There's a Wild Bunch in Warsaw

by Laura Emery, Field Editor

Diana O'Connor's friends are a bunch of animals. At times, living with them isn't easy. She spends hours every day tending to their needs; she has to feed them, watch them, talk to them, and even clean up after them.

"It's not an easy job, but I'm around them a lot," O'Connor says, taking a quick whiff of her T-shirt and then making an unpleasant face. "And I smell like it too," she quips.

O'Connor's friends really are a wild bunch.

A licensed wildlife rehabilitator, O'Connor has been caring for abandoned, sick, or wounded animals and then releasing them back into their natural habitat for the last 20 years. "I've been doing this a long time," she explains.

O'Connor runs Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehabilitation Refuge near Warsaw, a non-profit organization that serves the Northern Neck and surrounding area. She is the only state and federally licensed rehabilitator in the area.

"We get all sorts of animals through here," O'Connor points out, as she makes her way through the 83-acre refuge checking on "her animals," stopping for a moment to stick her hand into a cage and feed a squawking bird. Some of the animals that have come through her door include red foxes, raccoons, bald eagles, blue jays, rabbits, opossums, black vultures, mockingbirds, ducks, owls, hummingbirds, groundhogs, ospreys, squirrels, grackles, fawns, beavers, skunks, gray foxes, blue herons, green herons, hawks, box turtles, Cooper's hawks, and wood ducks.

O'Connor says she's seen her fair share of tragic cases. She's seen birds brought to the refuge that have been shot right out of their nests with pellet rifles. She's seen animals that have been ferociously mauled by dogs, or had their skin torn off by cats. "I've seen them come in without eyes, without limbs, and with neurological damage," she says. "It's the hardest part about being a rehabilitator – knowing that there are going to be animals that you just can't save, and having to put them down. There have been so many times I've almost been kicked out of the vet's office for crying so hard."

As the 62-year-old makes her way through the refuge, from cage to cage, she has noticeable difficulty walking. However, it doesn't curb the valiant woman's enthusiasm for doing her job – a job she does without pay. Diagnosed with a serious bone disorder, avascular necrosis, many years ago, O'Connor has had her hips replaced 10 times, and her shoulder and knee replaced three times each. And yet, somehow, her limited mobility does not hinder her from her round-the-clock critter care. "The animals keep me going," she says. "There isn't a morning that I don't wake up and feel pain, but I don't have time to fool around with aches and pains. I'm the only one here, and I have animals who are dependent on me."

O'Connor wants to do more than just rehabilitate the animals that get brought to the rescue center; she wants to educate the public about wildlife rehabilitation so that people have the opportunity to protect the wildlife around them. "There are so many people who find sick or injured wild animals, and have no idea what to do with them. Many people don't know that we're here to help," she says. The general public, she says, should never try to raise and keep a wild animal as a pet. Wild animals need special care. People try to rescue animals and care for them on their own and, even though they mean well, it's against the law. "It's a death sentence for the animal," she explains.

There are several stages of rehabilitative care; from neonatal maintenance to treating broken wings, concussions and physical therapy. O'Connor holds a category II wildlife rehabilitation permit, meaning she is able to provide care for almost all kinds of wildlife as long as her facilities meet standard requirements and have passed inspection by the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries. Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehabilitation Refuge has another location in Alexandria, and is managed by a board of directors. The officers and directors are Erika Yery, O'Connor, Pat Crusenberry, Charlene DeVol, and Bonnie Brown.

An important part of a rehabilitator's job is being familiar with the study of natural histories of the animals they care for. "When you take an animal out of its natural surroundings, you have to recreate the surroundings the best you can when you place the animal in a pen, cage, or aviary," she explains. For example, a red fox needs places to dig, and opossums need hollow logs and trees to climb.

Beginning of A Wild Adventure

It all started about 20 years ago when someone brought O'Connor an injured bird. "I've always cared about animals, but I didn't know how to care for the bird. I started contacting every organization I thought could help me. After learning to care for that bird, I just kept on learning how to care for the many animals that need help," she explains.

The experience changed O'Connor's life, and was the beginning of a wild adventure. She was born in Alexandria, and has been living in the Northern Neck area for the last 20 years. She and her husband, Dennis, have a home in Oak Grove, 17 miles from the refuge. O'Connor lives at the refuge during the summer, and at her Oak Grove home for the remainder of the year.

O'Connor is a volunteer; she does not get paid for what she does. "Running a rehabilitation place like this isn't cheap," she says. Donations help pay for food, medicine, and vet bills for the wild animals. All animals, says O'Connor, are wormed and vaccinated before being released back into the wild. Still, other animals need X-rays, shots, and sometimes surgery. "I have to thank the people who have cared enough to bring me the animals they find, and also the Warsaw Animal Clinic," O'Connor says. "I couldn't do it without them." Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehabilitation Refuge needs volunteers as well. "I need help to keep the refuge up," O'Connor says, adding, "The animals need our help."

For More Information Wild Bunch Wildlife Refuge 7231 Newland Rd. Warsaw, VA 22572 (804) 313-2240 www.wildbunchrehab.org