BY KAREN GERHARDINGER | MIRROR REPORTER — The red-tailed hawk arrived at Nature’s Nursery with obvious signs of head trauma: confused and unable to fly.
With some anti-inflammatory medication, rest and an opportunity to fly inside an enclosure, it was ready for its release back into the wild.
For over 30 years, the Whitehouse-based wildlife rehabilitation center has come to the aid of animals that are injured or orphaned, growing from taking in 189 animals in 1989 to 3,874 in 2020.
“This year, we set a record, taking in more animals than ever, including 189 raptors, 1,100 songbirds, over 900 rabbits, 446 opossums, 38 skunks and 23 reptiles,” said Nature’s Nursery executive director Allison Schroeder. “The word has spread over the years. People know who to call if they see an animal in need.”
So far this year, Nature’s Nursery has taken in 27 animals, including a woodchuck that was walking in circles around Veteran’s Memorial Park in White-house. It was treated for head trauma and parasites. Three baby voles who were orphaned and a 1.8-gram gray tree frog found in a garage are spending the winter inside the Nature’s Nursery center until they’re ready to go it alone.
Laura Zitzelberger joined forces with Nature’s Nursery founder Deb Cooper – a coworker at the Toledo Zoo – just as the nonprofit was being formed.
While Cooper moved out of the state in 2006, Zitzelberger has remained involved as the nonprofit organization has grown from a handful of volunteers to eight employees and 100 volunteers.
Before rehabilitation centers were around, the Ohio Division of Wildlife often issued raise-and-release permits for the public to take care of deer, raccoons and other wild animals.
“Animals were raised in a way that was way too friendly, and they weren’t getting veterinary care,” Zitzel-berger said. “That wasn’t preparing these animals for being ready to be released back into the wild.”
The Ohio Wildlife Rehabilitation Association worked with the Ohio Division of Natural Resources to set minimum standards for rehab centers, such as volunteer training, a veterinarian on call and appropriate caging. Still, that first year for Nature’s Nursery was full of learning experiences, Zitzelberger said.
“It’s horrifying to think, but we were making our own formula in blenders, with egg yolk and Karo syrup. We went from that to feeding baby animals puppy or kitten formula. Now, we can order formula for squirrels, minks and other animals. We’ve learned so much about diets and enrichment,” she said.
Medications are another challenge, as none of them are tested on wildlife, so the staff consults with a vet to form a treatment plan, Zitzelberger said.
“The most dangerous thing we can do is feel like we know all we need to know. Still, to this day, I don’t hesitate to call or e-mail someone in another state who specializes in raptors, for example. People are very supportive,” she said.
The first step in rehabilitation is a phone call from the public. The timing is important. If a bird hits a window and doesn’t fly away immediately, call right away. It’s likely head trauma, and anti-inflammatory medications will stop the inflammation of the brain. If the animal is dangerous or the caller is unable to provide transportation, volunteers are sometimes available to do pickup.
Once in the clinic, each animal gets a physical exam to assess injuries. The most common are head injuries, fractures and cuts. Nearly half come in with injuries or illness that cannot be resolved, however.
“Our criteria are very different from working with domestic animals,” Zitzel-berger said. “If we know something is not going to recover enough to survive in the wild, we need to humanely euthanize.”
Recuperation is also influenced by the animal’s temperament. A red-tailed hawk and a Cooper’s hawk with the same injuries might have different outcomes. While a red-tailed hawk is hearty, a Cooper’s hawk is easily stressed and could die just from the stress of being handled.
Raptors have more of a fighting chance at preparing to return to the wild now that Nature’s Nursery has a flight cage. The cage is 80 feet by 40 feet wide and 20 feet tall – big enough for turkey vultures and red-tailed hawks to make their soaring turns and for peregrine falcons, kestrels and similar raptors to test out making sharp turns.
“Their bones need to absorb the G-force of that dive before they can get out and survive on their own,” Zitzelberger said.
In some cases, animals that aren’t able to return to the wild can live at Nature’s Nursery or other facilities and become education animals used in programs at schools, senior centers and in special events.
As the number of animals coming to Nature’s Nursery has grown, the size of the tiny center outside of Whitehouse has stayed the same. This year, however, ground will be broken for a $1.5 million facility on property owned by Courageous Acres on Waterville-Swanton Road. This will allow Nature’s Nursery to better serve its growing clientele, Schroeder said.
As with any nonprofit, Nature’s Nursery relies on donations – of time, money and supplies – and while Schroeder is always cooking up unique fundraisers, the need is constant.
For more information, visit www.Natures-Nursery.org, find Nature’s Nursery on Facebook or call (419) 877-0060.