Blue Ridge Wildlife Center aids ailing animals

BOYCE, Va. – When we moved into our new offices in December, one of the things we were looking forward to leaving behind was a small cadre of visitors who had decided, without any prior consultation, that they ought to live alongside us.

These mostly consisted of a few mice – cunning devils that ate the cheese right out of our traps without once springing them – that would occasionally dart across the floor, eliciting shrieks from my surprised colleagues. On a few occasions, we detected in the air the distinct traces of another unwelcome visitor, much larger, black, and with two white stripes running up its back.

A flying squirrel munches a meal worm.

A flying squirrel munches a meal worm.

Leaving our aging building behind meant that we could be free of these intrusions. Finally, a transition to modernity, to civilization. No more sudden eruptions of brutish nature into our carefully managed environs. But didn’t Robert Burns say something once about “the best laid schemes of mice and men?”

We had been in the new office only a few days when the shrieking started again. This time the invader had wings.

I returned from an assignment to find my editor, piece of cardboard and garbage bin in hand, trying to trap a large brown bat that really did not want to be confined in a trash can. When my editor finally subdued it, he carried it outside and set it free. We all expected it to fly away. But it just sat there, clinging to the cardboard. We went back inside and waited a few minutes, but it just curled up – it was a very cold day – and laid there.

We had recently run several stories about White Nose Syndrome, a fungal plague that is wiping out bat populations, and it did not seem right just to leave a member of what could be a dying breed to meet its fate. So we decided to call Blue Ridge Wildlife Center, a wildlife rescue organization located near the Shenandoah River, just outside of Boyce, Va.

“Bats are normally hibernating right now,” said wildlife rehabilitator Jennifer Burghoffer. She explained that it must have decided to hibernate in our building while it was vacant. Now that it was winter it was too late for it to find a new spot. They could give it a place to hibernate, though, if we could bring it in to them.

So I coaxed it into a shoe box that I taped firmly shut except for a couple small breathing holes at either end. I loaded it up in the passenger seat of my car and started driving. Since it was winter, I naturally had the heat roaring.

Somewhere around Berryville, the car now toasty, the bat woke up. It began scratching and gnawing at the small air holes, which were slowly getting larger. I remembered the woman I had spoken with on the phone warning me that, much like mice, bats could easily worm their way through a miniscule opening.

I wondered how I would explain to the accident investigators that I had run headlong into oncoming traffic while engaged in hand-to-wing combat with an enraged flying rodent.

I thought about epitaphs I had seen at Boot Hill graveyard in Tombstone, Ariz. “Here lies Lester Moore. Four slugs from a .44, no Les no more.” They would surely put some joke on my headstone after I became the world’s first bat-related auto fatality.

Luckily, logic kicked in at the last possible minute. If heat woke the bat up, cold should put it back down. I rolled the windows down and, a few minutes later, the little hellion gave up on his jailbreak plot.

When I finally pulled up in front of the wildlife center, which is currently housed on the grounds of a small converted cottage, I was astounded at the variety of animals in the cages lining all the walls.

They took the bat in, gave it some fluids, and brought it up to a dimly lit hibernation room on the second floor.

Veterinarian Belinda Burwell founded the center for sick, injured and orphaned wildlife in 2004 after operating a wildlife rescue hotline for four years. Whenever they saved an animal they had to drive four hours to the site of the nearest refuge.

“There are so few facilities like this because there is no funding. There is animal control, and animal shelters, for domestic pets, but they don’t take care of wildlife,” Burwell said. “That’s why this place is needed.”

A bald eagle suffering from lead poisoning and a broken wing recovers at the Wildlife Center.

A bald eagle suffering from lead poisoning
and a broken wing recovers at the Wildlife Center.

The facility, which is kept open solely through individual donations, has treated more than 220 different native species in its eight years of operation. In 2012, they took in 1,800 animals, an all-time high.

“Every year it is going up. I think that has to do with increased development in the area. Every year more people are moving into wildlife habitat.”

Burwell said she has been interested in wildlife medicine since veterinary school more than 20 years ago. She spent time at zoos, but eventually decided to open a conventional veterinary practice serving pets. “That’s where they money is,” she laughed.

Now, however, she works primarily with wild animals.

“In the summertime, we get a lot of orphaned baby squirrels, orphaned baby bunnies, possums – those are the most common mammals. We also get foxes, racoons, occasionally even an otter.”

There are also more exotic creatures hiding about. During a second visit to the facility a few days later, she opens one cage, grabs a freeze-dried meal worm, and slowly coaxes a flying squirrel from a large pouch where it is hibernating. Flying squirrels, she tells me, are found all over the local area, but they are seldom seen since they are mostly nocturnal – they have evolved enormous eyes to make the most of low-light conditions – and spend of their time high in the trees.

She shows me an endangered wood turtle with neon orange markings that was run over by a lawn mower. The wildlife center had managed to patch up its shell – which is made of living bone, actually an extension of the turtle’s ribs and pelvis – and they hope to release it back to the wild.

While we are there I check in on the ornery bat we captured in our office. ‘Tom,’ as I have been calling him in my head, in honor of our paper’s namesake, is doing well, she says.

Finally, it is time to see a gigantic bald eagle. We head outside, walking past a large cage holding a friendly skunk that seemed excited to meet me – I was less interested in meeting him – she explains that the eagle had been brought all the way from Richmond, Va. It was suffering from a broken wing, and from lead poisoning.

She says she frequently sees raptors coming in with lead poisoning caused by bullet fragments left in deer carcasses and gut bags abandoned by hunters. While humans are not usually poisoned by ingesting lead shot, she explains, raptors have strong stomach acids meant to dissolve bone, leaving them more susceptible. She says she encourages hunters to use non-lead ammunition when hunting.

Lead poisoning leads the birds to behave erratically, making unusually poor decisions like flying close to vehicles. This is the reason that so many birds that come in with lead poisoning also have broken wings, she says.

Burwell says that the majority of the animals she sees are injured by human activity: automobile accidents, building in shrinking habitats, poisoning by pesticides. “Most of it does have to do with human activities,” she says.

The bald eagle is enormous, around 3 1/2 feet tall. Burwell explains that an eagle’s wings can’t be placed in a cast, but she was able to surgically implant pins in its brittle wing bones that should allow its wing to recover.

Thoroughly awe-struck I walked back to the cottage with Burwell as she explained that, with the influx of new people and the concomitant influx of injured animals, the 800 square feet of indoor space available to them was no longer sufficient.

“If you store a hawk in a cage next to a squirrel, the hawk will be constantly excited and the squirrel will just be terrified. So they each need to be in their own room,” she said.

Blue Ridge Wildlife Center hopes to break ground on a new, much larger wildlife hospital building that will sit on 18 acres of wooded land later this year. Burwell said the center needs donations of cash, supplies and volunteers to help continue its mission.

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