Weird is Normal

Wow, three months have flown by. I feel like it was just yesterday when I was arriving and driving through the Blue Ridge Mountains for the first time. Being born and raised in Illinois, the mountains were a pleasant change of scenery. I couldn’t have been happier with my new home for three months. I was going to be a wildlife rehabilitation extern at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. Before I got here, people would ask me “so what exactly are you going to be doing?” And I realized that I didn’t have an answer for them. Today, if I was asked this question I could give them a list of things rehabilitators do, of all the daily tasks that at first seem extremely weird or strange to me.

My first day at the Center I had orientation. After filling out paperwork and going on a tour, we came back into the animal kitchen. On the floor in front of me were two externs sitting on the floor with a pile of dead, frozen rats. The majority of the rats were stuck to each other in a solid frozen rat hunk. The two externs were taking turns picking up the hunk and dropping it to make the frozen rats break off, giggling after every drop. The only thing I’m thinking at this point is “what the heck have I gotten myself into?”. Later did I learn that this was called a rat-bagging party. The Center will occasionally get rat donations and they have to be re-bagged to fit into the freezers. At the very next rat-bagging party, I found myself sitting on the floor with the other externs laughing and giggling as we bagged up all the rats. That time, the thought running through my mind was “I’m going to like it here”.

One thing that I never thought I would be comfortable with is being pooped or peed on. But when you learn about rehabilitation, you learn very quickly that “poop happens.” I remember one of my first days in ICU, learning how to syringe-feed squirrels. I was so excited to try it. The intern told me that after I was done feeding the squirrels that I had to stimulate them like their mom would. I was thinking at the time “oh that can’t be that bad, probably only a little bit would come out … it’s a small squirrel”. Well, I was definitely wrong. My baby squirrel had a lot more than expected coming out, I guess you can say he had an upset tummy. It got on the table, my gloved hand, and all over his tail. A slight panic ran through my mind thinking “ahh yuck”. But after watching the intern calmly help me clean it up, I realized poop does happen. The next time I got a squirrel with poopy issues, I didn’t even give it a second thought. Talking to the other externs, I also learned we had a list and ranked the worst things to get pooped on by. On the top of the list was fawns and opossums, but I’ll spare you those stinky details.

Raptor feeding is a daily task that includes preparing and delivering food to all raptors. Not all patients at the Center can get whole mice or rats, so it is our job to make sure that the rats and mice are in appropriate pieces. The first time I did raptor feeding, all I could remember was “this smells so gross, I’m going to smell dead rats for a week." Chopping up raptor food into pieces isn’t for weak stomachs. To add a challenge, the majority of the raptors have a certain amount of food, in grams, that they receive each day. My first time preparing food, I felt it was impossible to measure out the correct amount; it was either too much or too little. As time went by and I became more experienced, I no longer noticed the ratty smell that first grossed me out, and I learned the tricks of the trade thanks to the other externs, like cutting off the tails or feet of mice if you had too many grams in a serving. As weird as it sounded, it always worked. Now every time I prepped raptor food, I was thinking “Oh I’m one gram over, I guess this dead mouse doesn’t need his feet anyway.” Because of this we always had well-fed, happy raptors.

As the months flew by, I became senior extern all I all could think about was “wow, I have learned so much and I no longer find any task we do here weird or strange”. Now, I was the person who got to show the new externs all our daily tasks and chores. When teaching them I can see that some of them had the same original thoughts that I did, and were a little unsure. But just like me, they learned to adapt and love everything that we do at the Wildlife Center. As my last few days wrap up, I am enjoying and loving every little task I get to do. This externship was truly an eye opener for me, and now when someone asks me what a wildlife rehabilitator does, I can give them a full answer.

WCV Class of 2016