2022 Year in Review: Alex Wehrung, Outreach Public Affairs Manager

It’s time to look back on 2022! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2022 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

As the Outreach Public Affairs Manager, one of my roles is to share what’s happening here at the Center with the world: interesting patient cases, skilled medical procedures that our veterinary staff are performing, the tireless efforts of our rehabilitation staff in caring for hundreds of animals simultaneously, our outreach and educational learning opportunities, and everything else in between. That means I spend a lot of time “on the hunt” for the best stories we have to offer, and I get to involve myself in the daily happenings of the treatment team.

After more than six years in the outreach department, I’ve learned quite a lot while searching for those stories! In particular, I’ve gained an incredible amount of knowledge related to the natural histories of Virginia’s native species. How many eggs do Great Horned Owls typically lay per clutch? I know that! How long can an Eastern Ratsnake grow? Got it. Why don’t Woodland Box Turtles have teeth? I can answer that, too! Sometimes I’ve learned the answers to such questions by reading and researching the topic on my own following an educational program where an audience member has stumped me. Most times, though, they present themselves naturally in the daily work that happens at the Center. Listening to the veterinary and rehabilitation staff describe treatment plans for patients each day is an especially great way to pick up on wildlife facts like these.

Still, there’s a lot that I don’t know about wildlife. There are also some things that I thought I knew at the start of this year that turned out to be completely false.

Recently, two of the Center’s longest-living education ambassadors passed away. Gus the Barred Owl and Papa G’Ho the Great Horned Owl — who lived to be 28 years in age and at least 21 years in age, respectively. When ambassador animals pass away, the veterinary staff will occasionally perform post-mortem exams to better understand the cause of death – which sometimes reveals previously unknown information, particularly when it comes to internal anatomy. For Gus and Papa G’Ho, this was one of those times.

As it turns out, both of these owls had been incorrectly sexed – for years! Gus was originally thought to be male in 1994, and was known as “Gustavo”. In 2012, a DNA test falsely identified him as female (we shortened his name to “Gus” at this point). Nine years later, his post-mortem exam proved that he was undoubtedly, anatomically, male. Papa G’Ho was falsely identified as male during that same 2012 testing and had been known as the Center’s surrogate owl dad for many years. Her post-mortem exam proved the opposite to be true — she was absolutely, biologically, female!

These revelations haven’t changed a thing about how we remember their roles at the Center; they were representatives of their entire species – and all wildlife in general – and were able to help us share universal educational themes thanks to their identities as a whole, not their genders. Whether they were male or female makes little difference in the end, but I was still surprised – surprised that we didn’t know! That’s why I’ve chosen this moment as my Year in Review memory.

If the pursuit of knowledge and understanding is a flame, then wonder, mystery, and curiosity are the kindling. Even in their absences, Gus and Papa G’Ho are inspiring me to learn. The stories of their lives have reminded me that there’s always something new to discover about nature and life itself, sometimes hiding in plain sight! They’ve reminded me to keep searching for knowledge but to appreciate the unknown, and to stay fiercely curious about the world.

What does 2023 hold in store? It’s a mystery — and I wouldn’t want it any other way.

— Alex Wehrung, Outreach Public Affairs Manager

Check out all of our year-in-review posts!