Wildlife Rehab Diary: The Beginning

I have an itch to work with wildlife. A bad itch. An itch that tugs at the back of my brain all day, every day, day in and day out. No matter what I’m doing, I’d rather be sharing space with an animal. I’m not picky: I’d even take insects and spiders over a desk job if I was in a real bind.

In Oregon, I’d been accepted into a spectacular captive animal management program, but couldn’t procure the funds to attend. Heartbroken, I returned to the East Coast, trying my best to believe that something equally as incredible was in the making. (I’m the kind of person that believes if a thing isn’t in your best interest, you don’t get it, no matter how badly you thought you wanted it; but walking away from zoo school was a doozy.)

Fast forward six months, and a combination of coincidence and free time led me to email a local wildlife rehabilitator to see if she needed volunteers. Wildlife rehab is a world of unpaid, tireless work for creatures that will bite you, shit on you, and most likely hate you with every fiber of their being. But more importantly, it’s a world of creatures whose lives are only a passing whisper to most humans, a glimpse of what is otherwise just mystery. It’s a world of injuries and orphaning, of human-caused suffering, but of healing, resilience, and the return of a living being to its home. It’s a world of hope; fur and scales and teeth and hope.

Kathy Woods, who runs the Phoenix Wildlife Center, invited me up. I like Kathy immediately. She’s practical, laugh-out-loud funny, and she takes the reputation and future of wildlife rehab seriously. Her mix of pragmatism and compassion with the people that bring her the clinic’s wards makes her an incredibly special rehabber. She can both calm and encourage a panicked person while maintaining what’s best for the animal. As casually as she explains how to find the clinic, she offers to send the caller a postcard with a personalized update on the animal after it’s gotten some care. She’s not just an animal person, she’s a people person. Kathy tells me that what gives her the greatest hope are those people on the doorstep with the cardboard box, tiny living thing inside, trying to make a difference.

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On the first day, we descend toward the clinic and I am almost audibly buzzing: I am at full attention, sponge-brain, ready to absorb everything the light touches. We walk by outdoor enclosures with raptors, ducks, and a hiding raccoon. There are hundreds of kennels, small cages, and crates ready for the busy season, and a fenced-in kiddy pool. Inside the clinic, there are a handful (literally) of baby squirrels, a squinting pair of red Screech Owls, and a fussy pair of Black Vultures. She points out a hostile bittern, a terrapin named Tippy soaking in a blue tub, and a chatty duck named Quackers. As we turn to head into the kitchen, she gestures towards a box of wood chips and tells me with a straight face that those are the mealworms, and they don’t have names.

The first task Kathy teaches me is one that she is very serious about: personal safety. At all times we are required to wear gloves and a face mask in the clinic, and the rabies vector species (RVS) are off-limits until I’ve gotten a rabies vaccination. We also speak in whispers constantly, but this isn’t for our personal safety: there are baby foxes behind the curtain of one kennel. The less they hear our voices, the less accustomed to humans they’ll be when we release them. Kathy is kind to me: she lifts the edge of the curtain for me to peer in, because there is nothing as precious as three baby foxes. Rehab may come with the risk of rabies, but it more than makes up for it in heart-melting joy.

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We waste no time getting to work. She teaches me to mix up formula for the baby squirrels, to get it warm but not too warm, to suck it up into syringe tubes and attach brown rubber nipples. I’m so focused on feeding the squirrels that I nearly lose touch with how precious they are, how vulnerable they are, how they grip the tube with both hands, sucking so fiercely at the formula that it comes out of their noses. They sneeze, I wipe their faces, and they go searching for the nipple again. As their tiny bellies fill, they start to slow down and lean; the ones with open eyes start to close them. They just about fall asleep, so back into the tupperware nest they go, scrambling over, below, and around each other to find the perfect position. They become a ball of squirrel with no way to tell where one ends and another begins, and they sleep like rocks for four hours until it’s time to feed again.

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One squirrel does not appear to be doing so well. He’s thin and his legs are weak; the woman who brought them in had tried to feed them, but they ended up going almost a week without proper nutrition. Sometimes this leads to a slow death, and maybe I look like I’m going to cry because Kathy reassures me that no matter what, our job is to make him comfortable and provide the highest quality of life. Other than that, we can only do our best, and try to teach people to get baby animals to rehabbers as quickly as possible for this very reason. He’s so small and so innocent, I think, that perhaps I do want to cry, and Kathy says that’s always okay here. There’s a lot of joy in the clinic, but there’s also inevitably a fair measure of heartbreak.

Outside, I learn quickly not to look directly at the raptors as I move through the outdoor passage: if I don’t look at them, they don’t fuss. This doesn’t work on the ducks. Kathy says, “Ducks have one brain. What one does, they all do.” Indeed, all four of them stretch their necks, scurry around, and squawk loudly at me in unison. Once they have clean water, they get busy dirtying it again. The groundhog in the enclosure next door watches them parade around with what looks like mild interest, his head propped up, and then stretches out in the sun and closes his eyes. Today is his first day outside after hibernating indoors all winter, and he looks as blissful in the fresh warm sun as I feel.

For the rest of the day, I learn how to clean and re-line kennels, who bites and who doesn’t, who is being released and who lives here forever. I learn where the extra syringes live, where the food dishes belong, what “target feeding” means. I also learn that only 10% of a possum’s diet is protein (but that they eat it with great veracity), that both the ducks and the groundhog are crazy for kale, that the groundhog doesn’t care for strawberries but the possums do, and that there are two black vultures because the one wouldn’t eat without company.

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At the end of the day, I prepare to leave only because it would be awkward to insist that I be permitted to stay. Kathy wants to know if I’ve enjoyed my time; there isn’t a word in the English language for what I’m feeling. My response is in the form of a question:

“When can I come back?”



This post is part of an ongoing series chronicling my experiences as a wildlife rehabilitation apprentice. To learn more about the Phoenix Wildlife Center (a 501(c)(3) non-profit), visit phoenixwildlifecenter.net or on Facebook, where we do most of our connecting. Thanks for reading!


Posted on April 23, 2014, in Connected Living, Fauna, Naturalist Notebook, Wildlife Rehab and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Wildlife Rehab Diary: The Beginning.

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