From Rehab to Release: Frisco Rehabbers Take Wildlife Under Their Wing
As I was driving home last week from Manteo, I encountered a turtle trying to cross the two-lane road I was on. A Midwesterner, I am a recent transplant to these glorious islands of the Outer Banks and am still very sensitive to and curious about my new environment.
My brain said, “Don’t mess with the wildlife,” but I knew a turtle in afternoon traffic on a road with a speed limit of 45 was not a good mix, so my instincts kicked in.
I put my flashers on, stopped near turtle boy (or girl) and did the crazy-lady thing of hoisting it with two hands by the rear of the shell and carrying it to the shoulder, making certain to watch out for the potential danger of the snapping head and also to point the turtle in the right direction.
With a honk and a wave to the other motorists I’d inconvenienced, I resumed my trip but not before glancing in the rearview mirror to check on my turtle friend’s progress as it disappeared into the tall grass.
Good deed of the day! Karma points! But it wasn’t long before I began to wonder what might have happened to my turtle friend if I hadn’t stopped to help, and a car had hit it? What about a shorebird that might collide into my windshield on the bridge to Mann’s Harbor?
Or baby opossums whose mother has been hit by a car? Or
orphaned fawns? Who are the people who help these wild critters in distress?
After a trip down to Hatteras Island on this story assignment, I discovered two local wildlife rehabilitators who have made it their life’s mission to care for wounded and sick animals in the wild. These dedicated Hatteras Island rehabbers are joined by a network of 55 others in North Carolina who are licensed by the state, and even federal government in some cases.
The ultimate goal of rehabbers is for the animals to regain health and strength so they can return to the wild. If that’s not possible, they are given homes where they can also assist in educational purposes or outreach programs.
Lou Browning, who operates Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation in Frisco, specializes in birds of prey and reptiles. Raptors, however, are clearly his passion’s flash point – as evidenced by his eyes – as he speaks of them. Local raptors include birds that have hooked beaks such as eagles, hawks, buzzards, vultures, osprey, falcons, and owls, among others.
Over the last 20 years, Browning – essentially self-taught – has created a modest clinic that is tucked away off N.C. 12 in Frisco. This is where he goes to work, caring for and treating these animals. Just in the last year, he has also completed the construction of a flight pen exercise facility for in-flight rehabilitation, which is located next to the clinic.
While Browning eventually found his life’s mission in rehabilitation, he started out in electronic engineering, with studies in physics, science, marine diving, welding and a number of other subjects. Eventually he landed in his rightful place and prides himself on the educational component attached to his work, which includes fielding between 40 and 60 phone calls every day, many of which are educationally related.
On this particular day, Browning was tending to a barred owl that needed care after colliding with a car, leaving her with a cataract in one eye, a detached retina in the other and an injured leg. She wasn’t shy as she vocally made a loud clicking sound to let me know she objected to my presence.
If all goes well, Browning said the owl would soon graduate to the new flight pen to begin her pre-release flight conditioning. She’s one step closer to freedom.
Not far from Browning’s Frisco clinic is wildlife rehabilitator Rebecca Marlin, who specializes in more traditional forest critters such as fawns, opossums, squirrel, bobcats, groundhogs, rabbits, and others. Marlin remembers caring about animals and their well-being since she was a young child.
At the moment, Marlin’s focus is on Thistle, the baby groundhog her husband named. Thistle came to the Marlins in early summer after her mother was hit by a car in Columbia, N.C.
“I’m really loving this little groundhog. She’s my moment of Zen these days,” Marlin says, adding that she puts Thistle on her lap several times a day to feed her with a bottle. “We tussle for a little bit afterward.”
At the time of the interview, Marlin was also caring for five fawns. “I’m the only fawn rehabber in 13 counties,” she points out, adding that she was preparing to take in an injured bobcat any day. “I’ve probably had more bobcats here than anyone in the state.”
Marlin previously had a thriving antiques business, but left that life behind to tend to the needs of her little zoo of wild critters. She gets help and support from her husband, Richard, and of course, CoCo the goat, who Marlin adopted 10 years ago after a woman appeared in her driveway with CoCo in the car and asked, “Will you take her?”
Being a wildlife rehabilitator is undoubtedly a tireless job, dealing day in and day out with critters that can’t tell you what’s wrong with them or where it hurts. Orphaned critters require around the clock feeding schedules and there is a lot of time spent on the road, whether it is for the initial pick-up of the patient(s) or a visit to the veterinary clinic and/or other “rehabber” for additional assistance.
Although rehabilitation comes with its drawbacks as far as time and resources, the need for funding is by far a rehabber’s biggest challenge. “Raising a fawn can cost $1,000 (from the time it comes in to the time its released),” Marlin explains.
For those in the business, there is a constant and ongoing need for grant funding.
So what makes this lot tick? For Marlin, it’s about loving these wounded, defenseless creatures in need of help; a determination to try to make a difference, no matter how small; and the reality of, “If I don’t do it, who will,” Marlin said.
Lou Browning’s driving force is trying to “make up for the destructiveness of humans,” which is evidenced by the wildlife injuries he is witness to.
Sometimes Darwinism wins over, and the weak ones succumb despite the efforts of their caregivers. But many times, with the tending and mending, the nursing and caring, and the exercising, a Phoenix rises. At that moment, utter joy and accomplishment take over for the typical wildlife rehabilitator, who just saw the fruits of their labor pay off as their now healthy patient returns to their rightful home in the wild.
To learn more about how you can donate to Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation, call Lou Browning at 252.475.4217 or visit HIWR.us. Browning is also on Facebook.
Rebecca Marlin can be reached on Facebook or at email@example.com. ♦
All photos courtesy Hatteras Island Wildlife Rehabilitation and Outer Banks Wild Care.