My Reflections on My Wildlife Rehabilitation Externship

Time sure does fly. Three months ago, I moved into the student house and started my first day at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. Today, my wildlife rehabilitation externship has come to an end. As I pack up my bags and say my goodbyes, I reflect on the rewarding and challenging experience this was. Allow me to delve into some of the highlights.

As a rehab extern, we are assigned specific tasks/rooms each day (e.g. reptile room, raptor feed, ICU). It doesn’t take long to discover your favorites and not-so-favorites among them. One of my favorite tasks was browsing. Fawns require a daily supply of fresh foliage to consume—a little salad of leaves and branches, if you will. It is up to us to venture off into the woods, clippers in hand, to collect the appropriate browse. It is very important to identify the right types of leaves, so it feels somewhat like a scavenger hunt, and honestly, who doesn’t like a scavenger hunt? Everyone developed their own ways to browse. Some externs preferred to climb trees, others would stick to what they could reach from the ground. I, on the other hand, fashioned a grappling hook out of a long rope and a weighted end. Because of this, I was able to reach the large branches high up in the trees, therefore browsing sustainably and much more quickly—it’s faster to get a few large branches than a plethora of tiny ones. Browsing felt like an adventure and it allowed me to be creative.

Feeding the fawns accompanied browsing. Since I started at the Center at the beginning of fawn season, this was our busiest task. With thirty fawns -- each needing to be fed three times a day -- this task took all day. As the fawns grew, they were fed fewer times a day until they were eventually moved to the deer yards and fed communally. As fawn season neared its end, a new season was in full swing: squirrels. These adorable critters were a pleasant treat to feed when they first arrived. Then, they started coming in by the bucket load. With an intensive care unit filled to the brim with squirrels, feeding was a round-the-clock task, twelve hours per day. The saving grace of the monotony of squirrel feeding, however, is that they’re just so darn cute.

While the majority of tasks as a rehab extern are great, there are some challenges. There is no doubt that the position is physically demanding, with up to 14-hour days sometimes. Running around on your feet all day, lifting heavy objects, transporting things from one end of the Center to the other, restraining wild animals, climbing trees to collect brush … while demanding, you do get used to it and I quite enjoyed the physical aspect of it all. The mental exhaustion is the hard part. With many varied tasks, we are able to have a certain amount of variety on most days, but the monotony of certain tasks takes an extreme amount of patience and professionalism. Besides squirrel feedings, baby bird feeding is one example of this. Sometimes, the ICU was full of bird patients which required feedings every fifteen minutes. This meant staying in the ICU all day.

My least favorite task at the Center: mouse school. As raptors near the end of their rehabilitation, we have to test for one important thing: can they hunt for their own food in the wild? We do this by placing live mice in tubs within their enclosure and checking to see if they have captured and eaten the mice by the next morning. I hate harming any creatures, so this was the thing I struggled with the most. One day, a tour came through the kitchen and a little girl saw the live mice and asked, “What are the mice for?” An extern explained mouse school to the girl and she seemed almost offended. “All lives have value,” the girl said, which struck my heart. I was not part of this conversation, but I contemplated what I would say if ever confronted with this question. How do I justify killing these creatures? The answer is quite simple. The fact of the matter is, our job as a rehabilitator is to ensure that the patients can survive in the wild. In the wild, mice are not served up dead on a silver platter. Raptors need to hunt to survive and we need to ensure they can do that. It’s the circle of life.

All in all, my experience at the WCV was fantastic. My feet may be sore for a couple more weeks, but it is a sign of hard work. I am proud of my contribution to the well-being of these beautiful animals and I am forever grateful to the people from whom I have learned so much. Thank you to Dr. Kelli for giving me this opportunity, thank you to the veterinarians who inspired me to continue to pursue a career in veterinary medicine, and thank you to the rehab externs and interns who taught me the ways of wildlife rehabilitation. I have made new friends and learned so much. Thank you, WCV!

--Santiago
WCV Class of 2016