Tucked away on the outskirts of sleepy Waynesboro, VA, there’s a bustling trauma center for sick and injured wildlife. Think “M*A*S*H” with feathers and fur, featuring the tough triage decisions doctors have to make upon admitting new patients. But here, the patient list is wildly diverse: On any given day, the Wildlife Center of Virginia might see a listless bear cub brought in sick from eating rat poison, a bald eagle dying from ingesting lead bullet fragments in a deer carcass, and a king snake run over by a lawnmower. And that’s just before noon.
With the help of volunteers, the center’s trained staff of nine treats all comers in a rambling log-cabin style building in the woods outfitted with a diagnostic laboratory, surgical suite and radiology room. Once the patients have been stabilized and patched up, they’re taken out back to rehabilitate in a leafy compound that includes large flight pens for raptors, a bear enclosure, an aviary for smaller birds and deer fawn pens.
Virginia has dozens of wildlife rehabilitators licensed by the state Department of Game & Inland Fisheries and a half-dozen regional clinics or centers where animals hit by vehicles, crippled by flying into power lines and poisoned by eating stuff they shouldn’t can be treated. But the Wildlife Center, in the western foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, offers one of the Old Dominion’s largest arrays of intensive medical and rehab services for a broad group of animals.
The center’s president and co-founder is Edward Clark, Jr., who grew up in tiny Flint Hill just east of the Shenandoah National Park. He began his career working for national and state environmental groups before shifting to focus on wildlife rehabilitation. He launched the center in 1982 after learning that there was no place locally to help creatures recuperate from serious injury or illness.
Over the years, the center has treated more than 75,000 patients from more than 200 species of birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians. In the process, it’s been a teaching animal hospital that’s trained veterinary students and graduates of every institution in the United States and Canada, as well as more than 40 other countries.
To Clark, helping wildlife in distress gives the center a chance to teach the public about how society is altering the environment and impacting the natural world. He noted that, “when we display a wild animal that has lost its freedom, or its life, as a result of some human activity, our audiences respond even more than they might if the victims of whatever issue we are discussing were only human.”
Thus, educational outreach is one of the center’s core missions. Three live “critter cams” have been posted in the outside enclosures, so people can follow the daily doings of the center’s “education birds,” those too injured to be released, and of the facility’s recovering wildlife. Among the permanent residents frequently on screen are Buddy the bald eagle, Maggie the peregrine falcon and Buttercup the black vulture. Online viewers can also check in on the slow recovery of a female bobcat hit by a car, or track the antics of 10 boisterous black bear cubs that are due for release in the spring.
The center opens its doors regularly to tours by school groups, social clubs and others. Staff and volunteers also visit area classrooms, often with some of the center’s residents in tow. Clark estimates the center has touched 2 million people, mostly children, through those efforts. The critter cams and other online programming have expanded the center’s profile nationally and even around the world.
With that kind of reach, the center’s staff shares Clark’s belief that their mission involves dealing with the underlying causes of the mayhem they see inflicted on the region’s wild creatures.
“Wildlife medicine is not just about fixing animals,” said Ernesto Dominguez, the chief veterinarian. “At the Wildlife Center of Virginia, wildlife medicine is also about identifying the environmental and social factors that cause that animal to get sick or injured in the first place, and to work to correct those problems.”
Dominguez said that the most frustrating parts of his job are directly related to human carelessness.
“Ninety percent of our admissions are because of animal-human interactions such as lead ingestion, vehicular injuries, window strikes, pesticide intoxication, cat attacks and so forth,” he said. “So many of these are preventable. Keeping cats indoors, being careful with pesticides, not littering…these are simple steps that each of us can take, and they would greatly reduce the number of patients we treat each year.”
Other issues are more difficult, and charged with political and cultural overtones. By mid-November, Clark noted, the center had admitted 48 bald eagles from across Virginia, a record number. Roughly two-thirds were suffering from lead poisoning, the result of scavenging on the remains of wildlife that had been shot with lead bullets or shotgun pellets. Seven of the birds died after ingesting bits of lead in deer guts left on the ground by a hunter, or in unclaimed rabbits, squirrels or game birds.
Clark said the center is working to educate hunters about how poisonous even tiny amounts of lead can be to untargeted scavengers, including eagles and bears, while trying to persuade them to voluntarily switch to lead-free ammunition.
That nontoxic option is readily available, and the federal government has banned the use of lead shot in waterfowl hunting since 1991.
“However,” Clark said, “there are those, on one hand, who deny the science and resist any change in traditional practices; on the other hand, there are those trying to use this issue as a backdoor means to stop all hunting and control firearms, thus polarizing the issue and making any rational discussion more difficult.” (In March, Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke revoked the Obama era ban on the use of lead bullets and fishing sinkers on federal lands.)
As the center’s president, Clark takes on such thorny issues, as well as the endless challenge of raising the funds needed to keep it open. The center receives no government funding and relies on sustaining donors, corporate affinity programs, and even African photo safaris led by senior Wildlife Center staff. Plus, there are the many volunteers whose free labor helps to keep costs down.
Clark travels extensively, domestically and abroad, to seek support for his dual mission of nursing sick and injured wild animals back to health and alerting people to the need to leave safe places for wildlife.
For all of its travails, Clark said the work is its own reward. One high point came with the release of a large female bald eagle that the center had been treating for almost two months after she had been struck by a car.
“It was sort of a dreary, cold day,” he recalled. Once free, the bird flew across a field and perched in a tree. Clark said he could see that she was looking around trying to get her bearings.
“All of a sudden, she seemed to recognize where she was: She was home,” he said. “She gave an incredible shriek of what sounded like pure joy. Out of the woods at the far end of the field came a reply. The bird we released shot straight up into the air and immediately, another eagle also climbed into the sky.”
At first, Clark said, he feared there might be bloodshed, as the birds began flying directly at each other, while calling loudly.
“But, instead of colliding, they both rolled onto their sides, in midair, and clenched feet — part of the eagles’ mating ritual. It was obviously her mate. They clenched and called and tumbled through the air toward the ground. Then, as if on cue, they released their grip on each other and flew away toward the tree line, wingtip to wingtip. I don’t think I have ever had a more emotional experience during a release, or had a clearer understanding of the importance of our work.”
The pair produced three healthy eaglets the next spring.