Wildlife Caregivers Seek Legal Shelter

Patricia Hoffman-Butler cared for about 60 raccoons at her West Virginia home, which was illegal. Citing fears of disease, officials euthanized them.
Patricia Hoffman-Butler cared for about 60 raccoons at her West Virginia home, which was illegal. Citing fears of disease, officials euthanized them. (By Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)
By D'Vera Cohn
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 19, 2006

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Patricia Hoffman-Butler was at her job in a D.C. art gallery when the call came: State wildlife agents were at her front door 80 miles away in West Virginia. They wanted keys to the pens where she kept the orphaned and injured raccoons that she was getting ready to return to the wild.

She pleaded with them that day last fall to wait until she could get home, hoping to work out a way to save the animals she had fed, nursed to health and cleaned up after through the spring and summer. "Those animals are my reason to be," she said later. She frantically called local people she knew, asking them to go to her house and tell her what they saw. One reported dead raccoons on the front porch.

When she arrived at her home after a frenzied two-hour drive, a Division of Natural Resources agent handed her a search warrant. She saw men in breathing masks and white hazmat suits. She heard animal screams from the shed out back. By then, most of her five dozen raccoons were dead, euthanized by lethal injection.

Hoffman-Butler is a wildlife rehabilitator, someone who cares for animals in distress and then returns them to the wild. There are thousands of such specialists licensed in Virginia, Maryland and most other states, but in West Virginia, what she does is illegal.

Last month she pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor charge arising from the October raid, and this month two West Virginia legislators are using her case to push a law that would let trained rehabilitators like her care for afflicted animals.

They are counting on especially strong support in this suburbanizing northeastern swath of the state, where many new residents come from greater Washington, bringing tenderhearted attitudes toward wildlife that sometimes clash with West Virginia's hunting culture.

DNR officials said they acted appropriately and oppose legislation that would require them to license rehabilitators. They said Hoffman-Butler's animals were poorly cared for and that even the best wildlife rescue work can spread rabies and other diseases. They said that they do not have the money to run a new program and that their mission is not to help individual animals but to manage wildlife populations for hunting and other purposes.

At the heart of their resistance to animal rescue -- and supporters' embrace of it -- are conflicting ideas about wildlife itself. If you come upon an orphaned baby squirrel or an injured opossum, should you seek help? Or should you let the animal be, because nature plays rough, and it's not your business to interfere?

Hoffman-Butler, 47, said she got into wildlife rescue the way a lot of people do, by finding an animal in danger. She could not help that stranded raccoon in South Carolina a decade ago, but she vowed to learn how to save the next one. She trained with licensed rehabilitators in Virginia, has been vaccinated against rabies and said she has spent thousands of dollars of her own money on supplies.

People hear of her from Internet listings or referrals from groups such as the Wildlife Rescue League, which operates a Northern Virginia hotline. They take her raccoons caught in chimneys, opossums hit by cars, baby animals whose mothers are apparently dead. She said she has rescued more than 100 animals in the past two years and released them on private land. "Up here, they are starting to build so much that these little guys need a voice," Hoffman-Butler said. "They need someone to speak up for them."

She hand-fed the youngest ones and gave them stuffed animals to snuggle with, and she said she cleaned the cages at least once a day. "I took more [animals] than I should have," she said, "but I realized I'd committed and followed through. It was a ton of work, but they were really healthy."

She thinks that state wildlife officials knew what she was doing but did not interfere until they thought they had no choice. A DNR agent who had been alerted by a state trooper went to her house Oct. 1, cited her for illegal possession of wildlife and ordered her not to release any animals.

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