|What Is a Wildlife Rehabilitator? |
By Kathy Bernhardt
Who are these people who answer your frantic call, "I've found this tiny brown bird..." at all hours with words of wisdom, comfort and advice? Whose first reaction to a shoebox in hand is not "Where'd you buy that?" but "What do you have there?". Who picks up the struggling, sharp-beaked, hissing owl with the same assurance as the tiny, featherless baby robin?
These are wildlife rehabilitators, mostly volunteers, some in large, modern facilities, some in small, make-shift centers, and most in their own front rooms. Some have had formal training, some apprenticed to experienced caregivers, some have learned by the seat of their pants. But all share a professionalism, a dedication and a passion for helping the injured and orphaned, voiceless wild animals and birds.
A wildlife rehabilitator gives advice from how to discourage the pounding woodpecker on your shingle roof, to how to replace a tiny dove fallen from a nest. They explain that raccoons and opossums do, indeed, live in suburban areas, and that the scurrying in the chimney might be swifts. They talk about compassion and understanding and acceptance, and, as a last resort, about laws protecting wildlife. They beg that you keep your cats inside during fledgling season, and teach your kids not to disturb nests. Some take educational animals and birds to schools, cub scout meetings, and 4-H groups to talk about nature and ecology, the importance of leaving wild things wild, and to give children the chance to connect one-on-one with a hawk or an opossum or a crow.
Wildlife rehabilitators exist in just about every state and town. Those who work with mammals are licensed or permitted by their state's wildlife protection department. Those who work with migratory birds also hold permits from the Federal Fish & Wildlife Department. Many rehabilitators are members of national and international wildlife organizations; many are members of their local or state rehabilitation association. Every state has different laws and regulations regarding local wildlife and those who care for them.
A wildlife rehabilitator cannot give advice on how to raise a wild bird or animal. They cannot recommend diets, or how to provide long-term care or how to resolve health issues. Their permits say they must uphold the laws, and one of those laws is that no un-permitted person may possess a wild animal or bird. They will encourage you to bring the animal in if it is injured or to put it back where you found it if it is not. They will explain about the dangers of raising a wild thing - the possibilities of a wrong diet causing rickets and other bone deformities, or diarrhea and dehydration and death; the various diseases some animals might carry; the problems of taming or imprinting an animal that belongs in the wild. They will try to explain why an improperly raised animal cannot be released, and how that is probably a death sentence for them. They will talk about how wild animals cannot be kept as pets, can rarely be trusted once they reach adulthood, can rarely be happy in a cage, and how unfair and cruel a punishment that is.
Wildlife rehabilitators work from the heart and understand, more than most of us, that hard decisions and joyful endings, tears and laughter, despair and celebration are all are part of a day's work. They weep over the bullet-shattered, broken hawk whose only release is painless euthanasia, and they exalt over the successful first flight of the orphaned mockingbird. They struggle to splint the broken leg of the car-hit mother duck and set up a temporary home for her six tiny ducklings. They mourn the senseless murder of the backyard raccoon while searching for her nest of young ones. They wade chest deep in cold water to release the loon caught in fishing line, and climb out on fragile limbs to rescue the tiny, hungry robins, orphaned by the neighborhood cat. And they answer the phone while feeding baby doves, while scrubbing out containers, while mixing foods and medicines, while re-wrapping a loose dressing, while opening yet another shoebox.
The Wildlife Information Directory
National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA)
International Wildlife Rehabilitators Council (IWRC)
To locate a rehabilitator near you:
To learn more about how to become a Wildlife Rehabilitator:
Kathy Bernhardt has been a licensed wildlife rehabilitator since 1992, an instructor and outreach educator for her local organization since 1995, and specializes in crows.