Text and photos by Lisa Stern
Do you wonder what you should do when you find injured wildlife? Read on to discover more about wildlife rehabilitation.
Ever wonder what you should do when you find an injured squirrel? Or a baby bird that has fallen from the nest? Or a turtle with a cracked shell? Or, how about a snake caught in garden webbing?
Virginia has two terrific resources that fill this vital need: the Wildlife Rescue League (WRL) and Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitators (WRs). They are on call practically 24/7 to help. It may look like an easy job; just scoop up that baby bird, or untangle the poor snake, but there are many species-specific laws and regulations governing the handling of wildlife, some training to become a volunteer with the League, and a lot of training and mentoring to become a Wildlife Rehabilitator (WR). Here is more information about each and how you can assist with wildlife rehab.
Wildlife Rescue League
The Wildlife Rescue League (WRL) is a nonprofit, all volunteer organization whose primary purposes are to operate a wildlife assistance hotline (providing the public with advice, resources, referrals to licensed rehabilitators), transport wildlife from shelters and vets to licensed rehabilitators, and educate the public on wildlife laws and how to exist with our wild neighbors, thereby preventing situations that lead to the need for wildlife rehabilitation.
The WRL volunteers field approximately 5,000 calls a year! That helpless baby bird found in the grass really may not need a human to scoop it up—it’s possibly learning to fly and the mom is nearby. Hotline volunteers help the caller determine that, in this case, intervention is not required. What about the snake?
Well, that’s a different story. If he’s cut in several places, lost scales, and is not well, he will need an intervention and transport to a licensed WR. In this case, the hotline volunteer will find a WR and arrange transport.
Black rat snake (Pantherophis obsoletus) with injuries from being caught in garden webbing.
Once an injured, orphaned, or abandoned animal is transported to a WR, it will be treated until it can be safely released.
Carolyn Wilder, Vice President of WRL, has a wealth of knowledge and experience on wildlife rescue. She got involved in the organization while transitioning out of a legal career with a trade association. She started as a transporter because of her love of animals and eventually became a hotline volunteer which she has been doing for 3 years. Because of her work in both areas, and creating relationships with WRs, Carolyn became involved on the board. She now spends her time coordinating and training transporters, offering group training for hotline volunteers, doing presentations for schools and groups, and working to make WRL function more efficiently.
Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitators
WRs are licensed by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF). Becoming a wildlife rehabilitator requires a big commitment of time and energy, need for appropriate space, and a true love of wildlife. First, anyone interested in the program must take 6 hours of approved continuing education before even filling out the application to become an apprentice. Apprentices must have a sponsoring licensed WR who cares for the species they wish to rehabilitate, spend two years working under the supervision and guidance of their sponsor, and are generally limited to caring for uninjured, orphaned wildlife. In addition, since most rehabbers work out of their homes, apprentices must have a home inspection completed by the VGDIF to ensure that there is an adequate, quiet designated area for the care of wildlife. They also complete 6 hours of continuing education annually, may be required to have a rabies vaccine, and must maintain a full record of wildlife received.
Most WRs “specialize”—choosing a species and age range that fits their lifestyle and space. For example, pinky squirrels (newborns) need more feedings per day than juveniles. Baby bunnies need to be fed only twice a day. And, how much room do you have? Enough for baby ducklings needing bins of water to swim in and heat lamps?
After two years of wildlife care experience, the apprentice can begin to care for wildlife without a sponsor’s supervision, complete 6 hours of continuing education annually, work with a licensed veterinarian, have inspections of the holding facility, and get any required immunizations based on the wildlife cared for. Additional permits are required for WRs who desire to work with most birds, eagles, and threatened or endangered species.
Rachael Tolman, the Park Naturalist at Long Branch Nature Center in Arlington, has been a rehabber for many years and has been through the certification process several times since each state and country has different regulations and covered species. While a rehabber in Australia, Rachael worked with baby kangaroos! Here in Virginia, her focus is on turtles and snakes.
Rachael Tolman holding Woodland box turtle (Terrapene carolina carolina) with a cracked shell.
Close-up of Woodland box turtle.
However, you won’t see any of the injured critters on display at Long Branch, since they are tucked away in quiet spaces to get the rest they need for recovery and eventual release.
Though time consuming to become a licensed WR and to nurse injured animals back to health, rehabbers like Rachael find a deep satisfaction in eventually being able to return wildlife to their natural habitat.
Would You Like to Volunteer to Help Wildlife?
If so, contact the Wildlife Rescue League for more information on answering the hotline (training provided), transporting wildlife, or assisting with other activities.
If you’re ready for a greater commitment to becoming an apprentice or licensed WR, there is additional information on WRL’s website on how to begin training for the program.
In either case, you’ll sure to be rewarded by helping our furry, scaled, and feathered friends return to their homes in the wild.