They are cute, somewhat resembling black and white kittens, playfully wrestling with their mistress. Then one suddenly tires of the game, raises its tail and sends a thick, sickly odor through the room. It becomes painfully apparent that the two furry bundles in Betty Christensen's dining room are wild skunks.

While airing out her home, Christensen said the love she has for wildlife enables her to put up with inconveniences such as skunk-scented houses and half-hour feeding schedules to help insure the animals are healthy and strong when released back in the wild.

Christensen and a group of about 20 other Fairfax County animal lovers have volunteered to give nature a hand by rescuing and rehabilitating wild animals that have been injured or are unable to survive in the wilderness. Once the animal has been nursed back to health, it is released.

The work is often hard, dangerous and time consuming, Christensen said. It hits in waves during the spring or late summer when many animals are born.

Christensen, who currently is raising two raccoons, five skunks, two foxes, one crow, one ferret, five robins and six doves, said the infants often require half-hour feedings while they are still on formulas. Moreover, the cages must be constantly cleaned and maintained. Besides all that work, she said, formulas must be prepared, usually from goat's milk, and the average 20 phone calls a day she gets requesting advice must be answered.

"We can lose our health," Christensen said. "There are times when people working wit wildlife are in a state of collapse."

But their work is needed, Christensen said, because veterinarians often do not accept wild patients and animal shelters are often unable to help injured or young animals.

"Sometimes I get animals so plagued by maggots that is looks like they've been dipped in milk and dried," Christensen said. "Very few people would take the time or effort to work with an animal like that," she added.

Richard F. Amity, director of animal control in Fairfax, agreed that the volunteers are essential. He stressed, however, that under state law people must receive a permit to work with or keep wildlife. A few of the volunteers have science backgrounds, Amity said, but most of them, like Christensen and Eva Bell, who specializes in working with birds, are self taught.

Bell, who currently has more than 40 birds at her house, also said the strain of the work can be too much.

"Morning is like climbing out of a deep, dark hole here," she said, because of the constant feedings and care the birds require.

"It's gone from taking a few little nestlings in the summer to where we're essentially living in a zoo," Bell said, waving her hand at the bird cages filling her living room.

Although Bell and Christensen often working together, they differ drastically in their philosophy of accepting animals. Bell says she has never turned an injured or baby bird away, while Christensen said she will not care for wildlife destined to be crippled.

"I don't like to see life destroyed . . ." Bell said. "Some wildlife workers don't keep crippled animals. I do."

But cripples take up needed space at the Christensen home. "It I put one crippled animal in a cage, that will keep me from putting one litter in that cage," Christensen said.

Both women said they want to educate others on the treatment of injured or young animals. People unfamiliar with wildlife often bring home a baby bird or mammal instead or replacing it in the nest or den, they said.

About 75 percent of the animals brought in should never have been takin from the wild, Christensen said. "It's just love, it's good intentions." she said. "(But) so many times animals are killed by good intentions."