Wild About Preserving Our Wildlife

Used with the permission of The Westmoreland News where the story appeared on July 21, 2004

Story and photos by Jan Ohrmundt

It takes a mighty special person to dedicate seven months each year to the care of hundreds of abandoned, wounded or sick birds and animals that would otherwise likely die.

Licensed Wildlife Rehabilitator Diana O’Connor is our local guardian angel for the critters and creatures in the Northern Neck and surrounding counties. She’s the only state and federally licensed rehabilitator in this area; a federal license is required to take in most bird species.

The log of birds and animals so far this year lucky enough to be brought to her numbers close to 300. Many are from litters of various babies whose parents met an untimely demise.

From baby wood ducks, to as many as 18 tiny raccoons, and six cute little skunks (“Here you are, stinky-doodles,” O’Connor croons as she feeds them.) have been maturing under O’Connor’s watchful eye. Several osprey, an owl, two red foxes, and two black vultures that were just baby balls of red fluff when they first arrived are nearing the time when they can be released back into the wild.

“Sometimes it’s hard to see them go after having raised them from tiny creatures,” she acknowledged. “But they’re wild and need to be returned. That’s our job. When they become sexually mature, believe me they’re ready to be let go.”

There is the occasional keeper.

A cockatiel found walking down a street in Colonial Beach several years ago that no one claimed has found a permanent home with O’Connor and her husband, Dennis, whom she lovingly calls “a saint.”

Harder than releasing the animals back to nature though, is having to put down those that cannot be helped. But that’s part of the job too.

O’Connor’s journey as a wildlife rehab-er began some 20 years ago. Known for her tender heart for God’s creatures great and small, someone brought her a bird that she didn’t know how to care for.

“I started contacting every organization I thought could help me. The Wildlife Center of Virginia gave me a list of other rehabilitators and after learning how to care for that bird, I just kept on learning from them how to care for the many animals that need help.”

As she became committed to giving Mother Nature a hand, she also received training to become licensed and receive both a state and federal permit.

Since she handles animals that could transmit rabies she was also required to take a series of three pre-exposure rabies shots.

“We’re like EMT’s for wildlife,” she quipped, “and there needs to be more of us,” she added earnestly.

O’Connor, in her early-60s, doesn’t intend to retire soon but hopes there will be someone to take over when she does. This valiant lady keeps a schedule that tires out people half her age even though she has a bone disorder that has required her to have a hip replacement 10 times, a shoulder, three times and a knee, twice.

Hope Groves of Colonial Beach has been working with O’Connor for three years and has just finished the first year of a two-year apprenticeship. As a Category One Apprentice she can care for uninjured, orphaned animals in her home. Her goal is to specialize in songbirds and squirrels and she’ll fill in this winter when O’Connor has surgery.

Groves said an article she’d seen on O’Connor a few years back interested her in becoming a rehabilitator. She went to visit the refuge and as O’Connor showed her around what struck her was the look on the animals’ faces.

“It was as if they were saying, ‘I don’t have anyone to take care of me. Help me,’ “ she shared. “I look at them as my own children and when it’s time for them to go, there’s sort of empty nest syndrome. But that’s my job.

“It’s time consuming but I wouldn’t trade it for the world. I do it because I want something left for my children and grandchildren to see. I wish more people would understand that with the growth we are seeing there is loss of habitat and we need to try to preserve some of it for the wildlife.”

“I’m so grateful for Hope,” said O’Connor. “There just aren’t that many people who can dedicate the time and energy needed to do this job.”

Apprentices can work their way up to Category IV, which allows them to provide unsupervised care.

There are five steps to becoming a wildlife rehabilitator:

- attend six hours of approved education. (six hours of continuing education are required each year to maintain a license.)

- find a licensed rehabilitator who will sponsor you for two years

- find a veterinarian who will work with you; this is a must to become licensed.

- Set up the facility with necessary equipment such as an aquarium tank or two, scale, heating pads, heavy gloves and latex gloves, syringes, and cages. Stock up on cleaning supplies, basic foods and medicines. Be ready to do 4-5 loads of laundry a day.

- Apply for a permit and expect to have your facility inspected.

O’Connor welcomes volunteer help with open arms too.

Toni Brackett of Tappahannock, for example, began coming each week after she and her boyfriend brought O’Connor an osprey they’d found floating in the water. It had been shot and sadly all O’Connor could do was put it out of its misery.

Even though that story didn’t have a happy ending Brackett, who wants to be a Vet, asked if O’Connor could use her help.

“I work her to death,” said O’Connor with a laugh. “Even without training people can pick up supplies for me, do the laundry, help feed the older animals, clean cages and even build outdoor cages or mow the lawn.”

On the day of this reporter’s visit, Scott Padgett and his wife brought in a young osprey and pelican from the Reedville area. It turned out both were uninjured and just needed some TLC until they could fend for themselves better.

Padgett was so impressed with O’Connor’s operation, not only did he make a contribution on the spot (donations are tax deductible) but asked to be called in the future if others need help rescuing a bird or animal.

Speaking of donations, the money goes to good purpose. O’Connor is not paid for the work she does, except for the satisfaction she feels helping the beings that share our world.

O’Connor and her husband live in Oak Grove, but for about seven months of the year live at the Wild Bunch Wildlife Refuge in the Newland area where she volunteers her round-the-clock critter care.

Erika Yery purchased 83 acres in 2000 to develop into the Refuge. It’s adjacent to the Rappahannock River National Wildlife Refuge and is a nonprofit organization with officers and a board of directors.

It takes thousands of dollars each year to run the refuge; much of that comes from the O’Connor’s own pockets as well as from the other principals.

Donations help pay for food, medicine and vet bills, which are considerable. All animals are wormed and vaccinated before being released, just for starters. Some need x-rays and others, surgery.

“I don’t know what I would do without Dr. Sam [Marsten] at the Warsaw Animal Hospital,” O’Connor emphasized. “I owe him a huge thank you.”

Folks can make other types of donations as well – save your old cotton (not flannel) sheets and stuffed toys for the Wild Bunch. Building materials for cages are also appreciated. Away from the main care facility there are nesting cages, pre-release cages, feeding cages and flight cages for birds that are gaining their strength to leave.

O’Connor’s list of those for whom she is grateful includes, “All those who care enough to bring animals to me,” all the area sheriff’s departments and state police who refer cases or help bring animals in, Game Wardens and “everyone who has helped out in any way.

“If there’s anything I’d Like people to realize,” she added, “it’s that no one should try to raise a wild animal as a pet. Not only is it against the law, it is a death sentence for the animal.

“As far as being grateful, I don’t want to miss anyone,” she said. “Oh, let me add the folks at Winter Harbor who bring fish they aren’t going to eat, so I can feed the vultures. I also can’t forget the Bowie Hardware group for all the many ways they help.”

What’s next now that the spring batches of ducks, raccoons, skunks and possums are getting old enough and healthy enough to release?

Chimney Swifts and squirrels.

To contact O’Connor at the Wild Bunch Wildlife Refuge: 703-313-2240.

To contact Hope Groves: 703-224-8772