Wes Sokel was appalled. In late summer 2018, the car ahead of him on Springville Road in Hampton Bays hit an eastern box turtle, which he could identify by its shape even from his own vehicle.
Sokel, who years earlier had volunteered at a wildlife rehabilitation center, described pulling over behind the man’s vehicle. “I had to see if the turtle was still alive,” he said. Sokel watched as the driver exited his car, picked up the turtle, examined it and tossed it into the woods. Sokel aimed a few choice words at the man, who then drove away.
“So, I hopped into the woods and found it. The poor thing was a bloody mess. The shell was split, but the turtle was still alive,” said Sokel, who took it to Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons in Jamesport, figuring it had “about a 1% chance of surviving.”
Ivy, as the turtle was subsequently named, now lives on an acre refuge behind the rescue center. Having lost partial use of her back legs, she could not be released back into the wild. Still, she has been on the refuge for two years and appears to be doing well, all things considered.
“I think she’ll have a nice, long life here, so I guess you could call that a success story,” said Karen Testa, executive director and president of the nonprofit. “A complete success would be to release her into the wild again, but sometimes you have to allow yourself to recognize the small victories.
“We were lucky Mr. Sokel cared enough to bring her in. Turtles are amazing animals, and if you can get an injured one to us soon enough, there’s a good chance our small staff of volunteers and medical staff will save it.”
Testa is a wildlife rehabilitator, one of several dozen licensed by New York State who operate on Long Island. And she’s busy as can be. “The phone never stops ringing,” she said. “We get calls from all across Long Island, New York State and even the country — and we only deal with freshwater, brackish and land turtles.”
Imagine, then, how demanding things can get at the Volunteers for Wildlife nonprofit Wildlife Hospital and Education Center in Locust Valley. The largest rehabilitation center on Long Island for native animals (as opposed to domesticated animals like cats and dogs and horses), it has eight staff members. It takes in nearly 2,500 injured and orphaned animals yearly, including all types of native wildlife — except such rabies vector species as raccoons, skunks and bats, which require an additional license to treat.
“We see over 1,000 birds, 1,000 mammals, plus more than 100 reptiles each year,” said Lauren Schulz, the center’s supervisor. Everything from abandoned ducklings to animals hit by cars or lawn mowers. “Every day sees something different; there really is no ‘normal’ when you are talking about wildlife rehab.”
Wildlife rehabilitators come with backgrounds, experiences and focuses as varied as the animals they help. A few, like Massapequans Bobby Horvath, a New York City firefighter, and his wife, veterinary technician Cathy St. Pierre, volunteer from their homes. Most are trained to deal with a variety of wild animals and many have degrees in animal biology or zoology — though it’s not required. Some specialize in a particular type of animal.
“I chose to focus on turtles because they are the true underdogs of the wildlife world,” explained Testa. “They can’t get out of the way of a bulldozer tearing down the woods or clearing a field. They aren’t quick enough to avoid cars or dogs. They can’t fly to safety like birds, and they don’t make a sound to let people know they are in a vulnerable position.”
Exceptionally slow metabolism means they need a long time to heal — sometimes years, she said. “How can you not pull for a creature like that?”
Schulz, by comparison, likes to focus on eastern cottontail rabbits, one of the Island’s most common wild animals. They are a high-stress species that tends to do poorly in human care. To provide as stress-free an environment as possible, cottontail rabbits are often treated outside the rehab center.
“I take them home where things are more quiet, less harried, and they can be away from other animals,” Schulz said. “I give them a morning and an evening feeding. … Often, they are babies whose nests were disturbed by lawn mowers or people’s cats that are allowed outside.”
Their rehabilitation aims to heal their injuries but maintain their independence with as little human interaction as possible. By 4 weeks old, Schulz explained, they are usually ready to go back out on their own.
No matter the animals they treat, wildlife rehabilitators depend on a web of support: calls from the public to alert them to animals in distress and collaboration with police and Department of Environmental Conservation officers.
“Wildlife rehabilitators play an important role in DEC’s work to protect and manage New York’s wildlife species,” said Lori Severino, a DEC spokeswoman. "They are trained volunteers, licensed by DEC, and are the only people legally allowed to receive and treat distressed wildlife. They have the experience, expertise and facilities to successfully treat and release wild animals, with the goal of releasing a healthy animal back into the wild, where it belongs and can thrive again in its natural environment.”
Wildlife rehabilitators also work with volunteers who bring injured animals to the vet for X-rays, diagnosis and surgery; they can administer medicine, and they feed, house and clean up after each patient before arranging for release back into the wild, if appropriate.
“Since my wife and I work out of our home, for example, one or the other of us is always basically on call, 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” Horvath said. During the spring “baby season,” for instance, they might get 30 to 50 calls a day. When it’s more than they can handle on their own, Horvath and St. Pierre might work with Volunteers for Wildlife, Sweetbriar Nature Center in Smithtown or the STAR Foundation in Middle Island. “This entire animal rehabilitation community works together really well for the good of the whole, and the good of the animals,” he said.
Indeed, the challenge of mending injured wildlife is nothing compared with the problem of raising enough money to do so. This has been especially true during the pandemic, which has limited individual fundraising efforts. There is little taxpayer funding or state and federal grants for these programs and, oftentimes, wildlife rehabilitators spend their own money just to keep the doors open. As Horvath noted, while wildlife rehab centers may have paid staff, individual rehabilitators are prohibited from charging for their services, though they may accept donations.
"Pretty much all of our programs run on donations,” said Maxine Montello, rescue program director of the New York Marine Rescue Center (NYMRC) at the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead. “Most Long Island programs I know of are stretched pretty tight financially right now, especially since we can’t really go out and fundraise due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Rehab can be quite expensive.”
Montello noted that the pandemic has resulted in a significant increase in calls about distressed seals. “When everything started shutting down in March, which is our primary seal season,” she said, “we began getting a lot more calls because more people were on the beach in early spring than usual.” In April, she said, phone calls doubled to more than 1,000 for seals alone.
Interestingly, Montello said, she observed an uptick in seal harassment cases when rescuers could not respond to every case quickly or at all. “Many people took it on their own to pressure or even drag the seals back into the water — even healthy ones — which, of course, is bad for the animals,” she said, adding that “it’s important to also practice social distancing from the seals, which are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act.”
The center responds to and rescues more than 100 seals and other marine mammals, plus sea turtles a year, about 60% percent of which are released. Many sea turtles are treated for cold stun, which is like hypothermia; other injuries include boat strikes and getting caught in fishing line or commercial fishing traps, both a danger to seals as well. “It costs about $10,000 to treat a single seal, so when you do the math, it becomes quickly apparent that we are very dependent on the public’s generous donations,” she said.
Those who do wildlife rehabilitation agree it takes a special breed along with in-the-field training. “It’s not for everyone,” said Horvath, “and it entails a lot more than just working with animals. You may need to work with the highway or water department, for example, to get a sewer grate removed so you can rescue ducklings that have fallen through.”
Volunteers also might find themselves arranging deals with veterinarians for X-rays and surgery as well as coaching callers who report animals in distress that might not be.
“Fledgling birds, for example,” he said, “may spend as much as 72 hours on the ground before they figure out how to fly. Generally, a parent will be nearby watching over them and feeding them from time to time. Removing young birds from that oversight may worsen the situation.”
The same is true for fawns, he said, often seen laying still in high grass, “their mechanism for not being found by dogs, predators or humans.”
Newborns, in particular, have almost no scent at all, Horvath, explained, “So, leaving them alone is probably the best thing you can do. The parent will likely return soon after you depart.”
Despite the long hours, funding stress, failures and constant pressure to help injured or orphaned wild animals, rehabilitators brim with commitment.
“I’ve fallen in love with a thousand creatures on this job, cried my eyes out into the shells of lifeless turtles, and gone days without sleeping after failing to nurse an injured animal back to health,” said Testa, of Turtle Rescue. “It’s just so rewarding when we do succeed.”
And there are plenty of happy endings.
In May, Montello and the crew at the NYMRC rescued and released a gray seal whose midsection got tangled in fishing line. The line had cut into the seal and caused infection. When the seal was discovered on the beach near Gurney’s Inn in Montauk, well-intentioned onlookers had prevented it from going back into the water. That left it dehydrated, with a 104-degree temperature, which is considerably higher than the normal 96 to 98 degrees.
“We thought he might not make it, but with a lot of topical care, antibiotics and plenty of food, he’s had a long and steady recovery. Now he’s a miracle animal. In fact, we were able to release him back into the wild on July 2.” Montello said proudly.
Back on June 2, Horvath, working with DEC Environmental Conservation Officer Chris DeRose, helped combine two mallard families in distress.
Earlier in the day, DeRose had responded to a report of seven ducklings trapped in a sewer in a commercial area of Suffolk. He worked with a Good Samaritan to remove the heavy grating and corral the ducklings — though the mother was nowhere to be found. While on his way to deliver the ducklings to Horvath, DeRose got another duckling call.
He and Horvath responded to remove a mother mallard and six ducklings from a backyard swimming pool they had mistaken for a pond. All 13 ducklings were relocated with the mother mallard to a nearby pond, where she instantly adopted the extra babies.
In May, Lori Ketcham, director of Save the Animals Rescue Foundation in Middle Island, and her team, responded to a report of a doe that had been hit by a car in Ridge. The doe was pregnant — but so gravely injured she had to be euthanized. STAR arranged to have a vet deliver the fawns by C-section. They are now healthy and living at STAR’s facility in Middle Island, and it’s expected they will be released to the wild within the next couple of months.
“I get a thrill knowing that I’m making a difference in all those little lives,” Ketcham said. “These animals have no place else to turn as we continue to encroach on their habitat. They can’t speak up for themselves.”
“With positive outcomes like these,” Ketcham asked, “how could I do anything else?”
How to help
Wildlife rehabilitators and programs need volunteers to help with the rehab process and upkeep/cleaning of the facilities. They also need donations of money, food, medical supplies and housing for animals, and help transporting animals. Volunteers for Wildlife even has an Amazon “wish list.”
• Turtle Rescue of the Hamptons Inc., 111 Manor Lane/Box 5, Jamesport, 631-779-3737, turtlerescueofthehamptons.org
• Volunteers for Wildlife, 194 Bayville Rd., Locust Valley, 516-674-0982, volunteersforwildlife.org
• Bobby Horvath and Cathy St. Pierre, 202 N. Wyoming Ave., North Massapequa, 516-293-0587, find WINORR-Wildlife In Need of Rescue and Rehabilitation on Facebook
• New York Marine Rescue Center at the Long Island Aquarium, 467 E. Main St., Riverhead, 631-369-9829, longislandaquarium.com/riverhead-foundation-rescue-center
• Save the Animals Rescue Foundation (STAR Foundation), 631-736-8207, savetheanimalsrescue.org
— Tom Schlichter
Find a wildlife rehabilitator (or be one!)
If you encounter a wild animal that seems to be in distress, visit dec.ny.gov/animals/83977.html to find a list of rehabilitators licensed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation. It helps if callers are patient and calm; if a rescue center can handle the call, it will respond as quickly as possible; if not, they can tell you how best to proceed.
The website also has information about becoming a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, including a study guide and practice exams. Applicants must be at least 16 years old, and exams must be taken in person at scheduled dates and times. At press time, tests were still scheduled for August, although COVID-19 social-distancing guidelines are likely to be in place. For more information, call 518-402-8985.