by Jennifer Keats Curtis
When I was a young girl, my brother and I were those kids who found wild animals in need—a tiny bunny bitten by a cat, a cute chipmunk with a hurt leg, and all those baby birds that had fallen out of their nests. We did our best to help, but we were little kids with no real knowledge; and, the only animal experts we knew were the veterinarians who took care of our dogs. My little brother went on to become a vet and I became a writer. Even as an adult, I still kept finding those sick and injured critters and I still didn’t know who to call so that they could get better.
As fate would have it, I finally found Kathy Woods, a master wildlife rehabilitator, who founded the Phoenix Wildlife Center (in Phoenix, MD) in 1992. In absolute awe of this women’s seemingly magical powers—she heals baby squirrels and finds new parents for baby ospreys; she saves those baby birds on the ground; she cares for baby bunnies, raccoons, and a whole host of other mammals, reptiles, and birds until they are big enough to care for themselves—I knew I had to write about her.
Our first collaboration was a story for Maryland Life Magazine, where we nicknamed her Kathy (of the) Woods. (Clever, we know.) So that I could learn as much as possible, Kathy kindly let me ask millions of questions, observe (quietly), and even help under her careful supervision. (Those cages do not clean themselves!)
Luckily for us all, Kathy is as good with people as she is with animals. She has a wonderful way of teaching without preaching. She knows the best ways to care for wild animals and she knows teaching the right way is as important to people as it is to those animals. After careful deliberation on both of our parts, we decided that my talent was not as a wildlife rehabilitator (although I definitely received gold stars for my cage cleaning) but as a storyteller. With that thought, we chose an animal with quite the backstory as our first book—Baby Owl’s Rescue. The realistic fiction follows siblings who find a baby owl on the ground and want to help that owlet in the right way. Fortunately for this brother-sister duo, their mom is a wildlife rehabilitator (just like Kathy) who gets her children to rescue the baby properly (if with quite the dramatic flourish).
Baby Owl’s Rescue was published in 2009 and that book, and its success, only got us more excited to write more for children who want to do the right thing when they save wild animals. In another of my books, the nonfiction Animal Helpers: Wildlife Rehabilitators, Kathy is one of four rehabilitators whose photos help young readers understand how wild animals might need help at a rehabilitation center and what happens to them under a wildlife expert’s care. While those two might be the only two books where Kathy “appears,” we have continued to collaborate, and I regularly seek her advice as I write my other books. When possible, Kathy even joins me during school visits so that students have the chance to interview a real expert about a subject so near and dear to their hearts.
While I’m plowing away at my desk and happily hunkering down with elementary school kids, Kathy continues to tirelessly care for more and more animals each year. Her all-volunteer staff has grown to 12 and she and her team continue to make an enormous difference in the community they serve. Since 2000, Kathy has worked out of her home in the basement clinic she and her husband Hugh built. In 2019, after nearly a decade of negotiations, many donations, and massive renovations, the new Phoenix Wildlife Center finally opened its doors on a property located on Gunpowder Falls State Park property. She and her staff continue to successfully rehabilitate upwards of 2,800 animals a year, from eagles to bats to groundhogs.
Phoenix Wildlife Center has also partnered with the nonprofit Baltimore Bird Club’s Lights Out Baltimore. She is among experts who advocate, explain, and teach the ways to keep migratory birds safe by turning out lights during peak migration and what people should do if they find a bird who has struck a window. In fact, Kathy is so determined to help these migrators that her facility has become one of only two in the country to tag and band these birds so that experts know what happens to them after they’ve recovered from a window strike and been released. There will be more on this incredible partnership in another blog! In the meantime, if you’d like to learn more about the Phoenix Wildlife Center, please click here: https://www.phoenixwildlife.org/, then view 8th grader Graham Preston’s extraordinary video about the center’s work, https://bit.ly/3LWCC3e.
If you’d like to purchase Baby Owl’s Rescue and Animal Helpers: Wildlife Rehabilitators, please click here. Royalties benefit the center.