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Volunteers for Wildlife rehab injured animals

Ellis Wright, a volunteer with Volunteers For Wildlife,

Ellis Wright, a volunteer with Volunteers For Wildlife, holds Wyatt, an Eastern gray squirrel, at the Wildlife Hospital and Education Center. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

Devotion runs deep at Bailey Arboretum in Lattingtown, among the stewards charged with preserving the 40-acre botanical garden and among volunteers in a nonprofit housed there who save, rehabilitate and set free the creatures that cross their path.

While the Volunteers for Wildlife crew keeps a watchful eye on the patients and residents at the Wildlife Hospital and Education Center, the patients eyeball the help.

Ahead of winter storm Jonas, Jim Jones, the nonprofit’s former director, made his rounds doing the morning feedings and cage cleanings. He approached the aviary home of Rufus, a red-tailed hawk that occupies one of the nonprofit’s eight aviaries for injured birds. Jones, 64, headed through the outer door and past the tiny enclave that separates the bird from the outside. He spotted the water dish, its contents frozen in the bitter cold, and noticed Rufus hadn’t eaten her meal of dead mice from the night before.

Jones approached the dish while making eye contact and chatting to Rufus, who sat perched above the ledge, watching Jones’ every move.

“She’s a real sweetheart,” said Jones, who lives in Bayville. “She literally is watching me like a hawk.”

Rufus is one of 35 resident hawks, owls, opossums, eagles, turtles, snakes, squirrels and other wildlife at the nonprofit, which was founded in 1982 with a mission to preserve wildlife through rehabilitation of sick and injured animals and by educating the public. About 30 of the animals and reptiles are patients, a number that can reach 200 in the summer. Jones said that last year the Wildlife Hospital and Education Center, which was originally housed at Caumsett Historic State Park in Lloyd Harbor, admitted 1,400 wild animals.

Many of them arrive after some sort of collision with human endeavors. Rufus lost a wing when she was hit by a car. Marcus, a great-horned owl, got tangled up in fishing line for hours, cutting himself when he tried to escape. Solomon, a barred owl, was blinded in one eye after getting hit by a car, and a box turtle is recovering — resting through the winter in a child’s plastic pool under soft-light lamps — after eating something poisonous or not healthy for it.

Some of the animals have such severe head trauma that only time will tell if they get well enough to be released back in the wild, including an opossum who has a telltale craning of its neck, a symptom of head trauma that rehabilitation experts at the hospital know well. Those who don’t recover may have to be euthanized.

The goal is always to return the animals to the wild, but sometimes releasing them could mean a death sentence, so the relatively healthy ones become ambassadors to the cause, traveling to schools under the educational arm of the nonprofit. Jones, who is also a member of the board of directors, said the program visits about 30 school districts a year, as well as libraries, museums and parks on Long Island and elsewhere, such as the Bronx. Spectators can’t touch the animals, who are not domesticated, although Marcel the opossum will come out of his box to eat some grapes, much to the delight of children and adults.

“They really enjoy seeing the animals do the things they do,” Jones said. “We stress that they are wild animals. They don’t want to be touched, and we need to respect that.”

‘A real thrill’

A staff of three full-time workers and one part-timer depends on a cadre of volunteers like Jones and others to help clean up and feed the animals, including weighing the food to monitor intake. All stats are recorded on a chart so that the rehabilitators can track the animals’ progress.

“No past experience is necessary,” said Lauren Schulz Eddings, 31, the supervisor at the hospital. “They should have a passion for animals.”

Volunteers progress through three levels. The first requires a lot of cleaning and laundry, with little direct interaction with the animals. Those who make it through this level and show a sense of commitment can be trained to take on more responsibility, including preparing and feeding the raptors, such as hawks and owls.

“It’s dirty work,” Eddings said. “But it’s for a good cause, and they get to see animals up close that many don’t.”

The most advanced volunteers are the “transporters,” who pick up injured animals and sometimes even capture them. Jones, a retired science teacher who taught zoology at Paul D. Schreiber High School in Port Washington, is one of them. Eddings noted that many of these helpers are also licensed rehabilitators.

Chris Paladino, 65, and her husband, Frank, 67, of Farmingdale, started volunteering at the wildlife hospital in June 2014. Frank fixes things around the place, and Chris, a retired school librarian, handles the hotline. Her skills at organization, and perhaps dealing with childhood mini-dramas, make her a good fit for the work. Jones calls her a natural.

Chris Paladino said she and her husband first came to the center (the outside aviaries are open to the public during Bailey Arboretum’s regular hours) to photograph the snowy owls and were impressed with the work being done there. She now spends her time coaching Long Islanders on how to help wild animals that might be injured, or contacting the transporters when an animal needs to make its way to the hospital.

“I try to give them pointers to keep the animal calm until volunteer transporters can get there,” she said.

Ellis Wright, 25, comes from his home in New Rochelle in Westchester to volunteer every Friday. He wants to get real wild animal experience before he attends veterinary school, he said.

He is on Level III, where he gets to work with some animals under supervision; feeding crows, ducks and squirrels, as well as making sure pens are cleaned.

“I wanted to give back, and do something with animals,” Wright said. “There’s a degree of unpredictability,” he said about working with wild animals. “But for many people, it’s a real thrill.”

Gentle hands

Inside a treatment room, Eddings dons a large leather glove, known as a Hawking Glove, and sits on a stool while Andria McMaugh, 27, a fellow wildlife rehabilitator from Plainview, stuffs small chunks of small dead mice down the throat of a red-tailed hawk, using forceps to push the food as far down as possible, past the trachea so that it automatically moves it to its stomach. He tries to bite. He’s upset, but the two stay focused, wrapping him tighter in a towel and covering his eyes to calm him.

The bird came to them on Jan. 17, after it was hit by a car. It has head trauma, and the hosptial’s staff and volunteers have been caring for it ever since.

“It can’t stand,” Eddings said in a whisper. “It was hit by a car.”

In fact, little talking takes place in the presence of the injured bird, and when it is necessary to speak, voices are kept to a whisper. The sound of humans can place stress on an injured animal, so walking around the hospital is much like being in a library.

Next, the two feed a large great-horned owl in much the same way, wrapping it up in a black towel as the bird’s enormous, piercing yellow eyes dart back and forth. The bird, also hit by a car and brought to them on Jan. 14, has trouble standing, too, and so has been defecating on its tail. Eddings and McMaugh clean the tail, and Eddings wraps it in tape to keep it out of the way as the bird tries to regain its strength. The owl has no apparent broken bones, but many times, just as is the case with humans, the injuries can lead to head trauma and make simple things like standing impossible.

“A lot is about giving them time to heal that they don’t have in the wild,” Eddings said. “We try to handle them as minimally as possible.”

She and McMaugh are licensed by the New York State Wildlife Rehabilitation certification program. Eddings has a degree in zoology and a master’s degree in education. McMaugh is working toward an online master’s degree in wildlife management from Oregon State University.

“The goal is to get them back in the wild,” Jones said. “That’s the best feeling. You take care of them, and then they’re gone. And they don’t turn around and say ‘thanks,’ ” he said, smiling.

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