It was slow day at City Wildlife. Parakeets chirped in a cage near the front door. Squirrels scurried in their enclosures, while box turtles burrowed in theirs, almost hidden under wet moss. A free-roaming Canada goose, nearly recovered from its skirmish with an automobile, stood defiantly atop a set of shelves.
Paula Goldberg, the center’s executive director, called the scene “the calm before the storm. Baby season could start at any time.”
“I think we’re going to be swamped,” said Alicia DeMay, director of the clinic, which is in a former warehouse near the Fort Totten Metro station. She estimates the center could handle 1,500 creatures this year.
“We have numbers that say close to 50 percent of all animal calls in the District are wild-animal calls,” Goldberg said, although she acknowledged that figure might be high.
If City Wildlife is the best known local wild-animal rehabilitation center, that’s because of its well-publicized recent treatment of a snowy owl, a nonnative species made famous by the Harry Potter books.
The organization, begun in 2008 by Anne Lewis and Jim Monsma, has had its own facility only since July. Second Chance Wildlife Center, now run by Monsma, opened in Gaithersburg in 1996. The more specialized Owl Moon Raptor Center in Boyds was founded in 2002.
The Wildlife Rescue League, which serves Northern Virginia, began its operations in 1984 but does not have a rehabilitation center. “We’re hoping in the next year or so to have an intake facility,” said Beth Axelrod, president of the group’s board of directors.
The Rescue League’s hotline, which took about 7,000 calls last year, connects people with one of about 25 individual rehab specialists. Not all of their calls involve animals that actually need help. “Sometimes the animal just needs to be left alone,” Axelrod said. (See sidebar on next page.)
City Wildlife was founded because the Washington Humane Society wasn’t equipped to handle wild creatures. Some were euthanized, and others were sent to Second Chance, but many died before they made the trip, or soon thereafter. “There weren’t a lot of happy endings,” Goldberg said.
All the groups rely on volunteers. City Wildlife has nearly 100, about 20 of whom help every week. More of them are likely to become regulars once the facility fills with baby birds, which must be fed every 15 minutes.
“Luckily, the animals all bed down at night,” DeMay said. “But the birds are going to be a task, for sure.”
Volunteers also provide supplies, which some groups use on-site and which the Wildlife Rescue League distributes to its individual rehabbers. DeMay pointed to a supply of donated fur coats. “We cut them up and give them to the babies, and the babies love them.”
City Wildlife will take most wild animals, but if that oft-photographed Capitol Hill fox is injured, it’s not welcome. The facility is not licensed to handle creatures that pose a rabies risk. “No raccoons, no foxes, no bats. And no deer,” Goldberg said. “But we take everything else that’s gentle and sweet.”
Second Chance is licensed for rabies-vector species. Some people in the Wildlife Rescue League’s network also might work with them, but Virginia has strict regulations on where such animals can be released. Under Virginia law, “all wildlife is technically the property of the state,” Axelrod said. “Animals should be returned to the areas in which they were found.”
In addition, animals from other states cannot be legally released there. That’s not a big issue for the D.C. and Maryland groups, because they try to place creatures close to where they were found.
“Box turtles are highly territorial. They must be released on their home territory,” Monsma said. At the other extreme, he noted, are migratory birds. “You can release them, and they’ll take off for Venezuela.”
City Wildlife gets permission from property owners before releasing animals. In one case, Park Service employees warned against freeing opossums near Rock Creek Nature Center, because they would just become food for the coyotes that are well established there.
Local wildlife rehabbers don’t see a lot of nonnative mammals, but exotic reptiles are more common. City Wildlife and Second Chance have taken in boa constrictors, and DeMay wrangled a pair of alligators when she worked for the Wildlife Center of Virginia, which serves the entire state.
City Wildlife has hosted some animals that are locally threatened or endangered, such as the northern bobwhite, a small quail that hadn’t been seen in the Washington area since the 1970s.
“We got two this year,” said Abby Hehmeyer, the center’s wildlife biologist. “Now D.C. Department of the Environment biologists are aware that they’re here, and there’s a chance they’re coming back.”
Rock Creek Park is “a huge migratory pathway,” Goldberg said, and deer and coyotes have been in the news in recent years. But it was an arctic bird that really got the public’s attention.
“It was really nice to get the snowy owl, because people started thinking about urban wildlife,” Goldberg said. “There are a lot of people who still don’t understand that they’re here with us.
“But sit still for about 10 minutes and then take a look, and you’ll see them.”