Rick Schubert's job comes with low pay, little notice, high stress, and long hours. And yet, here's his take: "I love doing it and it needs to be done."

Schubert is a trained wildlife rehabilitator, state and federally licensed, one of just 37 in Pennsylvania, 34 in New Jersey, and hundreds more across the country. They're folks who, despite all the negatives, are unconditionally committed to healing sick, injured, or orphaned animals, and returning them to the wild.

"Nobody's in this for the money," says Schubert, director of wildlife rehabilitation at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education in upper Roxborough.

His clinic occupies a modest, out-of-the-way building. Space is cramped, plumbing needs work, and the roof is dented from where a tree fell on it in November.

Still, Schubert, one part-timer, 70 volunteers, and three veterinarians working pro bono treat 3,000 "patients" - turtles, snakes, raccoons, hawks, and other creatures - and take 8,000 phone calls a year. Most of the action occurs in spring, summer and fall, when babies are born.

That makes winter the quiet season for rehabbers, who take pains to explain: Their patients are not pets and their clinics are not zoos. They're hospitals for creatures harmed, directly or indirectly, by the hand of man.

"We don't deal with the hawk that caught the bunny. That's nature," Schubert says. "We deal with bunnies run over by lawn mowers."

So no visiting the nursery, no peeking in the incubators, no tiptoeing through the operating room. The place is quiet and dark, the sounds muffled, save for the occasional quack or cry.

The idea is to treat and release the animals as soon as possible, with a minimum of human contact, so they keep the skills needed to survive on their own. It's a worthy goal that is not always possible.

Hawks are accidentally or deliberately shot. Turtles are run over by cars, their shells cracked by weed whackers. Birds crash into picture windows, get stuck in spilled oil, attacked by cats and dogs.

Animals are set on fire, wounded by homemade arrows, stuck on glue traps meant for mice. They can suffocate or strangle in a discarded yogurt cup, beer can, or plastic six-pack holder. And scavenging in rat poison, fishing tackle, or lawn chemicals can be deadly.

"If you wouldn't put it on your cereal, don't put it on your grass," says Diane Nickerson, director of the Mercer County Wildlife Center near Lambertville, N.J., and a board member of the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.

The Mercer County center handles 2,200 animals - "anything with fur and feathers" - and 12,000 calls a year. Calls are up, meaning more people are calling before doing something that could be harmful.

"Unfortunately," Nickerson says, "we get a lot of people who found a baby squirrel or bird and think they can help it. They run to the store to get bread and milk for it and a week later we get an animal who's dying."

Like other rehabbers, Nickerson doesn't want to discourage people's caring impulses. "At the same time, not knowing what you're doing could be dangerous," she says.

(As is letting cats roam. Numerous studies estimate that domestic and feral cats kill millions of birds a year. In addition, outdoor cats generally have shorter lives, about three years versus 15 for indoor cats.)

Birds are a special interest of retired teacher Miriam Moyer, who has operated White Flicker Wild Bird Rehabilitation Clinic out of two rooms in her Ambler home since 2005. She treats about 400 native songbirds, swifts, swallows, woodpeckers, and mourning doves a year.

Like most rehabbers, Moyer's enterprise survives on donations. Food alone costs more than $8,000 annually, to say nothing of medicine, equipment, and supplies such as paper towels, which are used extensively. Simply feeding an injured robin for six weeks, from hatchling to release, can cost $50.

"I earn zip," Moyer says, but the fire burns bright.

She and other rehabbers are passionately devoted to teaching people to be respectful, not afraid, of wild animals; to learn to coexist, not exterminate; to be reluctant, not eager, to cut down trees and clear land; and to call a rehabber before picking up or "adopting" a sick or injured animal.

"We'll try to get them well and keep them wild," Moyer says.

Education is key, agrees Wendy Fox, executive director of the Pelican Harbor Seabird Station in Miami and president of the national rehabilitators' association. "If someone makes a mistake, we can either berate them, in which case we've lost them forever, or we can explain what we really need to do and how they can help with that," she says.

Deb Welter, whose Diamond Rock Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic comprises three upstairs bedrooms, two bathrooms, the basement, and the garage of her house in Malvern, gets a lot of calls from homeowners panicked simply by the presence of a skunk or raccoon on their property.

She tries to assure: "They're not going to do anything bad, for the most part. Just learn to live with them."

Welter treats foxes, skunks, woodchucks, coyotes, bats, and squirrels - but mostly raccoons, which she describes as "incredibly smart, much smarter than dogs or cats."

They like to unlock their cages, slide open their carriers - and play with Fisher-Price toys. "They need a lot of enrichment," Welter says.

Like other rehabbers, she works hard to raise money. She has an annual "Furr Ball," which isn't a ball at all. It's an appeal for money.

As is Rick Schubert's new Adopt-an-Animal program at the Schuylkill Center clinic. For a onetime donation of $25 to $500, you can "adopt," in theory, animals like Freya, the red-tailed hawk.

Freya, 41/2, was shot with a pellet gun and can't fly, so she can't be released. Instead, she's one of eight "teaching assistants" in the presentation Schubert gives at schools, scout gatherings, and camps.

He used to do these hour-long programs for free. Now, given the need, he charges $250.

Area centers that heal the injured critter

Here are some wildlife rehabilitation clinics in the Philadelphia region:

Diamond Rock Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic, 2030 Diamond Rock Rd., Malvern, 610-240-0883, http://www.diamondrockwildlife.org/. Licensed wildlife rehabilitator Deb Welter accepts raccoons, foxes, skunks, woodchucks, coyotes, bats, and squirrels.

Mercer County Wildlife Center, Route 29 (3 miles south of Lambertville), Titusville, N.J., 609-883-6606, http://www.wcinc.org/. Director Diane Nickerson, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, accepts birds and mammals.

The Schuylkill Center's Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic, 304 Port Royal Ave., 215-482-8217, http://www.schuylkillcenter.org/. Director Rick Schubert, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, accepts birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians.

White Flicker Wild Bird Rehabilitation Clinic, 1460 Dillon Rd., Ambler, 215-643-1263, http://www.whiteflicker.org/. Licensed wildlife rehabilitator Miriam Moyer specializes in songbirds but also accepts swifts, swallows, woodpeckers, and mourning doves.

For general information about wildlife rehabilitation and help finding a local rehabilitator:

National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association: www.nwrawildlife.org

Wildlife Rehabber: http://wildliferehabber.com/

Wildlife Internationanl: http://www.wildlifeinternational.org/

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