Virginia veterinarian helps hundreds of wild animals recover from illness and injury

April 5, 2011

When your dog breaks a leg or gets sick, you take him to the vet. But what happens to animals in the wild that become sick or injured?

Belinda Burwell, a veterinarian who grew up in Connecticut and fell in love with animals from her first trips to her local nature center, opened a wildlife hospital and rehabilitation facility in 2004. At her Blue Ridge Wildlife Center, in Millwood, Virginia, she and her staff — one full-time employee and numerous volunteers — take care of about 1,500 wild animals a year, including hawks, owls, opossums, raccoons, turtles, foxes, squirrels and bats. (She can’t help deer because they’re too big and wild.) As many as 200 animals at a time stay at the wildlife center, which is a former house, or on the acres of farmland that surround it.

Strangers bring the hurt animals to Burwell. “We have to be careful,” she says, “because they’re wild animals and they’re afraid of us.”

Burwell wears long, heavy gloves and gives the animals medication to make them go to sleep. What she does next sounds a lot like what any doctor would do: She takes their blood pressure, takes X-rays, draws blood and gives the animals medication to help them feel better. She may help a hawk heal from a broken wing, or a bat recover from an infection.

Then Burwell puts the animals in covered cages so they feel safe and hidden, and feeds them insects, mice or whatever they would eat in the wild. In the summer, the busiest time at the center, Burwell orders 80,000 mealworms a month to keep up with her hungry patients.

Many of the center’s patients are birds; when they start to get better, Burwell moves them to bigger cages where they can learn to fly again. Before being released into the wild, they must show that they can hunt for food on their own. To do this, they must pass “mouse school” and find mice hidden in a baby pool beneath them while Burwell watches through a camera set up in the cages.

When the animals are ready, in anywhere from five days to five months, Burwell returns them to the spot where they were found. That way, they know the area. They also may have a mate there or a home to return to. If the animals never get well enough to survive in the wild, Burwell keeps them to show them to students.

Burwell doesn’t name any of the animals that return to the wild, nor does she bond with them or hold them very much. That’s for their own good, she says. “These animals, they don’t even say, ‘Thank you.’ But that’s just the way it has to be. We don’t want them to be friendly. . . . All I really want is the best for them, and their best chance of survival.”

— Moira E. McLaughlin

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