Wildlife Center's 25th Conference Goes Virtual

Nov 23, 2020

Veterinary students examine a fox patient at the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro.
Credit Wildlife Center of Virginia

The Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro provides emergency healthcare to native wildlife – from sparrows, to eagles, to baby bears -- that are brought in sick, injured, or orphaned. The Center just held its 25th annual conference, taking it online for the first time. WMRA’s Randi B. Hagi reports.

Aaron Provencio is an outreach communications coordinator at the center.
Credit Screenshot from the 25th annual conference

The 2020 Call of the Wild Conference held many of the same attractions as it has in previous, in-person years, including a tour of some of its permanent residents: birds of prey that have imprinted on humans or been injured beyond the point of fending for themselves in the wild, and now serve as educational ambassadors.

AARON PROVENCIO: [eagle screeching throughout] Now thousands of individuals actually watched him hatch and grow up through the Norfolk Botanical Gardens' eagle cam …

Aaron Provencio, an outreach communications coordinator at the center, introduced some of the 380 attendees to a resident bald eagle named Buddy.

PROVENCIO: Now those very dedicated viewers of the eagle cam also noticed something that was wrong with Buddy, young Buddy. He had a growth on the side of his beak.  Now the lesion was removed, but because of the nature of how it was growing, and where it was growing, it damaged the growth plate on the left side of Buddy's beak. In the wild, that beak would overgrow itself and end up making it very difficult for him to open his mouth, to hunt, to find food.

Amanda Nicholson is director of outreach at the center. She's holding Maggie, a peregrine falcon ambassador.
Credit Amanda Nicholson

Amanda Nicholson, director of outreach at the center, said the conference reached record attendance with the online format – in previous years, they'd have about 250 people.

AMANDA NICHOLSON: We typically get people from the East Coast, so even Pennsylvania, New York, and the Carolinas, those folks will drive in … in looking at numbers a couple days ago, I pulled everything and found that we had attendees from 28 states and six Canadian provinces, and we have, one of our speakers is actually from Belize; an attendee from Bulgaria!

She said the main draw is the expertise of the wildlife professionals.

NICHOLSON: The conference is so great because of all the wonderful speakers who are contributing their vast amount of knowledge in a huge variety of subjects. That actually has been another benefit of going online as well, is that we were able to host speakers who otherwise would probably have not been able to come to Waynesboro to speak.

E. Hayley Olsen-Hodges attended the conference. She is a rehabilitator with the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center of Roanoke.
Credit Screenshot from the 25th annual conference

Session topics ranged from bat echolocation to turtle shell repair to unusual small mammals of Virginia, including some pretty unique shrews –

E. HAYLEY OLSEN-HODGES: Both of which are here in Virginia. They have slightly different ranges, but both of them are venomous. The venom is mild to humans, but it is painful if you get bit by it. But there's been no documentation currently that it is dangerous beyond just being painful. Wear gloves when handling these.

E. Hayley Olsen-Hodges is a rehabilitator with the Southwest Virginia Wildlife Center of Roanoke. After her presentation on these unusual small mammals, she answered questions in a live session.

OLSEN-HODGES: "Do you think that terrestrial bugs you don't recommend for songbirds might be good to feed them to hardier insectivorous mammals?" I think overall yes, and the reason being like, if you're feeding a bird, you're feeding that thing whole, and it might not be able to discern whether it's something it wants to eat or not …

These are the kinds of specific queries that are hard to find answers for outside of a gathering of animal experts. Linda Vetter is a volunteer rehabilitator with Nature's Nanny Wildlife Rehabilitation in Chesapeake, Virginia, but she was able to join the virtual conference from New York, where she's been taking care of her mother. This was her eighth time attending a conference at the center, and she said she learns a lot every year.

Linda Vetter is holding a barred owl that Nature's Nanny rehabbed and released back in its home territory.
Credit Linda Vetter

LINDA VETTER: Today I learned a lot more about feathers, and how they help the bird fly, and the mechanics and the physics of it, and how that impacts the decisions that we make – if we can return the bird to the wild, or when we can return it to the wild.

The classes meet the continuing education requirements she needs to renew her state caretaker permit.

VETTER: Our specialty and primary focus is raptors and birds in the corvid family, so that would be, in our area that would be crows and blue jays … we have taken in some other songbirds at times, but our focus is on the raptors.

Samantha Opp said this was the first time she attended the conference. She directs the Kentucky Wildlife Center in Lexington.

Samantha Opp directs the Kentucky Wildlife Center in Lexington.
Credit Sam Opp

SAMANTHA OPP: Every life matters, that's our motto.

Opp grew up raising "exotic" animals like reptiles and sugar gliders, and then gravitated towards caring for native species. She got a lot out of two sessions in particular – one on mixing formula for baby animals, and one on interacting with the public – which doesn't come naturally to everyone whose primary focus is the animals.

OPP: I think a lot of rehabbers don't realize we are providing a service, even though we're not necessarily paid for it, dealing with the public in a correct manner is important to educating them about the importance of wildlife, and furthering … more enthusiasm about saving wildlife, protecting wildlife.