Abandoned Easter bunnies wriggle pink noses in a mesh-covered pen. Mallards, geese, gulls and wood ducks squawk a cacophony in another. A tobacco barn, half filled with Maryland broad leaf, is temporary home to one golden eagle, five red-tailed hawks, some great horned owls and a few turkey vultures.
There are 150 animals -- as exotic as white swans and as common as ground squirrels -- residing on an 85-acre farm in Bowie. Almost all show evidence of man-inflicted abuse.
"Two of the hawks were shot. Others were hit by cars," said Dianne Pearce, 30, the founder and chief splint wrapper at the Chesapeake Bird and Wildlife Sanctuary. "The owl there was caught in a leg-hold trap. We have a swan that was shot. That is inexcusable. You can't mistake a swan for much else."
The story of this wildlife sanctuary sounds as improbably romantic as a child's bedtime story. It begins five years ago with Pearce, a former fashion model and head of an advertising agency, retrieving a wounded robin from the jaws of her pet dog. After a long and mostly futile search for a veterinarian who knew enough to treat her patient, she resolved to learn to do the work herself.
"I just decided this is what I really want to do," said Pearce, who was afraid of both dogs and needles as a child and still is allergic to bird feathers.
Cut to scene two, four years later. Pearce and John Vincent, 34, a Prince George's County policeman and associate director of the sanctuary, are living in a suburban split-level house in Clinton -- with more than 100 ailing animals.
"The house is pretty much for the animals. We're kind of just sharing it," Vincent said then.
With bird feathers literally coming out of the windows, Pearce and Vincent began looking for a more suitable location for the santuary. They found the Bowie farm, with a barn and two-story house, last August. It appeared to have all the space they would need. But even with the half-dozen outdoor pens Vincent has built for animals, the house has been occupied almost entirely by furred and feathered patients.
"Our bathtub rarely sees people. We do have one small room upstairs we cleared out so we could have a place apart to watch television," said Pearce, tending to a poisoned pigeon just brought in by Jacquie Cowan, the Anne Arundel County director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
"This place is wonderful," said Cowan, holding the pigeon, which was likely poisoned by the manager of an apartment complex. "I was at their house in Clinton. The whole basement was solid birds and squirrels."
During the last five years, the sanctuary has grown from a membership of one to 2,000. This year's budget will be $25,000. Most of the money comes from donations and grants. Last week, Bob Williman, who owns a medical equipment company, brought a surgical equipment sterilizer to the sanctuary to place beside the half-dozen incubators he already had donated. On the same day, a brother from Bishop McNamara High School was planting trees on the property.
"It's like Christmas all the time," said Pearce, who has sacrificed more than anyone else for her passion. She has abandoned her lucrative advertising career to devote full-time to her patients and has invested the money she made selling her Clinton home.
"All my savings are gone," she said cheerfully. She was wearing a blue knit cap that matches the color of her eyes, a comfortably shabby coat and decidedly nondesigner jeans. The transition from fashion model to animal activist seemed complete.
Ailing animals arrive at the sanctuary from a variety of sources. Because it is the only facility of its kind in Maryland, calls come from every part of the state and at all hours. Some are tragic, such as the recent rescue of a fox from a leg-hold trap in Temple Hills. Others are more comic.
Reports of hawks turn out to be pigeons; a sighted bobcat, upon investigation, is discovered to be a short-tailed house cat. One woman recently thought she had discovered a long-extinct pterodactyl on her property. It was, in fact, a great blue heron.
The sanctuary has a 24-hour hotline: 249-1228.