A passion for helping wildlife in need

Posted on: May 29, 2016 | Bob Frye | Comments

OwlBarry Reeger | Tribune-Review
A barn owl named Athena that was rescued two years ago sits on a branch at Wildlife Works Inc. on Thursday May 26, 2016 in Youngwood.

Every ring of the phone carries the potential for healing or heartbreak for Lisa Vezzani.

Sometimes, she can offer help. Sometimes, she can’t.

Those latter calls are the worst.

Last week, for example, she took three in one day from people who witnessed white-tailed deer being hit and killed by vehicles. In each case, a mother deer left a fawn behind.

Wildlife Works Inc., the wildlife rehabilitation facility in Youngwood where Vezzani serves as office manager, can’t handle fawns, though, she said. They require more space and time than it can offer, she said.

“You just get tons of calls. And it breaks my heart sometimes because there’s not much you can do for some of these animals,” Vezzani said. “There’s a lot more help needed than is available, unfortunately.”

This is the time of year when that becomes most apparent.

Calls for wildlife rehabilitation pick up in March, when squirrels are nesting, said Jill Argall, director of the Animal Rescue League of Western Pennsylvania’s wildlife center in Verona.

They come in “waves” after, peaking in May and June, as people reach out seeking help with baby raccoons, birds, rabbits, deer and more.

“Oh yeah, this is crunch time,” Argall said.

It’s a small but dedicated corps of people responding.

There are just 37 wildlife rehabilitators spread across the state, according to Chad Eyler, chief of the special permits enforcement division for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, which oversees their licensing.

Some counties, like Westmoreland and Allegheny, have two each. Others, like Butler, Indiana and Somerset, have one. Forty of the state’s 67 counties — including Washington, Fayette, Armstrong, Beaver, Cambria, Lawrence and Greene — have none.

The burden placed on those thin ranks can prove taxing.

The wildlife center expects to handle 4,000 or so animals this year, Argall said, enough to rank it as one of the biggest rehabilitation centers in the state. It will handle those duties using paid staff, interns and volunteers, she said.

Other rehabilitators work alone, at their own expense.

Ayn Van Dyke has operated the Kritter Kamp rehabilitation center in Clymer for 33 years. In a typical year she’ll take in 375 to 450 animals, from possums — a specialty — to rabbits, raccoons, squirrels and fawns. It costs $8,000 to $10,000 annually to treat, feed and house that wildlife.

About half of the money is supplied by donations. The other half she puts out herself as no agency, be it the Game Commission, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service — which licenses those who work with migratory birds — or any other, pays rehabbers to aid wildlife.

It’s the time involved that can be really demanding, though, Van Dyke said.

When fawns come in, for example, they need fed four times a day. That lasts six weeks. Their feeding schedule can be scaled back after that, but it continues in some form for months, through early September, she said.

“I had to teach my husband to do all of our shopping because there are times when I can’t leave the house for weeks at a time,” Van Dyke said.

Often, the wildlife she and others work with is more than just abandoned.

Argall said about 80 to 85 percent of the animals brought to the wildlife center are wounded. Cats left to wander the neighborhood account for a lot of that. Run-ins with people — in vehicles, cutting down trees containing nests and the like — are another big factor.

Not all can be saved.

Argall said about 60 to 65 percent of the animals they handle will recover. That’s about the national average.

Dick Grant, a 30-year veteran rehabilitator from Howell, Mich., and president of the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, said a 2008 survey of its 1,425 members showed that 60 percent of birds, 69 percent of reptiles and amphibians and 72 percent of mammals that get treated survive.

The others either die or have to be euthanized.

“It’s just like a hospital. Not every patient that comes in survives their illness or infection,” Argall said.

“I’ve seen miraculous recoveries,” Vezzani said. “And I’ve seen others where you think, ‘They’re in pretty good shape,’ and you come in the next morning and they’re gone.”

Losing any animal hurts, Van Dyke said. But it’s the cases when an animal can be nursed back to health and released that make it worthwhile.

“Most of what happens to animals happens as a result of human interference. So there’s an obligation to rectify it and make it right, if we can. That’s what it’s all about,” she said. “I want to give them a second chance.”

Rehabilitators are the only ones who offer that, Eyler said.

“We rely on these people so much for their expertise,” he said. “They’re our go-to people when it comes to this kind of stuff.”


The best thing people can do for wildlife in most cases?

Leave it alone.

That’s the mantra repeated by wildlife rehabilitators.

“The big thing at this time of year is we get a lot of animals that we don’t need to see,” said Jill Argall of the Animal Rescue League’s wildlife center. “People see a baby animal and assume it’s abandoned when it’s really not.”

Often, for example, people find baby rabbits while mowing the lawn. With no mother visible, they assume they’re on their own, said Lisa Vezzani of Wildlife Works.

The reality is that the mother only visits the nest periodically throughout the day, often early and late when no people are around, she said. Likewise, baby birds often spend 24 hours or more on the ground when they first leave the nest and before they can fly, she said.

Those are the kinds of things she tells people when they call, looking to lend nature a hand.

“A lot of times it’s just explaining to people how these animals work,” she said.

“Any wildlife rehabilitator will tell you they get a lot of calls. Our job is to help people make wise decisions,” said Dick Grant of the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association. “It’s education, education, education.”

Argall recommended that anyone who suspects they’ve discovered injured or abandoned wildlife first check out the state (here) or national (here) wildlife rehabilitator association websites for details on local rehabbers and tips on what to do — and not do — with wildlife before handling it.

“There are a lot of resources people can go to first. And they can always call us,” she said.

This story originally appeared at triblive.com/sports/outdoors.

Bob Frye is the everybodyadventures.com editor. Reach him at 412-838-5148 or bfrye@535mediallc.com. See other stories, blogs, videos and more at everybodyadventures.com.

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Bob Frye is a storyteller with a passion for all things outdoors. He hunts, he fishes, he hikes, he camps, he paddles, backpacks and snowshoes depending on the season. If he’s not an expert at anything, it’s because he’s passionate to try a little bit of everything.