2017 Year in Review: Ed Clark, President

It’s time to look back on 2017! Check our blog between Christmas and New Year’s for a variety of stories and memories of 2017 from the staff and volunteers of the Wildlife Center of Virginia.

At the end of the year, each of us on the staff of the Wildlife Center of Virginia is asked to provide a blog post on our memories of the year just past.  After 35 years, you would think that this task might get easier but, no … with each passing year, the challenge to pick out just a few things remains difficult.

There are certainly a few general observations that are quite easy to make. 

First, we had some changes in our senior staff early this year, with the departure of Dr. Dave McRuer, our now-former Director of Veterinary Services.  Dave and his beautiful young family decided to return home to Prince Edward Island, Canada, to be closer to grandparents and to embrace wonderful new professional opportunities for both Dr. Dave and his wife, Dr. Martha Mellish.  Dave is the newest wildlife vet at Parks Canada, and Dr. Martha is now on the faculty of the vet school on PEI.  We were certainly sorry to see them both go, but we are so happy that their move has worked out so well for the whole family.  We remain in close touch with Dave, and we’re still collaborating on projects of mutual interest.

Following Dr. Dave’s departure, it was a very easy decision for me to promote Dr. Ernesto Dominguez from his former role as a postdoctoral resident to his current position of Hospital Director.  Without a doubt, Dr. Ernesto brings an incredible new energy to the WCV leadership team, and an entirely new skill set as a department manager.  While we have had some truly outstanding staff members during our 35 years, Dr. Ernesto is among the best of the best. 

Anytime we are faced with changes in the leadership in one of our departments, obviously, we must determine what skills and strengths we want in a new leader.  However, we also approach a major personnel change as an opportunity to consider if broader changes to the department, or to the entire program at WCV, are in order.   This year, knowing we were going to have a reshuffling of the leadership of our veterinary team, we decided to make a major change in department organization.

In August, we decided to split off our off-site training programs for wildlife rehabilitators, organizational managers, and other wildlife professionals.  We created the Wildlife Care Academy as an independent program at the Wildlife Center.   Dr. Kelli Knight, our former Assistant Director of Veterinary Services, was promoted to the position of Director of the Wildlife Care Academy.  Dr. Kelli wasted no time in launching a full curriculum of animal care and organization management course.  We were all overwhelmed with the participation in the first round of our online and in-person Academy training programs. Literally, hundreds of people, from more than half of the United States and several other countries, signed up for first rounds of training.  In 2018, we will significantly expand the offerings and expect to attract even more participants. 

Of course, 2017 was another incredibly successful year for the Garden of Eagles Calendar, under the skillful leadership of super-volunteer Debbi Skluzak, proving, yet again, how wrong I was when I once proclaimed, “Nobody buys calendars in August!”  Thanks to Debbi and all who purchased this beautiful publication to support the Wildlife Center.

In addition to all of this, I was asked to describe the things about 2017 that stand out in my mind as being most significant for the year.  For me, there are two things … one that is very upsetting and unfortunate, the other that renews my commitment to the path we have chosen and gives me hope for the future.   I will start with the bad news.

In 2017, the Wildlife Center admitted a record-shattering 55 Bald Eagles.  This is a 30 percent jump over our previous record year.  To a large extent, this increase is an indication of the continued growth of Virginia’s Bald Eagle population, which is actually good news.   The bad news is that more than 70 percent of the eagles we admitted during 2017 – 40 birds – came in suffering in varying degrees from lead intoxication.  Severe lead intoxication was the primary disability for more than a third of the eagles we admitted.  Many others had measurable amounts of lead in their bloodstream.  No amount of lead is safe; even levels that do not cause obvious outward signs can damage nerves, muscles, and internal organs. 

The source of this lead is primarily the ingestion of bullet and shot fragments that remain in animals and animal parts left in the field by hunters.  We know this because we often recover the actual fragment.  This problem could be eliminated if hunters would voluntarily switch to non-lead ammo for hunting, but most hunters are not even aware of the problem, let alone knowledgeable about the alternatives available to traditional lead-based ammo.  While this environmental threat is taking a terrible toll on eagles and other wildlife, it is also motivating us to tackle the problem, head-on!  Working to educate hunters about the toxicity of lead ammo, and convincing them to voluntarily make the switch to non-lead alternatives, will be a primary focus for me in 2018.

While there were many wonderful things about 2017 that I will long remember, one thing stands out as a highlight of my year.  As many know, WCV worked in Latin America for many years, conducting training and other conservation education programs in eight different countries.  Nowhere was our work more satisfying and successful than in Medellin, Colombia.  Between 1999 and 2007, we taught classes for students in Medellin’s two veterinary schools, conducted training for police and military agencies, presented environmental education programs, and helped establish alternative economic drivers for communities that had been forced to exploit wildlife and the environment.  Most notably, we helped establish one of the most successful rescue and rehabilitation centers for primates in South America.  This was the most comprehensive conservation effort with which I have ever been associated – all through the local organization, Fundacion Ecolombia. 

Unfortunately, for reasons beyond our control, Fundacion Ecolombia was forced to close its doors nearly ten years ago, to our great disappointment.  We all went our separate ways.

In October of 2017, one of my former Fundacion Ecolombia colleagues invited me to return to Medellin for the first time in ten years, to speak at the annual Festival of Birds.  While there, I was able to reconnect with many of my dear friends and former associates.  On my last afternoon in Colombia, we got the old group together to reminisce and catch up after a decade of being apart.  Well, that proved to be a momentous gathering.  In about ten minutes of sharing memories, our enthusiasm for our former projects was rekindled, and our group energy quickly became electric.  We decided, then and there, to reestablish Fundacion Ecolombia, and resurrect many of our most important conservation programs.  Three weeks later, I was back in Medellin to help form a new board of directors and reincorporate Fundacion Ecolombia.  In just six weeks, we have already reestablished many of the working relationships with the public agencies and private institutions with which we worked ten years ago.  One part of the initial effort was to find some of the students with whom we had worked more than a decade ago, and find out if anything we had done had had a lasting effort.  Boy, were we in for a surprise.

One of our projects 15 years ago was to help school children in the little village of La Pintada get involved in hands-on conservation.  We did that by having foresters collect seeds from indigenous trees that remained in the very few pockets of dry-tropical-forest habitat that survived the wholesale clearing of land for cattle ranches.  We wanted the kids to help reforest some of the land in their community that had been so badly damaged.  Today, the trees the kids planted are nearly forty feet tall.  It was actually pretty easy to find students who had participated in the reforestation program since many still live in the small community.   One young woman with whom we spoke was about 12 when she participated in the tree-planting project; today she is in her mid-twenties and has a daughter of her own.   When we videoed our interview with her, we were not prepared for what she had to say. 

“Yes,” she said, “Of course, I remember visiting the monkey rescue center, learning about wildlife and the environment, and planting the seeds for the new forest. That was very important to me.  It planted a seed in my heart … to love animals and take care of nature.   Today, I teach those things to my own daughter.  She wants to become a veterinarian and save wildlife.  Yes, of course, I remember.  We all do.”

I can’t watch that short video without choking up and having tears fill my eyes.  What a wonderful tribute to the work we did more than a decade ago, and what a powerful motivation to plant more seeds in 2018, at home and abroad.  And so we shall. 

Happy New Year!

--Ed

Check out all of our year-in-review posts!