Wildlife ‘rehabbers’ wage herculean fight for a noble cause

  • Rehabilitators who help injured creatures or abandoned baby animals have a role to play in conserving wildlife across the US
  • One estimate of the number of animals hit by vehicles on US roads every year was projected to be about 300,000, but this is almost certainly a low estimate.
  • A national network of 1,600 mostly volunteer “rehabbers” are at work every day to recover and return wild animals to their natural habitats.

Driving down a quiet street in Idaho Falls in the spring of 2021, I hadn’t yet noticed the wide gap between wildlife’s various needs and the slim ranks of wildlife rehabilitators. But then I saw a crow, hobbling and off balance, on the side of the road. I pulled over and approached slowly, hoping that when I got near, the bird would fly away. When it didn’t, I eased closer. The glossy black feathers on its right side were disheveled, and its wing hung at an awkward angle. Its left leg dragged as it tried to hop away from me. Without much of a plan, I put on a pair of work gloves, caught the bird, and placed it in a box in my car.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, only two licensed wildlife rehabilitators work in all of eastern Idaho. The only option I knew of was the Idaho Fish and Game Department (IDFG), so I called, and although sympathetic, they didn’t have the resources to help.

After conducting a follow-up phone interview in 2022, it’s easier to understand why.

They [wildlife rehabilitators] are important,” said James Brower, IDFG’s regional communications manager. “At Fish and Game we manage [wildlife] populations on a population scale, not individuals. We’re animal lovers ourselves, so when it’s possible and feasible to take wild animals to a rehab center, we will do that.” But in the case of the crow, it wasn’t.

A black bear cub rescued by Idaho Black Bear Rehab (IBBR) in Garden City gets a second shot at living free. Image courtesy of IBBR.

Although the permitting process to become a wildlife rehabilitator varies from state to state, the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association (NWRA), based in Minnesota, exists to unify and promote the occupation as a whole.

“What we do is provide support and education for those professionals doing wildlife rehabilitation,” said NWRA executive director Molly Gezella-Baranczyk. “Working with federal and state agencies to liaise between what wildlife rehabilitators are experiencing and what the regulators need, [we] make sure both sides understand each other and can work together.”

The role of liaison, however, can be more difficult than it seems due to the fact that there’s no uniform standard to obtain or maintain a wildlife rehabilitators’ license. To help remedy that issue, the NWRA writes its own standards, and then works with regulators to ensure each party’s needs are being met. In the end, the association hopes that its efforts will help rehabilitators, which will then help wildlife.

But for any of that labor to be effective, hundreds if not thousands of individuals across the US have to come together and do the difficult, often volunteer-based work of a wildlife rehabilitator.

“There’s so many layers of this profession,” Gezella-Baranczyk said. “They have people who work directly at centers, they have people who do animal care, they have people who do public education about animals, they have veterinary professionals who layer in there as well… you can get really involved in your picture of what’s happening , but a lot of these animals move beyond their own city, county, and state lines. So, there’s a lot of ways that this community has a lot of different working parts that you can get involved with.”

However, as author Sy Montgomery recently explained on Mongabay’s podcast about caring for birds, all of those working parts start with love.

“The Greeks said there are four kinds of love. All of these kinds of love, as essential and celebrated as they are, they’re all transactional … But a hawk, a hawk doesn’t give you in return the kind of love you give to that bird,” Montgomery said. “Just having the bird there on your fist so close, being bathed in its magnificence, just having it allow me to be his de ella or her servant de ella, that was enough for me… After all this division that we’ve had [during the pandemic]to be able to love and expect nothing in return, that is a hugely liberating love.”

A baby squirrel in the care of the Animals In Distress Association (AIDA) in Boise, Idaho. Image courtesy of AIDA.

For me, with an injured bird in the back of my car and neither regional wildlife rehabilitator able to accept crows, that love got tested. After several fruitless phone calls, I discovered the closest available help was at the Wildlife Rehabilitation Center of Northern Utah in Ogden, Utah — two and a half hours away from where I sat parked and slightly panicked about the sudden sense of duty I felt to the lucky crow. When I called and explained my situation, though, I realized immediately the trip would be worth it. They offered to wait for me to get there, even though it would be well past their usual business hours by the time I arrived. They reassured me that they had handled similar situations before. They were prepared, and it helped me feel ready.

Help closer to home

Nestled in the dusty foothills of the Boise Mountains along the Idaho state capital’s North 36th Street, the Animals in Distress Association (AIDA), also known as the Ruth Melichar Bird Center, strikes an unassuming figure. The building itself looks more like a barn than a clinic, with its wide, red siding and white-trimmed windows. But among the many crates, enclosures, and paddocks spread across the property, dozens of volunteers work toward a single goal: rescuing injured or abandoned baby animals.

AIDA is one of only 25 rehabilitation programs in a large state that more than 300 animal species call home. The gap this creates between the likely number of injured wildlife and the number of spaces available in rehabilitation centers highlights not only the importance of the (mostly volunteer) rehabbers, but also of the necessity of humans working with wildlife for the benefit of the ecosystem. Although it’s difficult to determine exactly how many animals get injured each year, according to a report published by the US Federal Highway Administration, the average number of animal-related vehicle accidents each year sits at around 300,000. And this doesn’t include accidents where the animal died or was injured but the car wasn’t impacted badly enough to justify an insurance filing.

Because of associations like the NWRA, the availability and uniformity of wildlife rehabilitators is increasing. The last survey the NWRA conducted indicated that 1,610 US organizations or individuals registered with the association as members, according to its website. And long-standing organizations like AIDA continue to be vital: since it opened in 1987, AIDA has been rescuing and rehabilitating an average of 3,000 animals every year. Each individual saved takes concentrated effort and many hours of work.

Montgomery, volunteering with wildlife rehabilitator Brenda Sherburn LaBelle, realized just how much work when they rescued two baby hummingbirds. “When you first see them, they hatch out of eggs the size of navy beans, and they’re only the size of bumblebees … they just looked like little bubbles of need,” Montgomery said on Mongabay’s podcast. “To allow them to live we had to do what seemed to be this horrible thing. We had a syringe, and we had to stick the syringe down their gaping throats. The syringe looked like it was the size of the Empire State Building. It was so scary putting those down the throats of these tiny little infants.”

By doing the work, though, Montgomery helped raise not only the hummingbirds but also her own awareness of the world. “It reminded us that we all have powers to heal, and it reminded us that the state of being fragile doesn’t doom us,” Montgomery said. “At least for hummingbirds, [that] is the source of their success, and the reason that these little birds can do things that no other bird in the sky can do.”

Tufts Wildlife Clinic (TWC) in Grafton, MA, treats 3,000 injured animals every year.  Image courtesy of TWC.
Tufts Wildlife Clinic (TWC) in Grafton, MA, treats 3,000 injured animals every year, like this raptor. Image courtesy of TWC.

Back in Boise at AIDA, the work goes on. The association’s director, Jennifer Rockwell, recently got a call about baby screech owls trapped in a couple’s home. Michelle Rice, one of the squirrel specialists, found out three baby squirrels fell out of a tree. A nest of baby woodpeckers got delivered to the center when their tree got cut down. When a mother western kingbird died after flying into a window, her five hatchlings were raised by the center.

These stories go on and on: some of them end with releases back to the wild, others see the animals end up in sanctuaries or zoos, while some wildlife are unable to be saved and must be humanely euthanized.

Endings and beginnings

Not every wildlife rehabilitation story has a happy ending, and when I dropped the crow off in Ogden, they told me the situation was dire. Not only did he have a broken wing, but he also had a fractured leg. He would need surgery, and then, if he survived that, he would need months of recovery time. They gave me a card and told me to call in 72 hours for an update.

I hoped as I drove home that the crow would beat the odds and pull through. The sense of connection I felt with a bird whose life I happened into for an afternoon startled me. I didn’t understand it then, but the more I learned about wildlife rehabilitation, the more I began to.

As Montgomery explained, when she recalled finally being able to release her baby hummingbirds into the wild, “To be able to let someone loose like that, someone with this glittering beauty to take on these herculean tasks, someone you met in their most vulnerable state , that is such a magnificent achievement to have even a tiny hand in that. And that makes you feel like you too are a piece of the sky.”

I called Ogden three days later, and then every week after that for months. The crow lived. Maybe someday he’ll even be able to return to the skies. And if he does, whatever part of me that he captured that day will surely be up there with him.

What to do if you find an injured animal

According to the Humane Society of the United States, the best thing to do if you find an injured or baby animal is to call a wildlife rehabilitator before you interact with the species. Its website provides a state-by-state breakdown of facilities or organizations available to help.

After obtaining their advice, the next steps will depend on the type of animal you find, and its condition. For example, if a bird has an injured or broken wing, it’s often possible to put gloves on, find a box and line it with towels or soft linens, catch the bird, and transport it to a local facility for care. However, if the injured animal is large or dangerous, other options may be more prudent. On the other hand, in the case of a baby animal, often the parents will return to claim it if humans don’t interfere. This tactic of “waiting for mom” is especially effective for deer.

Because each situation is unique, it’s vital to call a rehabber and ask for help, according to the NWRA. Additionally, its website provides a step-by-step breakdown of what to do, including specific guidance for a variety of species.

To listen to Sy Montgomery’s full interview on the Mongabay Newscast about her work with hawks and hummingbirds (or find the show via your favorite podcast provider), click the play button:

A flycatcher is fed by a wildlife rehabber at the Animals In Distress Association (AIDA) in Boise, Idaho.  Image courtesy of AIDA.
A flycatcher is fed by a wildlife rehabber at the Animals In Distress Association (AIDA) in Boise, Idaho. Image courtesy of AIDA.

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