"They make the sweetest little baby sounds. Their eyes are blue. They have the most beautiful big, bright, pinkish red beaks."
Paula Coffey has a soft spot for the baby crows she's raised. She's raised other birds, too, mostly songbirds. During a busy year she may share her home with 150 of them.
These are not pets, however; they are injured or abandoned wild animals. Coffey is one of about 200 wildlife rehabilitation volunteers in Virginia, Maryland and the District of Columbia. All are licensed by state and federal agencies to feed and nurse injured and abandoned wild animals until they are ready to live on their own.
Wild foundlings reported or taken to the shelters end up at the homes of rehabilitators such as Coffey. They dedicate their own time, energy and money to their charges. It's expensive, emotionally and financially, and there are many failures. The work continues, though, because the benefits of each successful release outweigh the expense.
"I feel so proud when I let a bird go," says Coffey. "Wild animals get injured because development forces them to coexist with humans. I feel my work gives them something back."
"Rehabbers" say that misguided human kindness accounts for at least a quarter of wild "orphans." People often assume that the young animals they find alone are abandoned. But young mammals found alone often actually are hiding while their mothers forage. Fledging birds normally spend several days on the ground learning to fly. Their short hops and landings can make them appear to be injured.
"Monitor young animals for a few hours or a day before rescuing them," recommends Fairfax County game warden Barry Lape. "If the parents don't appear, or if there seems to be a serious injury, call an animal shelter for advice."
Once animals do reach a rehabilitator, the guiding principle is to provide effective care without causing dependence. "I handle them as little as possible," says Coffey. "I'm a predator -- I don't want them getting attached to me. And I never, never let them get used to cats and dogs. That's a death sentence."
The rehabilitation rush comes in the spring and summer nesting seasons. This also is the rehabilitator burnout season, with volunteers feeding and doctoring up to 50 foundlings at a time on an exhausting schedule.
"Wild animals aren't like dogs and cats," says Barbara Parker, a 20-year veteran who says she can't estimate how many animals she's treated. "You can't just feed them twice a day. Young birds need to be fed every half-hour or they'll starve in a few days. If you have to go out, you take them with you. I take my birds in a basket when I go shopping. I've taken them to weddings."
The pressure lets up when the animals are weaned and don't need such a volume of food. Soon afterward they are moved to outside cages -- halfway houses that keep them safe while they mature enough to be released. Rehabilitators try to release any animals they can well before the fall migration.
"Once you get them outside, they go wild pretty quickly," says Coffey. "I let them out in the daytime. I leave food in the cage at first, so they won't starve. But after a while, they stop coming back. That means I've done my job."
Each animal has differing needs that vary with its time of life. Release may involve relocation for predators like hawks, which need large territories. It adds up to a tremendous donation of human time.
Time spent bears fruit in the form of experienced confidence on one hand, and a continuing education on the other. "Crows were a surprise to me. I'd never thought about them," says Coffey. "But they're so intelligent; they recognize faces, and they notice everything that's going on around them. I grew to really respect them, and now I take in crows whenever I can get them."
Rehabilitation costs money. Animal shelters and humane organizations donate what they can, but rehabilitators bear most of the costs. A rough food average is $10 per animal. This mounts up; rehabbers may take in 300 animals in a year. Then there's medicine for sick animals, heating pads for young ones, and caging. A flight cage for raptors (large carnivores such as hawks and falcons) can cost $3,000.
Time, experience and money aren't always enough, though. Rabies carriers -- raccoons, foxes, skunks and bats -- are considered too dangerous to handle and must be destroyed.
Of the animals that can be rehabilitated, 35 to 50 percent die. "Hatchlings rarely survive," says Kent Knowles, president of the Northern Virginia Wildlife Rescue League. "Cat bites and bullet wounds are usually fatal because infection sets in so quickly." Accepting an animal's death is as important as accepting its eventual release. "You can't help getting attached, but you have to learn to let go," says Coffey. "If it means freeing the animal or letting it die, you have to let nature take its course."
Animal shelters, licensed volunteers and vets cooperate in a loose network in Maryland, the District and Virginia. "We're not licensed to keep wildlife at the animal shelter," says warden Lape. "We keep a list of people who have permits, and vets who will treat wildlife. But there are never enough people, especially in the spring nesting season."
Anyone wanting to keep wild animals at home must have a state or federal permit. State permits cover mammals and "nonmigratory" birds (house sparrows, starlings and pigeons); federal permits cover migratory birds -- virtually all other birds. Federally licensed rehabilitators must submit annual activity reports.
The permits are free and can be obtained by writing to state and federal authorities describing one's reasons and qualifications for rehabilitating wildlife. While it's illegal to keep wildlife without a permit, the paper trail is the least important aspect of rehabilitation.
Practice, wildlife experts say, should precede the paperwork. By investing in a short-term commitment -- a hands-on seminar or physical work with other rehabilitators -- novices can judge whether they have the time and the will to raise wild animals.
"Rehabilitation is not hugging and squeezing baby bunnies. It's not glamorous or always fulfilling. It's hard work, and it takes commitment," says Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia at Weirs Cave.
Novices also should understand that rehabilitation is not the same as conservation. "In terms of species conservation, wildlife rehabilitation has little impact," says Clark. "But contact with animals does provide a personal insight into conservation, and into local and global environmental issues."
For Paula Coffey, a personal insight has evolved into a lifestyle. She's building a raptor cage in her back yard, and doesn't see the day when she'll stop working with wildlife. "I have to balance my work and my family life," she says. "But my family benefits, too: They have a real appreciation of wild creatures and the way they've adapted to humans. Everyone has a job, and this is mine -- to get wild animals back into the wild."
Area resources include:
Animal Shelters (for advice & referrals)
Arlington, 703-931-9241; Fairfax, 703-830-1100; Alexandria, 703-838-4775.
Cheltenham, 301-372-8128, and Gaithersburg, 301-258-7308. Both are regional centers of
Maryland Forest, Park and Wildlife Service.
Classes & Seminars
Northern Virginia Wildlife Rescue League, 703-391-8625.
Wildlife Center of Virginia (Weirs Cave), 703-234-9453.
Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary (Bowie), 301-390-7010.
Permits Federal (all birds except pigeons, house sparrows, starlings): Marguerite Donnelly, Department of the Interior, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, P.O. Box 129, New Town Branch, Boston, Mass. 02158. (Federal permits take a year.)
Virginia (mammals and birds excepted from federal permit): Jack Raybourne, Chief, Division of Game, Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 4010 W. Broad St., Box 11104, Richmond.
Maryland (usually for specific animals except those covered on federal permit): Call regional Forest, Park and Wildlife centers to set up appointments:
Prince George's, Anne Arundel and Calvert counties: Cheltenham, 301-372-8128;
Howard and Montgomery counties: Gaithersburg, 301-258-7308.