2016 Year in Review: Ashley Perry, Front-desk 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 2016 draws to a close, I’m happy to take a few moments to reflect upon the positive changes and experiences that this year brought to my life. One of the main sources of positivity has been the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

A year ago, I was accepted to be the spring 2016 educational outreach extern. I cannot express how excited (and nervous) I was about that. On the one hand, it was an opportunity to get experience in outreach and to learn how to handle animals (even a Great Horned Owl, if I did well with the other birds!!). But on the other hand, it was my first time spending months away from home, in an unfamiliar place, living in a house shared with, at times, up to thirteen other people. What if I wasn’t any good at it? What if no one liked me? What if I didn’t like any of them?

Well, I thought, it’s only two months.

Thankfully, all of my worrying was for naught. Sure I had a lot of work to do, but I loved every minute of it. The most “normal” aspects of the externship for me were learning all of the ambassador stories by heart, studying up on each species’ natural history, and working on writing assignments. This was the sort of thing I was used to, I even made color-coded flashcards and practiced my speeches out loud, recording them for studying purposes (and possibly giving my roommates a very strange impression of myself, as I liked to record these speeches on the back deck of our student house at strange hours of the night).

So for the most part, the first week or so of my externship was pretty much what you’d expect from many non-profit jobs: research and writing.

And then the animal-handling began and it became a perfectly normal thing to find me sitting in my desk chair, listening to my practice speeches with a snake curled up in my hands* or a raptor sitting on my arm. At any given time, one could look around the office and find a wide variety of species hanging out, from opossums in Chapin’s lap to Emma the Russian Tortoise wandering her restless self around the lobby.


While I could go write an entire memoir on just those two months (and maybe one day I will), I will limit myself here to a few moments that particularly stood out to me. I have already written about how important Malcolm, Albus, Oscar, and especially Severus were to me here, so I won’t repeat myself on that front. Instead, I will talk about someone very dear to all of us here at the Center: Pignoli.

Pignoli the Eastern Screech-owl, may she rest in peace, was the first raptor I worked with, and the one whom I worked with the most. She spent a lot of time on my glove, hearing me tell Chapin and a room full of empty chairs all about eyes the size of baseballs and asymmetrical owl ears. I learned that she was grumpy in the mornings, especially if it was cold and rainy (who isn’t?), and that she could be very stubborn when she wanted to be. But she was also a fantastic animal to work with, and a HUGE crowd pleaser. Pignoli had this look to her that screamed Diva, and an attitude to match. And we all loved her very much. She was, however, quite old for a screech-owl and unfortunately she passed away in September. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with her and get to know such an amazing creature.

Another amazing owl I’ve had the great fortune to know and handle is Quinn, a Great-Horned Owl.

I was thrilled at the prospect of handling a Great-Horned Owl and I’m pretty sure that I was smiling from ear to ear during our entire first session together. I still get a huge thrill out of working with him. Owls in general have a very strong presence and the Great Horned Owl, with its huge talons, strong grip, and substantial size, certainly demands respect. I’m honored to work with Quinn every chance I get.

Beyond the amazing experiences I had with the animals at the Center, and the immense fulfillment I got from being able to share my knowledge with the public and influence young (and old) minds to respect and appreciate wildlife and the environment more, I found something I wasn’t expecting at the Wildlife Center of Virginia: a family.

A weird, wild, multi-species family.

At the start of this externship I had been worried that I wouldn’t fit in with the other humans at the Center, but that worry was needless; I found my people in the Center’s staff and my fellow externs, people who could get animated and loud about things most people would consider weird or gross*** and by my last week I was very sad for it to be coming to an end.

Lucky for me, my goodbye was really only a “goodbye for now.” In August I started working at the Center as the weekend front-desk coordinator, a job that has been so much more than I ever expected it to be, and I love every second of it.

I’ve had MANY memorable moments at the front desk these past months. Some were happy, some were sad, some were just plain weird, but I will never forget my very first weekend alone. That was the weekend we admitted Black Bear cub #16-2023. Bear calls can be very hectic, coordinating with the public, local police, the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, etc. etc. and this was my very first one. You can read more about her very difficult case here.

I have so many more memories and reflections – the State Fair of Virginia, the annual Gala, holidays at the Center – but this post has already gotten out of hand so I will leave off with this: In spite of (and because of) the many ways 2016 has been hard and tragic on a global scale, I feel a great deal of appreciation for the slice of goodness I have somehow been lucky enough to be a part of here at the Center. Every person here, whether an employee, student, or volunteer, is here because they want to do something good with their time. This is not a career you get into for the money, it’s certainly not glamorous – unless you find rat guts and bird poop to be the height of fashion – and the hours can be brutal, and yet, here we all are. We spend our holidays here, our weekends, work late nights, early mornings, take long drives, short breaks, and what for? For that look on a kid’s face the first time they see an owl in real life; for that moment when a mind is changed from hating snakes to respecting them; for that little fox kit who’s been reunited with mom; for that owl who has finally passed mouse school and is able to be released; for allllllllllllll of those squirrels whose leaf nests just couldn’t hold up to hurricane season. We do it because we care about the impact we are having and the legacy we are leaving. We do it to teach the world to care about and to care for wildlife and the environment.

And I, for one, am thankful, humbled, and proud to have spent my year with the Wildlife Center of Virginia.


*Or – as was the case with Severus before we became Best Friends™ - a snake trying his best to stretch his body out to its full six-foot-long potential and probably laughing at me in parseltongue** as I delicately tried to maneuver him into a coil.

** Parseltongue, for those of you who may not know, is the language of snakes in the Harry Potter books by author J K Rowling. I am, as everyone here at the WCV has become aware of, quite obsessed with the franchise.

*** Dissecting an owl pellet while listening to the hit song Owl Pellets by David Bydlowski and Fred Ribits of Science Explosion is just one instance that comes to mind.

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