Creatures comforted

The New England Wildlife Center began in a back office. Now it helps some 4,000 wild animals a year.

"March 8, 2003: First Pinky Squirrels of Year!" reads a handwritten sign on the wall of the New England Wildlife Center in Hingham, Mass., south of Boston.

"That tells us the madness has begun!" jokes Stephanie Ellis, a wildlife technician. She sits at a small table, feeding a tiny pink, hairless baby squirrel with a syringe filled with squirrel formula. (Yes, squirrel formula. A company makes formula just for baby animals!)

"The madness" is the spring rush of orphaned wildlife babies that are brought to the nonprofit center for care.

The New England Wildlife Center is as close as one will likely get to Dr. Doolittle's office. The center serves as a treatment and rehabilitation facility for wild creatures in need. It treats and releases more than 4,000 birds, mammals, and reptiles every year - some 225 different kinds. "We see everything from hummingbirds to snapping turtles," says veterinarian Gregory Mertz, the center's executive director.

One of their recently released residents, a red-throated loon, was stranded an a street in South Boston last month after a storm. Because a loon's feet are positioned so far back on its body, it cannot take off if it's on land. Fortunately, someone found the loon before he got hurt. After a good night's rest and a couple of hearty meals of mackerel, the loon was returned to the wild at a location in Boston Harbor where other loons had been sighted.

But at this time of year, most of their patients are babies - baby birds, raccoons, rabbits, and squirrels. The squirrel that Ms. Ellis is feeding was brought in by a group of kindergartners who saw it during one of their outdoor science classes.

"Last spring we had 120 baby squirrels come through our door," Dr. Mertz says. But right after Hurricane Bob hit southeastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island on Aug. 19, 1991, people brought in 120 baby squirrels in one day!

Baby squirrels must eat every three hours, 24 hours a day. So Ellis brings the baby squirrels home with her every night and sets her alarm. She doesn't get much sleep from March until June, but she says she enjoys playing mother squirrel.

At the peak of the summer, the facility will care for more than 1,000 birds, mammals, and reptiles at a time - in tight quarters. Many of the sea gulls, hawks, geese, swans, and turkey vultures are kept in large cages outside. But the clinic itself is a small concrete building about the size of a mobile home. It was built during World War II as place to test bombs.

Cages of starlings sit atop cages of robins, next to a cage of baby house finches. Every nook and cranny is filled with animals, food, and supplies.

Wounded animals need their bandages changed frequently. All the creatures need to be fed, watered, and attended to every day, sometimes several times a day.

Every two days, the animals will eat, on average, 50 mackerel, a 50-pound bag of dog food, one bag of water-fowl food, and almost a whole 50-pound bag of birdseed. Reptiles and songbirds get a special salad of cantaloupe and lettuce.

The center's staff of 12 works around the clock. They're assisted by high school and college interns as well as about 30 specially trained volunteers. Their tasks might include feeding the sharp-shinned hawk or cleaning the cage of a great horned owl (its name is Killer).

"The rewards of this job are in the release," Matt Laing says. He's director of the clinic. "Seeing a rehabilitated great horned owl fly free again is an indescribable experience."

Twenty years ago, Donald Smith, a veterinarian in Hingham, began getting calls from people asking what to do about orphaned wildlife. At the time, Dr. Smith treated mostly dogs and cats. But he and his wife, Beverly, opened the back of his office for wild creatures. He learned how to care for rock doves, squirrels, deer, red-tailed hawks, and more.

Smith moved his wild practice from his office in Hingham to here in 1987 when his back room could no longer handle all the wild animals needing care. Smith is retired, now, but still volunteers here.

When a vet determines that an animal can care for itself in the wild, it is released. The animals are taken as close as possible to where they were found. If that isn't possible, they are set free near the center.

But sometimes, they just don't want to leave. "We released a great horned owl once who just sat on the roof of our office every day," Mertz says. "One day, his old cage door was open, and he flew back in and stayed with us for another winter." The following spring, they tried releasing him again. This time he flew away, but he still visits from time to time!

Families, students, and people from local Animal Rescue Leagues bring animals to the center. Perhaps a baby bird has fallen from its nest in a storm, or a pet cat or dog has wounded an animal. People may discover that a tree they've just cut down contained a squirrel's nest.

"Most of our patients come to us because they have been impacted by man," Mertz says. They might have been poisoned by lawn sprays, hit by cars, injured by fishing lines, or abused in some other way.

"The root of the problem of hurt wildlife is ignorance and disconnection," Mertz says. People just don't feel a sense of ownership for the animals or nature. The best cure for an injured wild animal is prevention, he says, "and prevention is achieved through education."

A large part of the staff's job is conducting an environmental camp in the summer and a classroom program during the school year. The in-class program is called "Sevens."

"We want every student to be able to identify seven animals, seven birds, seven clouds, seven trees, seven insects, etc," Mertz says. "When a person can identify the bird or tree outside his or her window, then he or she feels 'ownership' toward that species. He will notice it and value it and begin to care for it and protect it."

Animals that cannot be released back into the wild become "Sevens" teachers. One such center resident is an Eastern screech owl who can no longer fly. Mertz will apply for permits to use the owl in the center's programs.

"When students - or anyone, for that matter - gets a firsthand experience with an animal," Mertz says, "they come to value that animal more."

In June, the center will break ground for a new facility. The Thomas E. Curtis Wildlife Hospital and Education Center in nearby Weymouth will be more than 10 times as big. Not only will it house animals, it will also have classrooms, laboratories, Internet studios, and public viewing areas along with a veterinary hospital. "Every nook and cranny of the new building is an education venue," Mertz says.

Advice to rescuers: not so fast

Many of the animals at the New England Wildlife Center were brought in by people who saw a baby bird or squirrel on the ground and thought it had been abandoned.

"The most common myth is that an animal will abandon its young," says Gregory Mertz, the center's executive director. False. "The maternal instinct in birds or mammals is very high," he says.

And if you find a baby bird on the ground, simply put it back in its nest.

"A mother bird will accept its young after it has been touched by human hands," Mr. Mertz says. Many birds can't even detect human scent.

Stephanie Ellis, a wildlife technician at the center, tells this "rescue" story:

"A woman brought in a clutch of killdeer chicks she'd found on the gravel roof of her office building," she says. The woman assumed the mother bird had abandoned them.

Instead of admitting the birds, Ms. Ellis returned them to the roof. The mother killdeer "immediately started brooding them," Ellis says. "She didn't care whether we were there or not.... It was really beautiful."

Squirrels do the same. "Once, during a hawk attack, all the baby squirrels fell out of a nest," says Mertz. "A woman called us to ask what she should do. We told her simply to stand back and watch." After the hawk had left, the woman watched in astonishment as the mother squirrel carried her babies back up to the nest, one by one.

"We kidnap way too many birds and mammals," Mertz says. "Give nature a chance before rushing in to rescue an 'abandoned' baby."

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