How to have a positive impact on Virginia wildlife

How to have a positive impact on Virginia wildlife
The Wildlife Center of Virginia tests every one of the approximately 30 to 45 eagles that are admitted per year for lead. Most have some level of lead in their blood. (File photo)

By Victoria Elliot

Founded in 1982, the Wildlife Center of Virginia, located in Waynesboro, Virginia, serves the state as a wildlife treatment center and wildlife veterinary training hospital.

The center treats approximately 3,000 wild animals per year. Common animals admitted include rabbits, opossums, squirrels, box turtles, raptors, bears and songbirds.

In addition to treatment, the center provides training to veterinarians, veterinary technicians and volunteer wildlife rehabilitators and education outreach to schools and libraries across the state.

Amanda Nicholson, director of outreach at the Wildlife Center, said that the center recently admitted its 80,000th patient: an opossum. Nicholson said there has been an increase in opossum admissions this year at the center.

Opossum, among other small animals, birds of prey and scavenger birds, are often victims of cars. They – or their prey – stop by the roadside to eat food and trash that has been discarded and are frequently hit by passing cars. Because of this, the Wildlife Center recommends that not even biodegradable food be discarded.

The center recently had another notable patient: a bog turtle. The bog turtle is endangered in Virginia and federally threatened. The bog turtle recently admitted to the Wildlife Center was hit by a vehicle in southwest Virginia. It had shell fractures that have been treated, and it will be released back to its native wetlands.

In addition to seeing an increase in opossum admissions, Nicholson shared other trends at the Wildlife Center this year:

Black bears with mange

Mange is a type of skin disease caused by mites. It is a contagious disease, spread by direct physical contact. The Wildlife Center and other wildlife researchers, are conducting research into what makes black bears more likely to become overburdened with mange than other bears.

Bald eagles with lead poisoning

The center tests all of the approximately 30 to 45 eagles that are admitted per year for lead. Most have some level in their blood. Significant levels of lead can result in lead toxicity or lead poisoning, causing illness and death in eagles, vultures and other birds of prey. Even a tiny amount, Nicholson said, can kill. The center is focused on educating the hunting community. Hunters can use alternate non-lead bullets and avoid leaving behind discarded game.

Young animals

While it’s possible that a young animal found alone may be abandoned or ill, it’s important not to attempt to approach or move any wildlife. If you find a potentially abandoned or ill animal, confirm with the Wildlife Center or a local rehabilitator what steps are most appropriative – both for your safety and that of the animal.

When asked what actions Virginians can take that would have the largest positive impact on Virginia wildlife, Nicholson recommended:

1. Don’t litter. Animals are frequently hit by vehicles when drawn to roadside litter while scavenging for food.

2. Take steps to prevent lead toxicity. Lead toxicity can be prevented by purchasing non-lead bullets and cleaning up after field dressing game.

3. Keep cats indoors. A seasonal surge of fledgling birds and young rabbits with wounds inflicted by outdoor cats come to the center each year.

4. Securely discard fishing tackle, lines and balloons. String from fishing lines and tackle can easily become tangled around animals, and tackle and balloon pieces can be mistaken for food.

5. Leave wildlife alone. Ask questions of trained wildlife professionals if you are concerned about the welfare of wildlife, but, as a general rule, let wildlife be.

One of the biggest challenges for the Wildlife Center is spreading its message. One of the ways that the center is spreading awareness is through the 13-week series “Untamed.” “Untamed” highlights different species and their treatment as patients at the Wildlife Center. “Untamed” airs on various PBS affiliates, as well as on the center’s Facebook, YouTube and website.

The Wildlife Center is usually closed to the public due to its work as an active wildlife hospital. However, seasonally, open house dates are held at the center. While the summer dates have passed, fall dates will soon be available. Just two and half hours from Alexandria, the Wildlife Center open house dates offer a unique opportunity to see wildlife care in action.

The writer is a volunteer with King Street Cats. For more information, go to