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In a suburban apartment, nursing wildlife back to health

"We don't take care of the bunny that gets attacked by the fox," said Michele Wellard. "We take care of the bunny that gets attacked by a lawnmower."

Michele Wellard and Rick Schubert prepare to anesthetize a cooper hawk at Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center in King of Prussia, Pa., on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.
Michele Wellard and Rick Schubert prepare to anesthetize a cooper hawk at Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center in King of Prussia, Pa., on Tuesday, July 24, 2018.Read moreMAGGIE LOESCH / Staff Photographer

The Cooper's hawk, a juvenile, was skinny and dehydrated. He'd spent the morning in a box, where the dark and quiet might soothe him. As Rick Schubert, 47, pulled him out on a recent Tuesday, the bird became agitated, biting at the foreign hands now prodding at his mouth, searching for signs of disease or parasites.

Michele Wellard, 47, slipped a small mask over the bird's face, administering anesthesia. Soon the bird lay still, and Schubert began feeling his way across the hawk's skeleton, searching for fractured bones and damaged tissue.

"I close my eyes when I do this, because eyes are of no help," said Schubert, a certified wildlife rehabilitator of 21 years. He confirmed that the clavicle, scapula, coracoid, shoulder joint, and humerus were intact. "It's all sense of touch. Eyes just distract you."

As he worked, the doorbell rang. Wellard, a wildlife rehabilitator of 10 years, left to greet the visitor as Schubert finished the exam. No fractures, diseases, or external parasites. Dehydration, definitely. Head trauma, likely. The bird would need fluids, pain medication, and close observation before being released into the wild.

In the next room, Wellard ushered in Bob Gallagher, 62, an instructor at a nearby summer camp holding a Canada goose he'd spotted limping around the grounds.

This was a typical 10 minutes in the life of the Philadelphia Metro Wildlife Center, which treats sick and injured wild animals from Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware, and Chester Counties – all in a King of Prussia apartment.

Ten or 12 hours a day, seven days a week, Schubert and Wellard tend to a seemingly endless array of birds, mammals, and reptiles brought in by animal control, local police, and members of the public. More than 60 volunteers help feed, wash, and clean up after the animals.

The phone rings constantly. A bird on a porch. A turtle in a net. A lone fawn, no mother in sight. It was hardly noon, and already five animals awaited treatment: a robin, cottontail rabbit, kestrel, mourning dove, and a house finch.

"We just do this all day long," said Schubert, the clinic's executive director, placing the hawk back into his box and getting ready for the goose.

The wildlife center operates out of a few rooms on the first floor of a small house off Route 202. Feathered and furry patients are first brought through an intake space, where Schubert or Wellard, the assistant director, take down as much information as possible from the human making the delivery.

Off this room is a narrow examination space and ICU, lined by cages, a table, and anesthesia machine. Here, animals receive emergency fluids, medication, bandages, and stitches. In the back, a former living room, replete with fireplace and crown molding, there are incubators for baby songbirds and orphaned opossums, birdcages and snake tanks, and shelves containing every imaginable food supply and vitamin.

Yogurt tubs, not nests

At a table in the center, Bruce Bowers, 71, of East Falls, fed baby chimney swifts and robins. The tiny creatures, nestled against one another in yogurt containers, chirped shrilly as Bowers gently squeezed eyedroppers of formula into their gaping mouths.

A retired teacher, Bowers began volunteering six year ago, when Schubert was head of wildlife rehabilitation at the Schuylkill Center for Environmental Education's wildlife clinic.

Schubert was fired this January, after 13 years in the role. The circumstances of his departure were heated. Schubert contends he was retaliated against for testifying on behalf of a coworker in an employment lawsuit.

"The Schuylkill Center strongly disagrees with Rick's allegation regarding his termination, but cannot comment further in deference to the privacy of third parties and in light of ongoing litigation," a spokesperson said in a statement to the Inquirer and Daily News.

After Schubert's firing, his staff and volunteers resigned in protest, effectively closing the Schuylkill clinic. (In the same statement, the Schuylkill Center said it has hired a new director for the clinic, and "greatly looks forward to reopening the facility as soon as we can.")

Meanwhile, Schubert's team searched for a new building. On April 1, the doors opened at 400 East Dekalb Pike, in King of Prussia. Within an hour, before every box had been unpacked, the first patient arrived: a great horned owl.

Since then, Wellard and Schubert estimate they have received 1,500 animals. That's proportional to the 40,000 animals Schubert's team treated in the last decade, he said. "The need here is overwhelming," Schubert said.

A huge diversity of wildlife resides in the habitat that the clinic serves. Coyotes, red foxes, raccoons, raptors, hawks, and all kinds of songbirds have been spotted in Fairmount Park. Hundreds of species make their home in the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge at Tinicum, out by the airport. Deer, bears, and bald eagles live in the suburbs. Peregrine falcons nest at City Hall.

This clinic works closely with Aark Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in Bucks County, and others that service specific species, like Tristate Bird Rescue in Newark, Del.

These are all organizations that step in when animals are hurt, injured, or orphaned because of human activity.

"We don't take care of the bunny that gets attacked by the fox," said Wellard. "We take care of the bunny that gets attacked by a lawnmower."

Veteran volunteers

Volunteers are "the life of this place," Schubert said. Many have been around for more than 10 years, building up a bevy of knowledge in their own right. Bowers, for example, expertly alternates between wet food and berries and insects for the birds he feeds.

At another table in the main room, Marianne Navarro, 69, was trying to tube-feed a baby possum more interested in climbing the syringe than eating.

"My philosophy is you have to protect our wildlife, because we're part of nature," said Navarro, a Mount Airy resident, retired teacher, and volunteer of nearly 20 years.

Next to her, Fay Stanford, 68, an artist and grandmother from Narberth, dabbed at another possum's belly, trying to stimulate its bowels. Rescued after their mother was killed, the babies are kept in an incubator, warm like the mother's pouch, and fed formula with the same balance of nutrients as mother's milk.

Stanford began volunteering more than 10 years ago, after she brought in an injured bird. The best part of volunteering, she said, is releasing the animal at the end of its treatment.

"You get to take it out and open the box or open a cage and watch it fly off or swim off or scurry off," she said. "That's the closest I come in my life to some kind of spirituality."

Release is the "singular purpose" of rehabilitation, Schubert said. Proper preparation for that moment is both an art and a science. Poor rehabilitation leaves an animal too reliant upon humans, no longer able to survive in the wild on its own.

"Once you let it go, it has to take care of itself, fend for itself, feed itself. There's no one else to take care of it."

The task is made harder in a space so small. A volunteer committee is hunting for a permanent home for the organization, at least three acres – preferably five – in a natural area of Southeastern Pennsylvania, accessible to the metro area but surrounded by woods and fields and streams.

In the meantime, they're building up capacity as a brand-new nonprofit. This year, their operating budget is $109,000, said development director Steve Wasserleben. They hope to boost that budget to $250,000 by next year, and hire more staff.

The two rehabbers are licensed by the state, Schubert to work with all birds, reptiles, and mammals, including rabies-vector species, and Wellard for all birds.

Wide-ranging skills are required for wildlife rehabilitation. Every animal requires an exam and diagnosis, and usually first aid, followed by a regimen of food, medication, caging, and activity that must match the specific needs of the species, according to its size, age, and the scope of its injuries or illness. But other needs crop up, too. Recently, Schubert used wire cutters and needle-nose pliers to surgically remove a fishing hook from the throat of a snapping turtle that "had probably been around since the Carter administration."

The phone rings 50 to 100 times a day. Often, the caller is told to leave an animal alone. Baby rabbits and fawns found alone are nearly always meant to be that way. Young birds sometimes struggle to fly because they're learning, not because they're hurt.

"A baby human on its own is wrong, but a baby animal on its own is very normal," Wellard said.

If the animal is in trouble, the rehabbers instruct the person on how to safely transport it to their facility. (A box with holes cut out usually suffices, which may seem obvious, but they once received a kestrel stuffed into a Wawa cup.)

No names, please

A little after noon, Schubert received a phone call from someone inquiring after a rabbit he'd brought in. Schubert told the caller that the animal, mangled under a speeding car's wheels, had been euthanized. In accordance with a national code of ethics for this profession, euthanasia is used if an animal's suffering is beyond hope, or if it cannot be reintegrated into its wild existence.

"We respect the dignity of wild animals in life and in death," said Schubert.

The center takes pains not to impose human norms onto wild creatures. That's also why the animals don't get names. They're referred to only by case numbers.

Still, an emotional current runs through the wildlife center. The volunteers are gentle with the animals, and jovial with one another. Schubert takes a moment before he examines each patient, doing what he calls a mental ritual with each animal that passes through his hands.

"Whether I'm helping it or I'm putting it down, which is helping it, in my mind, I'm saying, 'You matter,' " he said.

Two kestrels and two screech owls were due for release Tuesday. Philip Rush, a member of the clinic's five-member board, arrived with his two grandsons, Jackson, 10, and Weston, 7, to take the birds to Houston Meadow. A retired lawyer, Rush has volunteered his woodworking skills to the clinic since 2009.

Releasing animals is "a special treat I get for building cages," said Rush.

"There's something about their wildness," he said, of the moment he opens the cage doors. "All of a sudden they discover freedom again."