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Founder and director Melissa Stanley prepares to move a red-tailed hawk back to its enclosure after its evening feeding. (Photo by Chet Strange)
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Melissa Stanley holds down a guinea pig while Dr. Carolyn Clay gives it an injection. (Photo by Chet Strange)
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Kevin Lippke takes Keegan, an injured hawk, outside for sunlight and fresh air. (Photo by Chet Strange)
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Stanley feeds a nighthawk. (Photo by Chet Strange)
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Stanley and Clay care for Momma, an elderly virginia opossum. Because Momma cannot be safely released into the wild, the center uses her for educational purposes. (Photo by Chet Strange)
On the day before the winter storm that shut down the commonwealth in January, Richmond Wildlife Center’s staff was in crisis mode.
“We had hawks, doves and opossums that we had to get inside,” says Melissa Stanley, founder, executive director, veterinary assistant, wildlife rehabilitator and educator at the center. “The roofs on the cages could collapse under so much snow.” Once safely indoors, however, another issue surfaces: the animals are unaccustomed to occupying a small space with other wildlife. “They become very stressed,” Stanley says. “Our office space is very limited.”
Since April 2013, Richmond Wildlife Center in Midlothian has been the “go-to” resource for injured, orphaned, abandoned, and sick wildlife. The full-service, nonprofit veterinary facility is the first and only medical center for wildlife in the Richmond area, and the staff, including the veterinarians, are volunteers.
Caring for a menagerie
The center responds to 2,000-3,000 calls a year. At any given time, it’s populated with a variety of wildlife, be it bats, beavers, foxes, groundhogs, lizards, frogs and toads, raptors, opossums, snakes, squirrels, turtles or woodpeckers. The most common injuries treated here stem from vehicle collisions, attacks by dogs and cats, and window strikes — birds flying into glass.
Most of the patients are nursed back to health and returned to the wild.
The facility also treats exotic, non-native animals that have been injured or abandoned. Exotic animals are placed for adoption with families or moved to an appropriate facility.
Sick wildlife can be a clue to a larger problem such as presence of toxins in a habitat. “If the animals are sick, it’s possible the environment is, too,” Stanley says. “Every animal that is brought to us receives a same-day lead test.”
Good intentions aren’t enough when it comes to helping animals in distress, says Kevin Lippke, wildlife rehabilitator, educator, and trainer. “The urge to be involved is understandable, but in ignorance a person can cause healthy baby animals to be kidnapped, cause people to be exposed to dangers and diseases they’re unaware of, and injury and malnourishment to animals that might have been fine otherwise,” he says. “The most important service we can provide is education, that way we can focus our care to those that truly need us.”
Dr. Carolyn Clay, a veterinarian and wildlife rehabilitator, also is concerned about the safety of well-meaning citizens. “It is important that Richmond has a veterinary hospital dedicated to sick and injured wildlife, Clay says. “Having our facility available to help members of the community who find sick and injured wild animals is important so they do not expose themselves, family members or their pets to potential diseases or cause more harm or suffering to a wild animal by trying to care for a wild animal themselves without the proper resources or knowledge of husbandry and medical needs of a wild animal.”
Take the story of Gus, an Eastern box turtle, who was “kidnapped” from the wild many years ago and kept as a pet. Gus’s family didn’t realize he was a land turtle and kept him in water, so he was sick when he became a resident of the wildlife center. It took months of care to nurse him back to health. Even then, it was illegal to release Gus to the wild after his prolonged captivity. Gus’s tale has a happy ending, though: He has been adopted and is in a new home.
Teaching children the importance of respect of the environment, particularly wildlife, is a crucial part of the center’s mission. “I feel that one of the most important services we provide, outside of caring for our patients, is educating the next generation,” says Jessica Kiracofe, wildlife rehabilitator, veterinary assistant, educator and trainer. “Children are for the most part eager to learn while not yet having their opinions set in stone. If they can be taught to see nature and wildlife as positive parts of their world, they will grow up and make decisions that impact wildlife and our environment in a positive way.”
Meeting a need
“Richmond has needed a dedicated wildlife hospital for a very long time,” Stanley says. “While there are some veterinarians who may assist wildlife out of their practices, they are required by law to transfer a wild animal as soon as they are medically stable. And many of those veterinarians are not keeping up with any continuing education centered on wildlife medicine. They also must house wild animals separate from domestic animals and most local practices just are not set up for that.”
What is especially disturbing to Stanley is the $10 permit.
“Anyone can become a wildlife rehabilitator without any prior veterinary experience or professional wildlife care experience. It is a $10 permit that anyone can easily obtain without any skill testing,” she says. “You just have to find a veterinarian who will sign your permit, an individual a wildlife rehabilitator may or may not ever choose to work with, and they need to locate someone who already possesses a permit to be their sponsor.”
Richmond Wildlife Center is the only local rehabilitation program that is lawfully permitted to possess, treat, and transport bald eagles, golden eagles and other threatened and endangered species.
Everything works because of the volunteers, and through cash donations, which go to buy supplies and medicine, says Stanley. The wildlife center receives no government funding. Volunteers are recruited in March and April, and again in September and October each year.
The center’s work has been a dream of Stanley’s since she was 15 and found an injured baby bird, but could not find a veterinarian willing to treat it. She was finally steered to an in-home rehabilitator to help, but she did not care for the manner in which the bird was treated. She decided then that she wanted to help wildlife, as she felt there was no one to do what she saw needed to be done. She also likes the science of veterinarian medicine.
Stanley eventually wants a facility that’s fiscally sustainable, one that will pay her a salary and enable her to hire a veterinarian. For now, all donations go to buying medicine and food for the animals. Long-term plans are more ambitious, and include a property with hiking trails, and displays of animals that have been treated, along with short descriptions of their stories.
Stanley’s devotion to wildlife health and care brings high praise from her staff. “Our founder and executive director, currently living off of her savings and support from friends and family, volunteers seven days a week and can put in anywhere between eight and 15 hours a day,” Clay says. “There have been times she has needed to be present overnight as well to care for critical patients. In addition to her administrative duties she also serves as a veterinary assistant, surgical technician, wildlife rehabilitator, and educator. The center, without full-time paid staff currently, wouldn't be here without her.
Where the wild things are
You can report an injured animal or learn more about volunteer opportunities, how to adopt an animal and learn more about the Richmond Wildlife Center, at richmondwildlifecenter.org or call 378-2000. The center is at 3746 Winterfield Road. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday-Friday.
Here’s what they do: Provide veterinary services; laboratory services including parasitology and same-day lead testing; radiology and ultrasound services; medications, field rescues of sick and injured animals; return animals to nests; adoption services and educational programs for the public and professionals.