Cooperation with state agencies is vital
Small feathered, furry and scaly critters fill the basement of Robyn Graboski’s home in Lemont, which doubles as the homebase of Centre Wildlife Care.
A second site, 15 acres at the base of Skytop Mountain in Port Matilda, houses deer and large birds of prey.
The facility is certified to work with rabies vector species (RVS), such as bats, raccoons, skunks, coyotes, foxes and groundhogs, which are among the animals that commonly contract the rabies virus.
To earn RVS certification, Graboski applied to the state Game Commission. She had to meet certain criteria, such as building requirements and signage.
In addition, volunteers have to complete RVS training before working with the vector species and they must have a current rabies vaccines and use rubber gloves at all times.
Animals suspected of having rabies are tested and, if there has been a human exposure, that information is given to the state Department of Health.
“We have a very good relationship with all agencies,” Graboski said. “Not only are we providing a service to the community, we are also providing a service to human health agencies.”
She said her relationship with the Game Commission is very important.
“Wildlife rehabilitation has a purpose – to rehabilitate individual animals for eventual release back into the wild. The individuals who dedicate their time, money and effort to this objective are truly do a tremendous service for wildlife, and they do so without any funding from the state – either the Game Commission or taxpayers,” said Jerry Feaser, Game Commission spokesman.
“These individuals go through extensive training and are uniquely prepared to handle many different challenges. This work is not for everyone, as the training is difficult, work hours are long and rehabbers must make the proper – but difficult – decision that sometimes the best thing is to euthanize an animal,” he said.
Feaser said rehabbers must be permitted by the commission and, if necessary, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, to perform rehabbing work and are responsible for reports and inspections.
“In nearly all cases, Game Commission field staff count on rehabbers to respond to calls about sick, injured or displaced wildlife,” Feaser said.
Graboski said it wasn’t always that way. It took the Game Commission some time to warm up to wildlife rehabilitation at the time she first became involved.
“They are coming around and realizing the value of it, not only to get the animals out of the public’s hands, but to provide humane alternatives and also for disease research,” she said.
A hard road
Rehabilitators such as Graboski are few in number. In Pennsylvania, there are 36.
“It seems harder and harder to get the younger people involved because there is no money involved. You have to do your own funding,” she said.
The facility runs on donations and supplies from its supporters, both public and private, and from fundraisers Graboski organizes. It also accepts gift cards and items posted on its online wish list.
She doled out cash from her own pocket when she began the business in 1994, but a shift has been made for the better.
“We get enough donations and money from fundraisers to support the organization,” she said. “Now I have a stipend … to help pay the bills.”
That is almost unheard of in this business. Most home-based rehabbers do not have a stipend. Most of their funding comes from their own pockets.
“It took 25 years to get to that point,” Graboski said.
She works part-time as a research assistant at Penn State University but also juggles responsibilities such as soliciting volunteers, raising funds, working with the animals and doing lab work.
“Part of the training of becoming a wildlife rehabilitator is learning how to keep the animals from becoming too habituated,” Graboski said.
Adult creatures usually are not much of a concern, but staff are very careful with baby squirrels or birds. Too much human influence can lead to negative outcomes when the young are released back into the wild.
Baby squirrels are not handled after they are weaned, baby birds are housed with other baby birds and the deer are raised in a herd and only one or two people feed them.
“It is very important not to habituate them because they are larger animals. We minimize who can feed the fawns so they don’t habituate,” Graboski said.
In late 2012, a young bald eagle was undergoing treatment at her facility. It arrived in poor condition – dehydrated, depressed and barely able to perch – she said.
“His head was down,” she added. “We did bloodwork on him and he was very anemic.”
The raptor had fluorescent green feces, a tell-tale sign that he was suffering from lead poisoning, Graboski said.
She began tube feeding the bird to try to get it back on track.
“He started feeling better and acting more normal in about a week,” she said.
But he was having trouble standing because of a sore leg and he had trauma to one of his wings.
“It wasn’t until three weeks later (that) he was actually perching, standing and eating on his own,” she said.
When the door to the enclosure that houses the eagle was open, he took a short flight across it.
The eagle’s health continues to improve.
“Now he is flying and eating on his own,” Graboski said. “His leg is still sore and he doesn’t want to tear his own food,” but the volunteers are trying to convince him to do that.
If its progress continues, the eagle should be released this spring.