"Are you bringing something in?"

At the Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg, this is the first question put to all visitors. Arrivals typically have an orphaned rabbit or an injured turtle in the back seat. At the end of a long gravel driveway off a dead-end street, the squat yellow farmhouse with wind chimes on the porch would look almost quaint were it not for the caged birds of prey in the front yard.

Chris Montuori, founder and director of the center, is giving a tour of the premises. It's been a busy year, though not so bad as it was in 2002, when the number of animals admitted in one year broke 5,000. At the height of summer, the center can receive 20 to 25 animals a day. "We can hit 50 in one day pretty easily," she says. "A clutch of 12 or 13 mallard ducklings, a litter of baby possums . . ."

It's the off-season for wildlife rehabilitators -- and the staff couldn't be happier. "All of us look forward to when the babies stop," Montuori says. "May, June and July are absolutely Looney Tunes around here. And just as the baby birds slack off, the baby squirrels hit." Though squirrel-orphan season has peaked, several cages still contain frenetic babies. One scruffy batch, Montuori explains, is still recovering from a stubborn intestinal parasite that gave the orphans diarrhea and made their fur fall out.

Workers drift in and out to pass along news -- "Just a heads-up -- we should be getting an osprey in at 3 o'clock" -- and get instructions from Montuori. "Give the heron half a dozen smallish mice and a handful of smelt."

The center looks a little like a Container Store, except there's an animal in every box, tub and basket. A snapping turtle recovers from shell damage in the upstairs bathtub. Two invalid toads arrived at the center courtesy of a weed whacker. A sign on a door reads, "Deer Closet: Please Keep Door Closed." Turns out it's false advertising, though -- there's a heron inside. As the tour continues, some patients elicit praise ("Possums are the only animals other than rabbits that we pick up without gloves"), others censure ("The raccoon cages are empty, thank God -- raccoons stink"). A full house, certainly, but it could be worse. It's not unusual for the center to have Humane Society trucks coming in three or four times a day during the summer. "Sometimes they pass each other on the way in," Montuori says.

The Post's "Animal Watch" column chronicles the comings and goings of those trucks. Consider this item from an August column: "Downing Street NE, 1300 block, July 14. A D.C. animal control officer removed a baby opossum from a baby pool, where it had been clinging to a floating toy for several hours. The opossum was taken to a wildlife rehabilitator."

Who are these people and what is it that they do?

According to Lee Hiestand, public relations chair for the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association, wildlife rehabilitation is "the treatment of sick, injured or orphaned wild animals with the goal of reintroducing or releasing a healthy animal back into the wild." And it is only relatively recently that rehabbers have had either membership organizations to join or a generally accepted definition of what they do. The effort to formalize the discipline is only 20 to 30 years old, and the process is ongoing. "Back in the '70s, it was more of a hobby," says International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council board member Susan Heckly. "There's been a change of attitude in people doing the job," she says, "an increased level of professionalism." The organizations (the IWRC has 15,000 members, the NWRA 1,900) provide training and support for members and work together on projects aimed at standardizing the field.

Most would-be good Samaritans don't realize that it's actually against the law to handle wild animals. Indeed, wildlife rehabilitators must obtain permits or licenses -- the terminology varies from state to state -- to do so. The criteria vary as well, but most often involve serving lengthy apprenticeships, obtaining the sponsorship of an experienced rehabilitator, proving that you have appropriate facilities, and establishing a cooperative agreement with a veterinarian. Additional federal permits are required for animals in specialized categories, including migratory birds and endangered species, as well as those whose injuries prevent them from being returned to the wild. A number of factors make it difficult to determine how many licensed wildlife rehabilitators there are in the United States; some estimates put the number at 4,000 to 7,000, others at 10,000 to 12,000.

There are several misconceptions about wildlife rehabilitators. For starters, they don't do the work of zookeepers or veterinarians. Care of wild animals is not part of the standard curriculum at veterinary school, and zoo staff are more likely to know how to treat a zebra than they are an indigenous gray squirrel. Wildlife rehabilitation also has a crucial requirement that such specialists don't: The care must facilitate the animal's return to the outdoors. Most wildlife rehabilitators don't get paid. Second Chance is one of only a few wildlife centers in the nation with a salaried staff -- it has four paid employees in the winter, six in the summer, as well as college interns and a phalanx of volunteers. This level of dedication is all the more compelling when you consider the job's demands. To wit: Baby birds need to be fed every 15 minutes in daylight, infant squirrels every two hours around the clock.

"People are now more aware that there's something called a wildlife rehabilitator," says Allan Casey, speaking from his home base in Evergreen, Colo. Casey and wife Shirley run WildAgain Wildlife Rehabilitation, a nonprofit organization that provides resources, information and training to the wildlife rehabilitation community in addition to being a functioning wildlife rehabilitation center.

Their group is among the few to attempt to gather statistical data about the rehabilitation community and its regulations. The Caseys' numbers provide a clearer picture of rehabbers and their patients. Ninety percent of rehabbers are home-based, 85 percent are women, and 70 to 80 percent volunteer or are self-funded. The average caseload is 20 to 30 animals a year, and 80 percent of them arrive in the summer and early fall. Eighty percent of the animals handled are juveniles, and 70 to 75 percent are birds. The release rate for all species combined is 67 percent -- with mammals faring a bit better than birds.

According to the Caseys' statistics, Mary Young-Lutz is a typical wildlife rehabilitator. She is female, home-based and does most of her work in the summer. Young-Lutz, who treats birds and reptiles only, is affiliated with Virginia's Wildlife Rescue League, a wildlife organization based in Falls Church. "I've always done it," she says of caring for wild animals. "I was the kid who, if someone on the block found a baby bird, they brought it to me." These days, she has a room in her Leesburg basement devoted to her patients and a greenhouse outside that contains several flight cages, enclosures large enough to allow captive birds to take wing.

Young-Lutz, who apprenticed for two years before getting her permit, is in her sixth year as a rehabber. A biology and environmental science teacher at Dominion High School in Sterling, she uses the data she collects each summer in her classroom. "It's challenging," she admits. "Every rehabber has their moments of, 'Why am I doing this?' when you've been up four or five nights in a row with baby birds who need to be fed every couple of hours. A lot of things die -- and you can't figure out why." Though she has housed as many as 50 animals at one time, the off-season finds her caring for three turtles, including a blind one for whom she hopes to secure an education permit that will allow her to keep it for use in her classes.

Chris Montuori has her cat to thank for her involvement in wildlife rehabilitation. "I got into it in all innocence," Montuori says. "I had a stray cat adopt me, and she was a very good hunter." Besieged with grievously wounded hunting trophies, she read about the now defunct Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary in Bowie and volunteered there, eventually acquiring her own license in 1986. "It worked really well until I got so many animals I couldn't take care of all of them," she says. Tired of shuttling injured creatures between her home in Potomac and the sanctuary in Bowie, she began keeping small ones at her house. Soon she was working at home for her then-husband's business and hand-feeding baby animals at the same time. "I was caring for 1,200, 1,300 animals a year in a very small room in my house," she says. At that point, she incorporated as Second Chance and moved the animals into the Gaithersburg farmhouse.

"It does have a way of getting away from you," she sighs.

A similar sequence of events led author Shannon K. Jacobs to write her book, "Healers of the Wild: Rehabilitating Injured & Orphaned Wildlife." "I kept finding injured birds," she says from her home in Denver. "If you try to take care of them yourself, they inevitably die. I thought, 'There has to be someone who knows how to take care of them.' " Jacobs eventually found a rehabber in her area and became increasingly interested in the work rehabilitators did. "It became an obsession," she confesses. After three years of research, she self-published "Healers of the Wild" in 1998, which is the most comprehensive work of its kind. (It was subsequently picked up by a publisher and is in its second edition.) "I wanted the public to know about the existence of wildlife rehabilitators and that they are professionals in their own right," Jacobs says.

Many, she says, feel an obligation to help wildlife because we, as humans, are responsible for most of the problems that bring the animals to rehabilitators in the first place. They are, in a sense, evening the odds. "People say, 'Oh, let nature take its course,' " Jacobs says. "If it is nature, fine. I wouldn't interfere with wolves taking down an elk, but if my neighbors are cutting down a tree with a nest in it because they want a better view . . ."

Kent Knowles, president of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia, ascribes his start as a wildlife rehabilitator to "a fit of insanity." Knowles began as a generalist but became convinced that more could be done for raptors. "I was always fascinated by birds of prey," he says. "They're the wildest of the wild." Like Montuori, he incorporated, founding the conservancy, a 21/2-acre facility in Falls Church that cares for 250 birds a year, serving up some 300 mice a day. Knowles conducts educational programs with his unreleasable birds; he estimates that he gave about 200 talks last year. Many of the raptors serve as foster parents to orphaned birds. He has a male great horned owl that teaches little ones a raptor's essential survival skills: "socialization, vocalization and fear of humans." Like Second Chance, the conservancy is kept going by its volunteers. "We couldn't make it without them," Knowles says. Perhaps subject to similar fits of insanity, they keep coming, despite being required to take a half-day training course that Knowles describes as "How to keep your soft parts away from their pointy parts."

All wildlife rehabbers will tell you that what they see of human nature is a little like a good news/bad news joke: The good news is that more people than you might think are willing to help animals in distress. Montuori recalls the time a distraught couple brought in a snail they'd inadvertently hauled from another state in a rental trailer. "We took him in and promptly named him Speedy," she says. The bad news is that these same people wouldn't know an animal in distress if it nested on their heads. The basic rule of thumb is that if you think you know what you're doing -- especially if you think you know what you're doing -- you're wrong.

"Don't get me started on the general public," Knowles says.

Perhaps the general public's most heinous crime is "kidnapping" baby birds. All too often, well-intentioned people see a baby bird on the ground and take it home, not realizing that the chick is perfectly fine and that their "rescue" is likely to result in its death. "Everybody wants to help them!" says Young-Lutz of baby birds. "Let the parents raise their babies! If he's just sitting there, he's probably okay." The belief that unattended baby birds invariably need help -- and its close companion, the myth that "Its mother won't take it back if you've touched it" -- may be the most common misconceptions that people have about wild animals. They are certainly the ones most bemoaned by rehabilitators. "There are a lot of nice people out there, but they have no idea how baby animals get from birth to independence," Montuori says.

Kidnappers frequently compound the first mistake with a second: ministering to baby birds themselves rather than immediately taking them to wildlife rehabilitators. They often attempt to feed the babies, which is one of the worst things they can do. Apparently something about chicks triggers a compassion response that blocks critical thinking. "You just assume it needs milk," Jacobs says. "Then you think, 'Wait a minute -- birds don't have breasts!' We think milk cures everything."

Orphaned or injured animals should be taken to a rehabilitator immediately, not after you've kept them long enough to discern that your own efforts are ineffective. "You wouldn't wait three days to call 911," Knowles points out. Those who bring them home quickly discover that wild animals make terrible pets, but once habituated to humans they cannot safely be returned to the outdoors. As for baby birds, until they are four to five weeks old, they "imprint," or learn how to be birds, from whoever is caring for them. That holds true, unfortunately, whether the caretaker happens to be a mother robin or a bumbling human being. Young-Lutz and other rehabbers have had to euthanize healthy birds because they imprinted on humans and could not be released. Wild animals can also carry zoonoses, diseases that can be transmitted to humans, and harbor parasites. Jacobs tells the story of a woman who gave a "cute" baby fox the run of her house, only to find out later that it had infested the place with mites.

Dispelling wildlife misconceptions is among the primary motivations of people like Lois Napier. A wildlife artist and educator, Napier conducts between 50 and 60 programs a year with unreleasable raptors. "I've talked to everyone from preschools to the AARP -- literally," she says. Her hands-on involvement with wildlife began 12 years ago when she went looking for wild animals to photograph. She contacted the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, Va., and ended up volunteering at the Shenandoah Valley facility for five years, ultimately getting her own permit.

She means it when she says she loves animals. She volunteers as a keeper's aide at the National Zoo, where she works with seals and sea lions. And, in addition to sharing her home with two big Labs, a cat, a tank full of angelfish, a snake and an iguana, she has six raptors in her Vienna back yard. "The ones that can see can't fly, and the ones that can fly can't see," she says of the birds. "I don't think of them as mine -- I don't think anything born in the wild can belong to anyone. They just live with me because they can't survive on their own."

Napier held a wildlife rehabilitation permit for three years before giving it up. "My bathroom door was always closed," she recalls. "People would come over, and they wouldn't ask who was in the bathroom, they'd ask what was in the bathroom." And the demands were unrelenting. "It's like having an infant times however many animals you have," she says. "Especially in the spring."

For this reason, literature aimed at potential wildlife rehabilitators works very hard to dispel the illusions of those who picture themselves as Snow White, songbirds perched on an outstretched finger and an adorable fawn curled at their feet. The reality is a bit messier. No rehabilitator, for example, fails to mention the drudgery of cleaning cages. It's a little like people whose rosy mental picture of having children does not include changing diapers -- with newspapers, cedar shavings and towels playing the role of Pampers. Montuori has the advice you might expect from someone who has daily contact with frozen smelt and squirrel diarrhea.

"First," she says with a smile, "go to a very experienced psychiatrist."

Nicole Arthur is a staff writer for Weekend.

Lois Napier cares for six unreleasable raptors at her Vienna home, including this 4-year-old partially blind red-tailed hawk.

She conducts 50 to 60 educational programs a year with the birds.Kent Knowles of the Raptor Conservancy of Virginia gives visitors at Mason Neck State Park a close-up look at a bald eagle. Knowles's 21/2-acre facility in Falls Church treats 250 birds a year.Second Chance Wildlife Center founder Chris Montuori, left, and Amber Verncion of Germantown tend to an injured red-shouldered hawk at the Gaithersburg center. At top, another winged patient: an orphaned screech owl. "We can hit 50 [animals] in one day pretty easily," Montuori says.