Linda McDaniel has worked in wildlife rehabilitation as both a volunteer and professional for almost 30 years; she's also a semi-retired science teacher. Linda is currently an at-home permitted wildlife rehabilitator and runs Augusta Cottontails, a private, permitted, wildlife rehabilitation service located in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.
Why did you decide to rehabilitate out of your home?
This is a hard question because there's no short answer but I decided to rehab bunnies out of my home because they needed to get out of a clinical setting and into an environment where there is some hope of their survival. I've always found the species so interesting because they are so stinking hard to keep alive and I just couldn't get my head around the idea that, "rabbits just die and there's nothing you can do about it." I felt like there had to be a better way of getting the job done and there just isn't anyone local that takes in rabbits and there are so many rehabilitators that just won't take rabbits at all, "because they just die" so I do it because somebody has to and because I like the challenge. Since I know how, I felt responsible to use the knowledge I had spent so much time acquiring.
Of course, I enjoy working with animals and baby bunnies are ridiculously cute so there's that. I also enjoy teaching and there's an endless supply of folks that could use some education on conservation, wildlife, wildlife laws, and why you can't keep that (raccoon, bunny, squirrel, fill in any random animal here) in your house. It's my "hobby", but it has a larger meaning -- it supports the larger conservation effort of protection and education.
Is it important to obtain a permit to rehabilitate wildlife?
There are a couple of things that happen when one acquires a permit that might not be obvious to a layperson:
1. You acquire a certain legitimacy in your practice that transmits a sense of responsibility and accountability beyond that of the neighborhood "animal lover" who takes in critters and does their best. A permit means that you have taken the time to research, train, and register with a government agency and are invested in maintaining that legitimacy;
2. You are automatically included in local, national, and international communities of others doing the same thing who will provide their experience and expertise so that you, and the community as a whole, benefits and grows. You can choose to be as large or as small a part of this community as it fits your level of commitment and comfort, but you will learn and develop your skills with thousands of other folks and become better at what you do;
3. It is illegal to rehabilitate (or possess for that matter) wildlife in Virginia and there are solid reasons behind that legislation -- zoonoses and other public health concerns being the most important. You don't know what you don't know and in this case, it could cost you your life or that of an innocent bystander. Wildlife is the communal "property" that every individual has a share in, yet no one individual owns. We, as the commonwealth, entrust an agency (VDGIF) with the regulation and protection of that community property and they say one must have some training, an inspection, and a permit to rehabilitate wildlife, so how 'bout everyone just does that?
Do you have any particularly memorable rabbit patients?
Surprisingly, bunnies have personalities and are quite engaging in their own way. I had one last year that developed respiratory infections and it seemed like she would be with me until Christmas. Although she was never "tame", she became habituated to my presence and I missed her when she was released. I have one now that absolutely loathes me and will attempt to attack me whenever I open the enclosure. I especially enjoy releasing the tiny neonates after weeks of rehabilitation because, you know, "they" say it can't be done. Generally, they all hate me and strongly disapprove of my touching them, but you know, that's a good thing for them.
Do you have any advice for someone that wants to become an at-home permitted rehabilitator?
Plenty. The new permit conditions require that one is a Category IV permittee for at least six months before applying as a Category 1 (apprentice) and then you need a sponsor so that you can apprentice with them for at least two years. Overall, I think that this is a really good standard as it allows folks to get a feel for the time/space commitment of rehabilitation before they bring the little critters home. I would strongly advise doing the six months taking care of a variety of species and then picking the ONE that you want to take home and work with exclusively. Start very small and respect your limitations (time, space, money, sanity). I have a friend in another state that takes in one litter of raccoons each year. That's it. She raises them all summer and releases in the fall. It seems like such a small effort but think of the impact that would make if we could get ten people to take in one litter of (insert species here) every year? My advice: read the permit conditions carefully and start very small; there will always be more animals available and you will never save all of them but how many will you save when you burn out in a couple of years and rehab none?