Thursday, August 17, 2017  

The Wild Bunch Wildlife Refuge


You’re walking a trail at a nature preserve and you spot a slight movement near the base of a tree. There, half hidden in a heap of leaves, you find two tiny critters of unknown species. You imagine these babies are frightened, maybe hurt. What to do? Whom to call?
The quick answer: call a wildlife 
rehabilitator. If you don’t find one in the local directory, try calling other animal-related places: the humane or Audubon Society, animal shelters, veterinary clinics, police or sheriff’s department. Check 
the website of Virginia’s Department of Game and Inland Fisheries for a list of licensed rehabilitators.
People on the Northern Neck are lucky—they don’t have to look far. On an 83-acre plot of land in Richmond County, conveniently situated next to the Rappahannock River National Wildlife Refuge near Warsaw, is the Wild Bunch Wildlife Refuge.
In 2000, the property that became the Wild Bunch was purchased by Erika Yery, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator from Alexandria, who had long seen the need to conserve an area of habitat for native wildlife. To that end, she placed the property into a conservation easement, effectively assigning it to a wildlife refuge forever. Today, Erika monitors the organization’s home office in Alexandria, fielding the what-to-do calls and finding ways to educate people on the how and why of maintaining healthy wildlife.
At the refuge near Warsaw, Diana O’Connor—long-time rehabilitator and volunteer—minds the steady flow of patients as they move from rescue to release. The organization has steadily built the facility’s reputation, as the number of creatures finding their way to help and health now counts some 900 to 1200 each year. As the only licensed wildlife rehabilitator here, Diana’s workload never quits.
A house was on the property at the time of purchase, and it has evolved into a treatment center. In one room, a counter holds three large containers that bear no resemblance to cages. In fact, they are incubators, complete with temperature and humidity controls. In the center of the next room is an examination table. A red-tailed hawk sits nervously in an adjacent cage, one wing apparently misshapen by an old injury. Diana fears the wing won’t heal properly. It’s an obvious downside to rehab work, but for Diana, it prompts a teaching moment. She explains:
“The goal of rehabilitation is to treat the animal so it can 
return to its normal habitat. It must be able to find food, to build a nest, to live as nature intended. If it cannot do that, it cannot be released.”
Next, Diana checks a box turtle for a possible infection. I marvel that she has learned so much about so many creatures. “You must know the natural history of each species before you can even start to treat them,” she says.
For Diana, it’s ongoing, never-ending education. To renew annual permits (both Virginia and federal), all licensed wildlife rehabilitators must obtain at least six hours of continuing education credits. Diana fills this requirement and more at the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, a research hospital for native wildlife.
In 2012, large-bird care at the Wild Bunch was improved with the addition of a unique building described as a “state-of-the-art flight cage.” Once inside the building, a feeling of spaciousness is emphasized by its angular construction and see-through, slatted walls. In the center of the building, a square section divides into four “cages”—actually rooms that are large enough to allow some flight. Two barred owls, one with an injured wing, share one of the cages. The remainder of the building is a wide, open area where birds can fly in a continuous circle for as long as they choose, gaining the strength and stamina they’ll need when they’re released. Diana was responsible not just for the choice of this imposing structure, but for its actual construction cost as well.
Other out-buildings on the property hold cages that have been customized for specific animals. The raccoon cage has “den boxes,” while the gray fox cage includes a substitute tree trunk installed to satisfy the foxes’ need to climb.
“This place,” says Diana, “is a diamond in the rough. We can set up whatever we need here for wildlife care. Erika has given the Northern Neck a total gift.”
One work-in-progress is a small, recently painted building that is actually comprised of two rooms salvaged from the original homestead. Eventually, this will be an education center, filled with books, videos, and other resource materials for children, teaching them to identify native species and explaining the desirability of coexisting with wildlife.
“It’s so important to make children aware of the need for conservation and stewardship,” says Diana. “We need to plant the idea of helping wildlife while the children are young; that’s when lasting impressions are made.”
Erika mentions other programs the Wild Bunch has sponsored, all directed toward a better understanding of man’s relationship with wildlife. “We teach classes at community outreach events. We hosted several week-long animal awareness camps geared to educate children ages 9 to 12 and 13 to 15 about animals and the environment. A program for elementary school children was titled “How You and Your Family Can Help Wildlife.”
It’s obvious that one person cannot handle all the work required at the Wild Bunch, and Diana is fortunate that volunteers will assist. Ron Moon is one of the regulars. He can hold the big birds securely while Diana examines and treats them, yet he is extremely gentle with the tiniest of baby animals. He’ll also make time for the maintenance jobs that never end.
Volunteers feed animals, clean cages, do laundry, transport rescued animals and birds—all the constants at this type of facility. There’s always a need for more volunteers, including those proficient with a computer and those who want to train as rehabilitators. It surprises some would-be helpers that less is more; the animals need the food and care, but they don’t need the socializing commonly encouraged at pet shelters. The ultimate goal of release is the guiding factor.
For those situations where veterinary tests or services are required, Diana calls on the expertise of Dr. Samuel Marston or one of the other veterinarians at the Warsaw Animal Clinic.
Help comes in other ways too. The Virginia Native Plant Society is planting a “show-and-tell” garden of native plants around the flight cage. Boy Scouts painted the education building, and they plan to build a flight cage for songbirds. A nearby animal shelter contributes food.
All the time and effort (not to mention money) that goes into supporting the Wild Bunch is bound to raise the why question. Erika and Diana are aware that not everyone shares their motivation regarding wildlife, but those who understand how important wildlife is to the environment will also understand the motivation and the rewards.
“I do this because of the need,” says Diana. “Baby animals are absolutely helpless. Even when people want to help, they don’t know how, and can do more harm than good. And I do it because of love for the animals. I’d like to change the mind of a young boy who wants to shoot an animal ‘to see if I could hit it.’ I want to show him it’s better to care about animals.
“The first time I see a bird, it may be as small as my thumb. I can’t think of anything more rewarding than to watch that bird grow, mature, and eventually just fly away. Or watch a totally helpless opossum or raccoon grow to be an adult who’s brave enough to run away.
“Recently, I laughed so hard watching baby raccoons the first time they got into water. They ran, they jumped, they chased minnows and each other, and then did it all over again. Very few people ever get to see these things. There’s no better feeling. Just take another look at nature.”  
Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehabilitation is a 501(c) 3 nonprofit 
organization. Donations can be made by check or through 
PayPal at www.wildbunchrehab.org.
Federal employees can make contributions through the Combined Federal Campaign (CFC 69040
Warsaw 804-313-2240; email wildbunchrefuge@mac.com
Alexandria 703-549-4987; email wildbunchrehab@verizon.net