2016 Year in Review: Linda McDaniel, Wildlife Rehabilitator

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.

When I received a call from Kate in December of 2015 asking if I’d be interested in a front-desk coordinator substitute position in the New Year, I had no idea how my life was about to change! Of course, I said “Yes!”, having volunteered in animal care at the Wildlife Center since moving to the area late in 2013 and I was interested in being a part of the staff, even if in a very small way.

I was still teaching high school biology and ecology at the time, so I was limited as to how many days I could offer, but I found the task rewarding … and overwhelming! I had no idea how many calls I would receive for which I had no answer. “What should I do with a baby bat?” “I hit a raccoon on the road, what should I do?” “I saw an eagle by the side of the road, what should I do?” “There’s a bear in my back yard … won’t you come and get it?” “How can I keep hawks away from my bird feeders?” “There are bats in my attic, come and get them!” “There’s a litter of fox kits at my workplace, what should I feed them?” “Why can’t you train eagles to stay out of the road?” “Why can’t you stop the new road from being built where all these geese live?” “There’s a fawn/bunny/bird/squirrel in my yard, when will you come and get it?” “The internet said to feed the baby fawn/bunny/squirrel cat formula from the pet store but it doesn’t like it, what should I do?” “How do I go to Africa with Ed?” “How do I sign-up for a tour?” ... the list goes on and on. I had no idea how little folks know about wildlife and as I quickly learned, how little I knew about wildlife laws and reducing the public’s negative wildlife interactions. I quickly learned. And learned.

Winter was fading and baby squirrels were arriving. I knew that the rehab team was actively searching for new rehabilitators but hadn’t considered the position for myself, although I had been volunteering with wildlife since I was a teenager. After all, if there were a million things I didn’t know at the front desk, how would I ever be able to keep up with the continually evolving science of wildlife rehabilitation?

As luck would have it, my one-year teaching contract came to an end and the posted available positions seemed somewhat lackluster. Kate prodded me to apply for the Center’s training coordinator position and the proposition was tempting. Wasn’t working with wildlife something I had always dreamed of? Was it really too late to change careers? What if I was too old? Too tired? What if I was too far behind and there was simply too much for me to learn? Self-doubt clouded my vision but I applied anyway, and, for reasons I’m still pondering, I was hired.

Life changed overnight. Suddenly, I was feeding bear cubs, tube-feeding cottontails, arranging transport of orphan wildlife, calculating formula and subcutaneous fluids, researching bobcat housing, scheduling student externs, and conferring on issues that I had never even considered. It was exhausting but so exciting. Watching animals so debilitated that they easily submit to handling and feeding gain strength and “feistiness” to their full beauty and return to the wild is a thrilling experience that never gets old.

I am particularly enamored with the mange-infested Black Bears. This may seem like an odd choice when there are so many adorable infants that come through our door – from Eastern Cottontails, to robins, bluebirds, barred owls, bobcats, and bear cubs – but the transformation of these bears plagued with sarcoptic mange pulls my heartstrings like no others.

Bear #16-1817 was admitted back in August and was just heartbreaking. Emaciated, dehydrated, naked, and depressed at a time of year when she should have been robust, actively foraging on an abundance of food, and perhaps even raising a litter of cubs. Her prognosis was initially grave and there wasn’t much hope for an adult bear too sick to eat. But there was still a spark in the old girl (she’s estimated to be at least 10!) and slowly, very slowly, she came back to life. Each day, I would visit her in the morning and drop her meal into Bear Pen 1, monitoring her reactions and any noticeable food consumption. In the first weeks, she would simply lift her head but was too weak to get up. After a couple of weeks, though, she could get up and slowly walk away from me. This progressed into actively avoiding me, and then the day came when as I peeked my head around the corner of the enclosure, she bluff-charged at me, chattering her teeth and huffing. Although my heart pounded in fear, I was elated and couldn’t wait to report her behavior back to Dr. Ernesto.

Today, “Momma Bear” is happily overwintering in Bear Yard 3 in the bear complex. She is the picture of a robust, healthy bear with thick black fur and plenty of energy. Although there are moments when I miss my classroom and students, watching this bear regain her strength and true place in the world has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my professional life. With two new mangy cub patients, I’m sure there will be many more!


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