CAPE NEDDICK, Maine — When the folks at the Center for Wildlife finish feeding, weighing and cleaning all the orphaned baby squirrels in their care, they rest.
For about 10 minutes.
Then, they start all over again. With about 80 whiskered faces to feed, there’s not much down time. There’s even less when you add the infant opossums, motherless birds and dozens of other wayward creatures also in their care.
It’s endless work that, more often than not, is in vain. Most orphaned animals don’t make it. But some do. That hope, coupled with 32 years of sustained effort, has grown the center into the largest wildlife rehabilitation and educational facility in Maine.
“We are one of 20 centers, in terms of size and scope, in the whole country. There aren’t many centers, like ours, that exist in the whole United States. What sets us apart, locally, is that we do both conservation medicine, as well as environmental education,” said Development Director Emma Balina.
The Center for Wildlife treats nearly 2,000 injured and sick wild animals each year. It handles native creatures from small mammals to large hawks. Snakes, turtles, squirrels, mice, finches and owls all get the same level of care. Releasing them back into the wild is always the goal.
The center also hosts around 20 “ambassador” animals that cannot be released. The ambassadors, which include a porcupine, a crow, a turkey vulture, several owls and an opossum, are used in educational programs.
“We do about 350 education programs a year at schools, libraries, state parks, senior centers, nursing homes and community centers,” said Balina, who grew up in Bangor.
The ambassadors have a standing engagement on a Portland television station and the public can visit with them at the center.
Doing all the work at the Center for Wildlife are about 80 volunteers, seven full-time staff members — all of them women — and about 30 college interns.
This year, the center’s operating budget is $430,000. None of it comes from the federal or state government sources. The bulk of it comes from individuals, with education program fees, private foundation grants, and local businesses rounding out the rest.
The Center for Wildlife was founded in 1986 by York state lawmaker Dawn Hill and Gary Beekman, a local veterinarian. At first, it operated out of a trailer with no running water or electricity.
Now, the center hums in a crowded, 1,200 square-foot ranch house near the foot of Mount Agamenticus. Outside, there are close to 30 enclosures for animals on the mend and permanent ambassadors.
Later in 2018, after four years of planning and fundraising, the center will break ground on a larger, purpose-built facility.
“I started as a baby bird room volunteer when I was going to the University of New Hampshire for wildlife ecology. So, as much as I now do our budgeting and financing and grants, I still try to do some hands-on things that remind me of why this work is so important. This morning we had nestling songbirds come in that are like two days old. I worked to try and identify them. People didn’t know what species they were. That was my fun, little quiz for the day. They were house finches. One of them is actually just an egg. It’s hatching right now.” — Kristen Lamb, executive director
“We give everyone the best chance possible. We had a couple of snakes come in over the winter that were in people’s basements. We kept them alive all winter and released them this spring. Just one squirrel can plant 2,000 trees a year. That squirrel that we raise might go out and plant 6,000 trees before it gets eaten by a predator. They bury tons and tons and tons of nuts and acorns over the course of the year and they only recover 20 percent of them.” — Libby Peck, senior medical clinic apprentice
Tips for rescuing a wild animals
The Center for Wildlife Assistance Hotline and Medical Clinic is available 365 days per year between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. at 207-361-1400.
– Use a towel to cover the bird. Use a dish towel for small birds or bath towel for large birds.
– Place the bird in a well-ventilated box and transfer to Center for Wildlife or local rehabilitator.
– Remember to move turtles across the road in the direction they were headed – they know where they’re going.
– Large snapping turtles can be helped across the road by encouraging them to bite a sturdy stick and pulling them across the road on top of a towel to avoid scraping the underside of their shells.
– If a turtle was hit by a car, please bring it to the center. They may be able to bracket its shell or extract eggs from a female.
– Use a towel to cover the animal. Use a dish towel for small mammals or babies.
– Place the animal in a well-ventilated box and transfer to the Center for Wildlife or local rehabilitator.
– Keep the car as quiet as possible. Turn off the radio and talk quietly.
– Keep pets away from the animal.
– Most wild animals are in shock after being injured. Please avoid talking to, or holding, the animal as that can increase its stress.
– Keep the animal warm.
– Do not attempt to feed the animal. Wild animals have special diets and an injured animal could have internal injuries.
“It’s a really awesome group of people that are here and dedicating their time to helping their community and wildlife. That’s really what it’s all about: Being here as a resource for the community and educating people — and also being able to help wildlife and make connections.” — Shelley Spanswick, medical clinic director
“A lot of what we do is like hospice, for wildlife. If somebody finds an animal and is able to catch it, a lot of times it’s so debilitated that there’s not anything you can do to save it. You provide a safe spot for it, or help it along through that process of dying. Euthanizing an animal is not the best part of the job. But you do get to release their spirit. All of them would have died if we weren’t here. So, if you’re saving 30-50 percent of them, then that’s good. You have to maintain a balance. You can become overwhelmed with the work. There’s a high degree of fatigue and burnout in this field. Releasing an animal is the best part of the job.” — Shelley Spanswick, medical clinic director
“This is a place that’s doing something every single day — and immediately. We don’t have to wait until legislation has passed over five-to-ten years. If there is an injured hawk on the ground, our clinic can do something, immediately, for that hawk. Our education team can share that hawk’s story and how to prevent those things from happening. It feels very powerful, to me.” — Kristen Lamb, executive director