A baby flying squirrel is among the orphaned animals at City Wildlife, the District's first wild animal rehabilitation center. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)
Columnist

Of all the animals I saw when I visited City Wildlife, the first wildlife rehabilitation center to open in the District, my favorite wasn’t the baby flying squirrel or the juvenile opossum or the starling that trilled away happily. It was a pigeon.

Pigeons are not very exotic, especially in Washington, where every statue, cornice and park bench is befouled with their droppings, but this pigeon had about him a quiet dignity. His regal bearing was all the more remarkable given that he was a rather large pigeon, obese actually. That’s what had gotten him in trouble in the first place.

“He flew into a courtyard in an apartment complex,” explained Alicia DeMay, the clinic’s director. “People fed him so much that he couldn’t get up and out of there.”

Unable to resist all those bread crumbs and seeds, the pigeon had porked up, eventually getting so tubby that his wings weren’t able to lift him over the courtyard’s walls.

“He’s a tank,” Alicia said.

Alicia DeMay, clinic director, Abby Hehmeyer, wildlife biologist, and Anne Lewis, president, of City Wildlife at City Wildlife, the District's first wild animal rehabilitation center. (John Kelly/The Washington Post)

As I peered into his cage, the pigeon — solid, matronly, with a bust like a feathered Christina Hendricks — did not shrink from my gaze. If he was embarrassed by the hand-lettered sign affixed to the bars — “I’m on a diet. Do not overfeed” — he did not show it.

City Wildlife is in Northwest, off Blair Road. Before it opened in July, the District’s injured wild creatures were usually taken to Second Chance Wildlife in Gaithersburg. That was a long drive for baby squirrels and broken-winged songbirds. Some wouldn’t make it, which was nearly as distressing for the human Florence Nightingales as it was for the actual nightingales.

So in 2008, Jim Monsma, who had worked at the Washington Humane Society and Washington Animal Rescue League, and Anne Lewis, a District architect active in area animal matters, started raising money to open the center. Special legislation was passed by the D.C. Council allowing its existence. (There are quite a lot of rules involving wild animals, especially critters such as migratory waterfowl.) Some space in a former printing plant hard by the Red Line Metro tracks was transformed into an animal rehab facility.

When I visited last week, I was pleased to see that The Washington Post lined most cages. Try doing that with an iPad. The menagerie included baby squirrels, crows (an American crow and a fish crow), two box turtles, a box turtle egg (probably unfertilized, but you never know), a chipmunk and a juvenile opossum.

The opossum had all the basic ingredients of the National Zoo’s giant panda cub — white and black coloring, an odd fringe of longer white hairs — just arranged in a less-cuddly order. As I leaned in to take a photo, the opossum drew back its tiny opossum lips, bared its tiny opossum teeth and hissed at me.

“Possums are a favorite of wildlife rehabilitators,” Anne said.

She said it’s because they’re so weird — marsupials! — and because they’re all hiss and no bite. This particular opossum was the last of six brought in over the summer. The rest had been released, but one had bitten this hissing opossum, necessitating a longer stay.

(It’s sad the opossums couldn’t get along. I suppose playing dead doesn’t really work for them, since they know when the other one’s faking it.)

The 65 orphan squirrels at City Wildlife are part of the second litters that squirrel mothers have toward the end of summer. They spend a few weeks getting fattened up at the center, then are released into the back yards of understanding humans who will provide enough food for them to get a pawhold.

The center is licensed to care for birds and mammals that are not rabies vectors, so no raccoons, skunks or coyotes. What about rats?

“Rats and mice are nuisance species,” Anne said. “Most rehabbers don’t accept them. It’s not socially acceptable to release a rat back into the city.” The rodents are humanely euthanized.

Another pigeon at City Wildlife caught my eye. It was a snow-white bird with a blue leg band that was found in June wandering around Volta Park in Georgetown. Anne thinks it was released at some ceremony — a wedding, a graduation — but didn’t actually know how to find its way back to its coop: a homeless homing pigeon.

The band was blank, no number, and Anne speculates that the bird was owned by an unscrupulous bird-renter, not an actual homing pigeon aficionado. Semi-tame as it is, Anne doubts the white pigeon would last long on the mean streets of D.C. So it will stay at City Wildlife, watching the more wild fauna come, heal and go.

For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.