2016 Year in Review: Alex Wehrung, Outreach Coordinator

It’s time to look back on 2016! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2016 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

As I sit down at my desk to write my 2016 Year in Review blog post, coffee on standby, all of the experiences I’ve had during the past six months are flooding my mind. Is it possible to pick just one memory or just one event that means the most to me? I stop typing for a moment to think and find myself looking up and out the large window just above my desk, as I often do when writing. The window sits about five feet off the ground and from my seated viewpoint, all I can see are trees. Lots of trees. Tulip poplars, oaks, red maples, a few hickories, and a single beech tree (which I have been told will be the favorite perch of a nefarious window-pecking cardinal come spring); studying the texture of each tree trunk I’m suddenly aware of how much this view has changed since July, 11 2016 – my first day of work at the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

During the summer, I can specifically remember noticing how much green I could see from my desk. During those first few weeks, I observed Raina as she presented different educational programs at libraries across Virginia. I was so excited to be a part of an organization whose mission I truly believed in but I had a lot to learn, and quickly; my very first program was on July 27! I remember the humidity and the sweat running down my forehead as Amanda trained me to handle Grayson the Broad-winged Hawk in her outdoor enclosure, the first raptor I had ever touched in my life. I also remember sweating inside at my desk – not because of the humidity, but because I had made some kind of terrible formatting error while publishing an Eagle Tracking update to the website during my first week. Oh, memories! When August came, I had my first taste of Open House tours. September brought school groups visiting the Center on fieldtrips, and I was learning more and more every day.

Summer faded into autumn, and with it the leaves outside my window transformed into vibrant oranges, yellows, and burgundies. I had finished training with a majority of the Center’s education animals, and had presented all of the educational program themes on my own at least once. The Call of the Wild conference came and went, and I learned how long it actually takes to copy and print hundreds of handouts for the classes – the hard way. Nevertheless, it was one more notch on my belt of experience.

Finally, the view outside my window changed into the winter scene I’m looking at this very moment. The hospital has started to quiet down, and school groups and programs are virtually non-existent on the outreach calendar. Still, I’ve had plenty things to keep me busy. Just a few weeks ago I began training with the Center’s newest American Kestrel ambassador, Verlon. His skills and behaviors are still being shaped during the almost-daily interactions we have together, and it’s been fascinating to be a part of his training after hearing so much about the process from my co-workers. I’ve also really loved being a part of our office’s holiday events this December: potlucks, secret Santa gift exchanges, and more cookies than I’ve ever seen in my life (thank you, Critter Nation and volunteers!).

Laying out some of my most memorable landmarks this year has led me to an answer to that initial question, “Is it possible to pick one memory or event that means the most to me?” Absolutely! On November 16, the Wildlife Center admitted patient #16-2423, a first-year Virginia Opossum. Before he came to the Center, he developed metabolic bone disease; his front legs had grown in an abnormal way, which significantly impaired his mobility and ultimately made him a non-releasable patient. He had already been in human care for about three months prior to his arrival, and the decision was made to test his fitness as an official education ambassador. I fell in love with the species the very first time I handled Phebe, one of the Center’s current education opossums; you can imagine my excitement when I was chosen to take on the responsibility of training this little guy!
During the past month and a half, this little guy lived inside, just a few feet from my desk. Daily feeding, bedding changes, and handling provided me with a lot of interactions with him, and chances to observe his reactions to new sights and sounds. I also held him during our daily rounds in the hospital so he could get used to being in front of people, just like he would be during an educational program. In the beginning, he was just about the squirmiest opossum you could imagine, only settling down when bribed with a hard-boiled egg I held in my hand. Now, it’s not unusual for him to curl up in my arms and fall asleep after a big, toothy yawn! It was clear that he had grown into a great fit for the education team. With the Wildlife Center’s blessing -- and a recently approved permit from the VA Department of Game and Inland Fisheries -- his status was made official. I’m proud to introduce our newest ambassador, Bo the Virginia Opossum:

I’m not sure if Bo feels happiness or joy the same way humans do, but there’s no doubt in my mind that we’ve built a mutual sense of trust throughout his training. When I look outside my window and think about my time at the Wildlife Center in 2016, I’m filled with memories of new beginnings, challenges faced, and friendships made. This view -- and the things I ponder while looking at it -- will eventually change; however, the bond I made with that little opossum next to my desk will never fade away.


Keep checking the Wildlife Center's blog for more year-end posts this week!