Earlier this spring, when Massachusetts folks were still in COVID-19 lockdown, a homeowner noticed that an injured hawk was sitting on her stoop, unable to fly. Others in the neighborhood noticed, too. They called the New England Wildlife Center hotline, which sent out Seagull Team Six to rescue the hawk. When the team gently scooped up the animal to transport it back to the center for care, kids throughout the neighborhood shouted hooray from their bedroom windows and neighbors stood out on their lawns cheering them on.
The veterinarians at the center discovered that the bird was suffering from a common, human-created hazard: rodenticide (rat poisoning). The hawk received vitamin K and fluid injections for several weeks before it was successfully released back into the wild. The neighborhood cheered again as they watched the release on the center’s social media page.
It was one of more than 70,000 animals that have been cared for at the New England Wildlife Center (NEWCS) since it opened in 1983. Osprey, owls, and otters. Herons, hawks, and hummingbirds. Gulls, geese, and goslings. Fox and finches, skunks and snakes. This premier nonprofit wildlife teaching hospital, with facilities in Weymouth and Cape Cod, treats more than 225 species of injured or orphaned animals each year. About 40 percent are successfully returned to the wild, which is a good number considering that most animals arrive at the center seriously injured and traumatized.
Poison, traffic, fish hooks, plastics, and traps are common hazards for wildlife. Most incoming animals require urgent veterinary care; nearly every patient is an ICU case when it enters the hospital. Injured animals are treated in the hospital, and then housed in indoor and outdoor enclosures with natural features while they recuperate. There are also tanks and swimming pools, and a 6,000-gallon heated saltwater pool for rehabilitating seabirds and sea mammals. Cameras allow the staff to observe the animals so human contact is kept to a minimum, with the ultimate goal of releasing them back into the wild. Videos of the recuperating animals are a joy to watch: otters playing with one another, baby raccoons huddled together, turtles swimming in pools. Also posted to the center’s social media feeds are footage of releases: an osprey taking flight, a great horned owl going home, a group of baby raccoons emerging from a cage and waddling into the woods.
But the center’s work goes far beyond the veterinary care and rehabilitation of wildlife.
“The core of our mission is providing veterinary care to wild animals harmed by humans and releasing them back to the wild. But that is just the jumping off point,” said Katrina Bergman, chief executive officer for NEWCS. “That care is a powerful way to teach people to protect wildlife, the environment, and, just as important, one another.”
The center provides a variety of educational and community outreach programs and conducts a wide range of animal and disease research. “We’re currently looking into the correlation between coronavirus and bats, specifically whether humans can pass the virus to bats who are already struggling in Massachusetts,” Bergman said.
Normally (in pre-COVID times) those volunteering their time and services to help care for the animals include high school students, students with alternative learning needs, veterans suffering PTSD, and inmates from Norfolk County Jail.
“We hone stewards of wildlife but we also hone caretakers of people,” Bergman said. “Sometimes when we rescue animals, we are also rescuing people.”
It’s not an easy job; many animals die within a day or two of arrival. But successful releases make the challenges worth it.
“Releases can be especially poignant when we do it with soon-to-be-released prison inmates,” Bergman said. “The message and care that they have invested in an animal becomes a symbol for what they are getting ready to do in their own lives.”
HOW TO HELP INJURED WILDLIFE
Orphaned or injured wild animals should always be taken to a wildlife hospital or a licensed, highly trained wildlife rehabilitator. Visit mass.gov/service-details/find-a-wildlife-rehabilitator to find wildlife rehabilitators in your area. The Wildlife Rehabilitators’ Association of Massachusetts is also a good source for information: www.wraminc.org.
Diane Bair and Pamela Wright can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org