011, when she successfully rehabbed a litter of Virginia opossum babies (joeys) I had found with their dead mom on a road near Sperryville (see my August 12, 2011, column.) Judie says she ended up specializing in opossums because, as North America’s only marsupial, they “intrigued” her. She also thought opossums were not well understood and “had a bad rap.”

“Somebody has to stick up for the underdogs,” she says. She points to how important opossums are in the food web, eating insects, mice, snakes and other species that can cause problems around homes and farms.

But raising opossums isn’t easy. Recently 24 very young joeys from two different moms that had been killed by vehicles arrived at Judie’s on one day. At that age, she says, she has to feed them “every two to three hours around the clockthrough tubes she has to insert into their mouths. Opossums typically have two litters a year, so Judie says she rarely gets to leave home for long.

Being a rehabilitator also takes a financial toll. Licensed wildlife rehabilitators work as volunteers and are responsible for not only paying for the required state and federal licenses but also for most of the food, equipment and supplies for their patients. They are continually in need of carriers or cages, puppy chow, dog and cat food, paper towels and toilet paper, and clean new or used towels, baby and other blankets, washcloths and sheets, they say. Judie says she’s also always in need of fruit, a favorite food of opossums. Donations or cash are always welcome, the rehabbers say.

After spending almost two decades as rehabbers, Amo and Judie are now in their sixties and are concerned about who will take up their work when they no longer can. “We’re getting older,” Judie says, “and we don’t have a lot of people coming in who want to do this” She acknowledges that “you have to be crazy to do this” but then goes on to say why she does: “I do it because I want to help the wildlife. I can’t see infants or babies being starved . . . or put somewhere to die. . . . We need these guys for future generations.”

Judie is particularly concerned about finding someone who wants to take care of opossums. She says many people who have expressed interest in becoming rehabbers are more interested in the more “cuddly” species, such as raccoons and bunnies.

Amo echoes Judie’s sentiments: “Someone has to speak for critters. They can’t speak for themselves.” She also says she wants to “give something back” to help balance the scales for the destruction of wildlife caused by humans. In a recent email, Amo quoted the notable 19th-century conservationist John Muir: “When we tug at a single thing in nature, we find it attached to the rest of the world.”

Still, having the right intentions is not enough to stick with rehabbing, Amo says: “You have to enjoy it.”  And it’s obvious in watching rehabbers at work that they do find their work enormously rewarding. When they are not taking care of their charges, they often take “ambassador” animals with them to talk to community groups about wildlife rescue.

To learn more about becoming a wildlife rehabilitator, contact Amo Merritt (540-987-8431 or amomerritt@gmail.com), Judie Graham (540-825-6407 or rgraham782@aol.com) or anyone else listed in the Native Wildlife Rescue brochure, available from Amo. Or call Dianne Waller, the permitting official at VDGIF (804-367-9588), to get an information packet.

© 2015 Pam Owen

Pam Owen
About Pam Owen 338 Articles
Writer, editor, photographer, and passionate nature conservationist living in Rappahannock County, in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. Two favorite quotes: By E.O. Wilson, who coined the term "biodiversity," "Nature holds the key to our aesthetic, intellectual, cognitive and even spiritual satisfaction”; by Douglas Adams, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they pass by.”