At the beginning of April, I started a weekly gig as a volunteer at a local wildlife refuge. Every Saturday morning I spend four hours in the animal hospital, covering a variety of assignments. Sometimes they’re super not-glamorous: folding laundry, doing the dishes, hosing duck poop off of bath mats. But sometimes the assignments are what you would think when you hear “volunteer at a wildlife hospital” – I’ve fed baby raccoons, birds, squirrels, and groundhogs, and held a handful of raptors for feeding and meds delivery.
The work is hard and a little stressful. I’m on my feet almost the entire four hours, running up and down stairs and navigating tight spaces (although I often forget that because when one is busy wrangling four and five raccoons at feeding time, one doesn’t have a whole lot of attention to give to achy feet and legs). There are well more than 100 animals in the hospital’s care at any given moment – I saw a Facebook post from the refuge noting that they took in 300 animals in the last week! Even though the adorableness of the babies with their tiny faces and voices is really endearing, there are constant reminders throughout the building that these are wild animals and it’s crucial not to treat them like pets. No cuddling, no baby talk, no bonding. This is reinforced through the layers of protection we use – gloves and aprons and more gloves and disinfectants and quarantine areas – as well as through the ridiculous disguises we wear to try to avoid the animals getting too used to the human form. And it may seem super sweet that the baby raccoon I’m feeding found formula on my glove and is licking it off – but that adorable licking turns really quickly into a bite. She’s still wild.
(**NOTE: I got rabies vaccinated, y’all. Just to be clear.**)
Week to week, it’s almost impossible to keep track of the animals I worked with on my last shift because they move through the system so quickly. Sometimes this is good news – the turkey vulture I held two weeks ago for feeding and meds, for example, appears to have moved to an outdoor enclosure, which means signs are good that he’ll be able to be released at some point (despite the fact that he projectile vomited on my feet that day – a turkey vulture super power). But there are definitely emotionally challenging moments – last night I worked an extra shift, during which two new intakes were pretty much immediately unsuccessful. Sometimes the hospital staff has to make difficult decisions and sometimes those decisions are made by the universe, despite our best efforts to help. I have learned to stop asking for updates and just focus on the animal in front of me.
I have also learned that I am capable of a lot more than I originally thought. I’ve prepped mice for raptor feeding (which involves injecting meds and/or water, depending upon the patient needs, into refrigerated mice), cleaned out a vulture enclosure while the resident vulture followed me around, donned goggles to avoid having a cormorant poke my eyes out while being held, and stuck my heavily-gloved arm into the cage of an angry adult raccoon who really didn’t want me to refresh his food dish. I’ve been confronting a new anxiety every week – it’s REALLY intimidating to hold an owl that you know could slice through your arm with those talons – and I’m learning to turn off the emotional side of my brain during the shift.
I know that scarier stuff is coming – I am sure that at some point I’ll experience a real bite or scratch from a scared animal; I know that there will be a day when one of the animals dies while I am on shift. I don’t know that I’m ready for it, but who ever is?
It is a significant privilege to be so close to such wildness.