Saving Wildlife One Life at a Time
By Michele Graham
Photographs by ChiChi Ubiña
Dara Reid was just 23 years old when she founded Wildlife in Crisis (WIC). Over the past 31 years, the nonprofit has consistently cared for more than 5,000 animals each year —from tiny hummingbirds to large black bears. “Because of the continuing development of open space, the need for our services grows every year,” says Dara. “’Death by a thousand cuts’ causes habitat fragmentation and the linear rise of injured and orphaned wildlife as a result.” WIC’s goal: returning debilitated wildlife to their natural environment.
Dara had spent two years in veterinary school when she had her ‘ah-ha’ moment. Though she was studying to care for animals, she realized that there were no resources available for native wildlife. “I changed gears and focused on graduate studies in wildlife biology which led me to wildlife medicine. I started Wildlife in Crisis to address the effects of suburban sprawl on wildlife,” she recalls.Lifelong benefits
Wildlife in Crisis cares for endangered species and common species alike. Since its opening in 1988, the foundation has cared for more than 200 species of native wildlife. “We see first-hand the obstacles that wild animals face every day,” says Dara. “And we do all of this with an unpaid staff of interns and volunteers.” It’s this 100% volunteer effort that enables WIC to do a lot with very little overhead. “All of our funding directly benefits our patients. We must be efficient and focused to accomplish all that we do. We are primarily focused on Fairfield County, but we also receive animals from all across Connecticut and bordering states.”
With suburban sprawl comes habitat destruction. Cars, cats, dogs, pesticides, fertilizers, leghold and box traps, tree removal, lawnmowers, fishing line, netting and other human induced dangers take a tremendous toll on wildlife. Case in point, WIC receives countless songbirds each year who fall victim to free roaming cats. “Keeping cats indoors is better for cats and vulnerable wildlife alike,” notes Dara.
Dara is extremely familiar with interplay between domestic pets and wildlife. Her husband, Peter, is an animal control officer, so they see both the domestic and wild side of animal rescue. The family, which includes 18-year old daughter Willow Rain, has three rescue dogs: one was left homeless after his elderly owner passed away; another was adopted after she was passed from home to home; and the third was found emaciated as a stray. Their extended family also includes a 25-year old barn swallow named Barney and a 30-year old owl named Woodsie. They are just two of the many unreleasable wild patients that require lifetime care at WIC—animals that have either a physical handicap or identify with humans rather than their own species—like Marty, the screech owl, who lost a leg and two toes to a chain saw.
Each patient has their own unique story to tell
Here are just a few:
- Last winter, WIC cared for a bald eagle that had been caught in a steel jaw leghold trap.
- This past summer, WIC raised three orphaned black bear cubs whose mother had been fatally shot.
- Currently, the foundation is caring for a black-backed gull who was found entangled in fishing line and is recovering from heavy metal poisoning, as well as a small hummingbird who is recovering from pesticide poisoning.
For those who live in Fairfield County, the presence of black bears may seem frightening, but the bears are native throughout northwest Connecticut. The three bears that were recently cared for by WIC were fortunate: they had each other for socialization, retained their fear of humans, and grew strong enough to get through the winter months. And while black bears are omnivores—with a preference for succulents, greens, roots, nuts, seeds and berries—Dara recommends keeping bird feeders far from a house, supervising dogs, and keeping garbage in bear proof containers or closed securely in your garage. She notes, “Black bears will almost always retreat from humans. Keep your distance from bears and they will do the same. Don’t run from a bear, simply walk away. They are easily scared by clapping, yelling and a water hose if necessary.”
Bringing all elements together
As an all-volunteer organization, WIC has benefited from hundreds of interns from all over the world. While most are recent college graduates, some are veterinarians and PhDs. Dara reports, “Our internship program is a part of our commitment to education and our interns provide the continuity of care that is vital for our patients. It is very hard work and very long hours.” Though internships are unpaid, the interns receive an intensive experience caring for countless species of wildlife.
Land conservation is also crucial to WIC’s mission. Dara says, “The most important thing that we can do for wildlife is preserve natural habitats. Wildlife rehabilitation, although a moral imperative, is only a band aid. Each of our patients is either a direct or indirect victim of land development. We feel it would be irresponsible not to address the long-term solution to wildlife preservation: preserving open space improves the quality of life for us all.”
Knowing that its services will become more and more in demand as time goes on, Wildlife in Crisis is focused on succession. The foundation plans to address its long-term goals with a major capital campaign to support facility expansion, land preservation, and an endowment. “We want to make sure that we are here in perpetuity for debilitated wildlife and the kind people who find them,” says Dara.
On Saturday, October 19th, Wildlife in Crisis will hold its annual fundraiser. The highlight of the evening event is the release of two healed owls into the wild. Each year, the foundation receives over 200 injured and orphaned owls encompassing eight species—from tiny saw whet owls to great-horned owls. Many of these owls have been hit by cars. They spend time in the clinic’s intensive care unit and eventually go into a large flight cage to redevelop muscle tone and coordination. “Seeing them fly away under their own power, free again to make their own decisions is what our work is all about,” says Dara.
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