Squirrels and Possums and Owlets, Oh My!

An update about Kathy Woods of Baby Owl’s Rescue and featured in Animal Helpers: Wildlife Rehabilitators

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.

How are humans helping animals in need? National Wildlife Day

National Wildlife Day on September 4 brings an awareness of the plight of animals around the globe, whether in your own backyard or one you might see in a zoo or aquarium. Animals may need help for a variety of reasons, some of which are caused by humans and others not.

  • Development causes habitat loss and/or fragmentation.
  • Pollution may not only affect what animals eat and drink but some trash can trap animals and injur or kill them.
  • Injuries by car or other human-caused injuries (which may result in animal orphans)
  • Changing climate
  • Natural disasters
  • Some animals may just not survive their “childhood.” In some cases, the animals give birth to multiple young as the offspring may not be expected to survive. In other cases, it may be something like a bird falling out of a tree in your backyard.

Some of these issues may not just case an animal or two to be affected but entire animal species may be affected, or to become threatened, endangered, or even critically endangered. We certainly don’t want them to become extinct!

From fledgling birds falling from a tree, to breeding programs for endangered animals, there are “animal helpers” all around.

  • You might have a wildlife rehabilitator living near you! They are your “go-to people” for helping injured or orphaned animals you may find. They are trained and licensed to care for specific kinds of animals. The goal is to get these wild animals cared for and then released back into their natural environment. Sadly, not all animals can be released and they will then often be found at zoos, aquariums, and nature centers where they are cared for and protected so people can learn about them. You can learn more about these animal helpers by reading Baby Owl’s Rescue, Animal Helpers: Wildlife Rehabilitators and Animal Helpers: Raptor Centers.
  • Some animal helpers are very specialized like the folks at Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research who rush to oil spills to clean oil from the animals. You can read all about how they do that in River Rescue.
  • Then there are sanctuaries that take exotic pets (like big cats, bears, or even pigs) when the owners realize the animals aren’t safe to keep. These Animal Helpers: Sanctuaries may be affiliated with zoos or other non-profit organizations.
  • Some injured wildlife go to “animal hospitals” often affiliated with zoos, aquariums, or other non-profit organizations. The SC Aquarium has a sea turtle hospital that cares for a wide variety of sea turtles (Carolina’s Story: Sea Turtles Get Sick Too!) and places like The Marine Mammal Center specialize in sick, injured or orphaned marine mammals like Honey Girl: The Hawaiian Monk Seal or Astro: The Steller Sea Lion. As explained in the book, Astro refused to return to the wild and now has his “forever home” at the Mystic Aquarium where you can visit him.
  • Orphaned animals may also need help. Firefighters at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska saved The Lucky Litter wolf pups when a wildfire killed their mother. The pups found their forever home at the Minnesota Zoo. Kali (Kali’s Story: An Orphaned Polar Bear) travelled by snow mobile and then by plane to the Alaska Zoo, onto the Buffalo Zoo and again to his forever home at the Saint Louis Zoo. Go see him! One of the most fascinating animal adoption stories is featured in Baby Bear’s Adoption where biologists from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources trick a mother bear into adopting an orphaned cub! It’s nice to know that the little cub stayed wild. You can read this book in English, Spanish, Mandarin Chinese, Arabic, French, and Thai this September at Arbordale’s Free eBook of the Month.
  • As mentioned in a previous blog, zoos and aquariums around the world are not just fun places to see animals but are very involved in conservation issues. Many Animal Helpers: Zoos and Animal Helpers: Aquariums participate in breeding programs to help endangered animals avoid extinction. Some of these programs have been highly successful in releasing the offspring into the wild. They educate visitors about animals and any conservation issues that may be affecting the animals and, in some cases, also support conservation projects for those animals in their native homelands. They are stewards of the animals in their care and take great pains to ensure the animals are kept healthy in mind and body. The animals are “enriched” through a variety of ways that you can read about in Primate School. When it is not in an animal’s best interest to remain at a location for some reason, the animal is moved to a better location. For example, elephants are very social animals and need herd mates. When Maggie Alaska’s Last Elephant was left alone after her herd-mate died, the Alaska Zoo sent her to the PAWS elephant sanctuary in California where she was happily accepted into a large herd.
  • Similar to or as part of breeding programs, head-starting programs raise some wildlife young until they are better prepared to live on their own in the wild. These animals are carefully raised to not interact with humans so they have a better chance at survival in the wild. While they may be fed, the feeding is done in such a way that they still have to find their own food. After a While Crocodile: Alexa’s Dairy shares how young Costa Rican students head start American crocodiles at their school and Turtles in my Sandbox features a young girl head starting diamondback terrapins.
  • Then there are volunteers that walk beaches every morning to look for sea-turtle nests during nesting season. They mark the nests so people don’t walk on them and, if the nest is below the high-tide line, they move the eggs to protect them. They watch the nests carefully and try to be there when the hatchlings make their big crawl to the ocean, keeping people and animals from disturbing them. You can read about that in Turtle Summer: A Journal for my Daughter.
  • Sometimes the animal helpers are locations giving endangered animals safe places to live. For example, critically endangered Florida panthers (Felina’s New Home) find safe places to live in the Everglades National Park and the Florida Panther National Wildlife Refuge.
  • Biologists study animals to learn as much as possible. This knowledge helps them (and us) better understand the animals and their needs so that we can all better protect them. Read how The Lizard Lady and the Pooper Snooper (and his scientist trainer) learn about, study, and care for critically endangered animals. A young girl and her biologist father explore the life cycle of salamanders and vernal ponds in Salamander Season. After studying and watching a few salamanders grow, they release them back to the wild.
  • Biologists aren’t the only ones who can study and learn about animals. There are several citizen science projects with which children and their families can participate! check out Bat Count and Moonlight Crab Count (horseshoe crabs). You can explore ways to participate in similar projects near you at SciStarter or CitizenScience.gov.

What are some other ways humans help care for wildlife? Feel free to share your story of how you help animals!