Va. Wildlife Center offers hands-on training

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WAYNESBORO, Va. (AP) — The Virginia Wildlife Center was formed to provide health care and rehabilitation to native animal species, while also aiming to educate the wider community about these species and teach people how to care for Virginia's wildlife. Through externship programs, the center gives students hands on experience working with animals.

The center offers two types of externships, one with the outreach side of the center and one with the rehabilitation program.

"Both of them help us fulfill our mission of teaching people," said Amanda Nicholson, director of outreach. "These are hands on training experiences, so we get current college students, a lot of recent graduates, and sometimes we get folks who are looking for a change of career."

The center has both interns and externs, but differentiates them by the length of the program and how many responsibilities they have.

Nicholson explained that "we regard our interns more as staff members; they're not a permanent long term position, but are typically one year positions. Interns have more responsibility and are essentially staff members. The externs are usually here for a shorter length of time, typically eight to 12 weeks. They're here to get some hands on experience and then move on to get more experience, find a job, or continue their education."

Nicholson added the Center's most recent outreach extern is now working at Shenandoah National Park and some of their rehabilitation externs have gone on to get positions in zoos or other rehabilitation facilities.

Brittney Rogers, the center's newest outreach extern, went to school at Oswego State University in New York and was working a seasonal job when she discovered the externship program at the Wildlife Center.

"Brittney's job is very multifaceted; we have her doing writing, since that's a good deal of what we do in the outreach department with our online education and our contact with supporters," Nicholson said. "She's also learning how to handle some of our different education animals because she also helps us lead tours and open houses."

Part of the outreach externship is learning to handle and work with the education animals, like Pignoli or "Pig" the Red Faced Eastern Screech Owl. Pig was found in 2003 by railroad tracks in Charlottesville with severe head trauma. Veterinarians at the center had to remove his right eye because it was too damaged to repair.

The center was not able to release the owl once he healed because the damage to his left eye was too significant, leaving him unable to hunt sufficiently.

Balancing Pig on her gloved hand while walking the owl around, Rogers explained, that "you want the bird in a comfortable position on your hand." Education birds must be comfortable with their handlers in order to travel with the outreach program to schools and other community environments.

Rogers also checked the owl's health by learning how to weigh Pig and checking the amount of fat under his feathers. Placing her fingers under the bird's chest feathers, Rogers touched the breastbone and felt how much fat was around it.

"We don't really pet them or love on them at all, except when we need to feel the breastbone. A little extra fat this time of year is normal for these guys," said Chapin Hardy, one of the center's outreach coordinators.

Rehabilitation externs work even more closely with the animals, cleaning the enclosures, feeding animals, and exercising wildlife they hope to release back into the wild. Externs Erica Golden and Lori Sullivan work with and monitor the health of several animals including a grey faced eastern screech owl. Watching and encouraging the bird to fly, the externs looked and listened to the owl as it soars back and forth across a large enclosure.

"We're looking to see if the bird gets good height and doesn't fall, we're also counting how many times it flies back and forth," Sullivan said. "Some of the birds have a certain number of passes they need to make during the exercise period."

"We're also listening to see if he's silent while he flies because owls have to be silent in order to catch prey," Golden added. She noted the grey faced screech owl was not silent, probably owing to bent or broken feathers on its wings.

The rehabilitation externs are also responsible for cleaning and feeding many of the animals, including reptiles. In a small, hot and humid room, there are several tanks and enclosures including baby box turtles and a large snapping turtle. Served a salad of veggies including lettuce and carrots, the reptiles also get an enrichment ingredient that is different every day. These ingredients are things the turtles might find in their natural environment, including meal worms, mice, and crickets.

"It's nice to see them recognize something new in their enclosure," Golden said, as she placed a tray of food in the snapping turtle enclosure.

Sullivan also explained some of the aquatic enclosures must be cleaned every day and that rehabilitation externs were responsible for much of the caretaking tasks, like prepping food, sorting produce, and scrubbing enclosures. Golden added, "Lately, we've been cleaning out our incubators to get ready for baby season, when we'll get a lot of baby squirrels and rabbits."

Both outreach and rehabilitation externs work with wildlife and help the center educate the community about Virginia's wildlife. The externs receive important hands on training and experience, and with these extra hands the Virginia Wildlife Center is able to help more wildlife animals in need. "It's just really rewarding because some of these animals come in so sick or hurt and we help them get better," Golden said.

For more information about the Virginia Wildlife Center or externship opportunities, visit wildlifecenter.org

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Information from: The News-Virginian, http://www.newsvirginian.com

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