Brutal Winter Taking a Toll on Wildlife, Clinic Struggling to Keep Up
Centre Wildlife Care volunteer Karen Kuhn holds a rough-legged hawk between her knees, carefully dangling chunks of venison into his black-tipped beak.
The hawk, clearly confused, lets out a constant and surprisingly gentle sounding chirp as he swallows bits of meat. In the center of his chest, a patch of feathers is missing from where a vet had to suture closed an ugly wound.
Behind Kuhn, CWC director and veteran wildlife rehabilitator Robyn Graboski is on the phone, patiently talking to someone from Pittsburgh who found an injured screech owl and was calling for advice.
“If it’s letting you hold it and pet it, that’s actually not a good sign,” she says, and pauses. “Technically, what you’re doing is illegal. You can’t just take care of it at home. It needs medical attention.”
Graboski directs them to their closet options, and then hangs up the phone. Watching Kuhn feed the injured bird, she explains that rough-legged hawks are an incredibly rare sight in Pennsylvania, spending most of the year in the Canadian tundra.
At most, they usually only venture as far south as northern New England. But Graboski explains that an unusually cold and bitter winter has made food and open water scarce, driving many migratory birds much further south than normal. Many of them are still unable to locate food, and are eventually found starving and shivering before ending up in a rehabilitator’s care.
Most years, Graboski only receives about ten animals in the first two months of the year, but things are getting harder and harder. Last year, she received 29 animals by the end of February.
As of Feb. 18 of this year, she had already received 48 animals, stretching her resources and her budget.
“It’s been manageable so far, but our biggest problem is that we’re running out of space,” Graboski says. “We typically don’t have so many animals at this point in year, and it gets very expensive to take care of them.”
Kuhn, a volunteer with the CWC for over ten years, says this winter has been pretty difficult for everyone involved. Without the increased number of interns and volunteers that come in over the summer, Kuhn says she’s worried about being able to give each animal the time and attention they deserve.
“The worst case scenario is having to say ‘no’ to someone who’s found an injured animal because we don’t have the room or time,” Kuhn says. “It’s absolutely heartbreaking to try to explain to someone they we can’t take that little baby they found.”
Graboski says that, with the cold weather sending so many birds her way, she may have to start turning animals away, which she hates to do. She finds turning people down so difficult that sometimes she’ll creates a new voicemail explaining the situation and avoid answering the phone.
“It’s devastating,” Graboski says. “It hurts not to help.”
And the weather isn’t the only thing making her job difficult.
The closest wildlife rehabilitation center is about 67 miles to the west, over in Snyder County. The closet center to the east is even farther, sitting nearly 100 miles away in Indiana County.
There are no centers within the state to the north or south, and there are fewer each year as more and more rehabilitators retire. Graboski says that Pennsylvania lost four rehabilitators in 2014 alone, leaving only 30 licensed professionals at 25 locations in the entire state.
Graboski says these challenges are offset somewhat by a devoted base of donors and supporters in the State College community. But Graboski doesn’t have the time to fill out lengthy government grant applications – and she doesn’t have the manpower to dedicate someone to finding new funding sources – so the power of her donors is limited.
“I live in a very generous community that’s been incredibly supportive of this activity,” Graboski says. “But there are also a lot of non-profits here that are asking for money, and they’re all very worthy causes.”
To learn more, donate or find out about volunteer opportunities, visit the Centre Wildlife Care website.