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Photo by Rebecca Blackwell © 2003 Town Topics

Caption. SMALL BIRD, BIG APPETITE: Intern Priscilla McLarty gives a two- to three-week-old house wren one of its hourly feedings at the Mercer County Wildlife Center last week. End of caption.


Wild Animals Have Many Friends and Helpers

Liane Yvkoff

At the County's Wildlife Center in Lambertville In the front office of the Mercer County Wildlife Center, it's not exactly a scene from ER, but it has the same energy: a combination of chaos and a sense of urgency. Diane Nickerson enters the waiting area to examine the first patient. A baby starling huddles in a corner of a cat-carrier cage. It is a few weeks old, and perilously cold to the touch. She enters into the patient database whatever information is known about its circumstances: how did the people who brought it in find it, how long have they had it, and have they tried to feed it.

She assigns the bird a case number and instructs the finder to call back in a few days to learn the status of the bird. Ms. Nickerson, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator and director of the Mercer County Wildlife Center, transfers the patient inside a pillowcase to be taken up to the aviary nursery and moves on to the next case.

"Baby rabbit," says a woman presenting a box. "My dog found it."

The rabbit is small and hops around in the box. In all appearances, it seems healthy.

"It has a 50-50 chance," confides Ms. Nickerson. "Once they are separated from their mother, they have about a 50 percent chance of survival."

At 1:47 pm, the rabbit is officially checked into the Mercer County Wildlife Center (MCWC), where it will be nursed and hopefully rehabilitated and released into its native environment.

Hospital for the Wild

The MCWC is a non-profit organization dedicated to healing New Jersey's found, orphaned, or injured indigenous animals. Partially funded by Mercer County, the MCWC relies heavily on its membership dues, donations, and fundraising events to operate its facility on Route 29 in Lambertville.

The MCWC is a hospital for wild creatures, caring for approximately 2,000 animals a year, with a success rate of rehabilitating and releasing about 60 percent of its patients. But unlike most hospitals, the MCWC tends to its patients with only one full-time staff, two part-time employees, and 80 volunteers who man the center 12 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Humble Beginnings

Founded in 1988 by Mercer County Naturalist Joe Schmeltz in the basement of the Mercer County Correctional Center, the main building remains on the grounds of the County Correctional Center, which supplies some of the MCWC volunteers – inmates who traded their services for reduced sentences and learned valuable skills in the process.

But when the County Correctional Center lost its contract to house state prisoners, the MCWC lost many of its long-term volunteers. State inmates typically serve longer prison sentences than county inmates, whose sentences can range from a few days to a few months – not long enough to teach them more than laundry skills.

Now Ms. Nickerson relies almost entirely on her pool of volunteers who are scheduled three to a shift, three four-hour shifts a day. Some of her volunteers are interns from Rider University who work for college credit, others are county residents who seem to be born healers.

In the mammal nursery, Ms. Nickerson marks the rabbit's ears for identification purposes and places it with a nest of baby rabbits already being raised in an incubator. She hopes that the rabbit will warm up and adjust well to its new nestmates, but all she can do now is wait and see. In her crowded office filled with books and paperwork Ms. Nickerson begins to feed a nest of baby starlings and two chimney swifts that are kept separate from the aviary nursery because they stress easily and need a calm environment.

One by one she picks up each bird and inserts a syringe into its open beak and feeds it approximately 1 cc of her homebrew songbird formula, which is comprised of about 20 different ingredients.

Feeding baby animals is a delicate task, but not because these animals look fragile, but because they stress easily. Wild animals' natural instinct is that anything bigger than they are wants to eat them. So while grasping each tiny bird in her seemingly large, ominous hand, Ms. Nickerson's movements must be gentle, confident, and quick to minimize the stress in an already stressful situation.

One Brick at a Time

Feeding and caring for these birds in an already cramped office that the staff and volunteers share is less than ideal. Hanging on a wall is a blueprint for the new treatment facility that the MCWC plans to build in 2004.

Mercer County has contributed $325,000 towards the estimated $600,000 project, and the MCWC has raised $180,000 through fundraising efforts such as cocktail events, independent donations, and its monthly flea market, where volunteers sell donated household items in front of the center on the first Sunday of every month.

The One Brick at a Time project, which enables donors to purchase bricks engraved with a logo, name, or an inscription of up to three lines, has been introduced to quickly raise funds for the project.

Inscriptions of 17 characters per line, up to three lines, cost $100 for a 4x8 brick and $250 for an 8x8 brick. Expression Bricks, which allow 4-6 lines of text cost $350.

When finished, the building will be about 5,000 square feet, have a surgery/x-ray lab, library, offices, separate mammal and aviary rooms, and a public area and classroom. "It's going to be air conditioned (unlike the present facility) and on only one floor – no stairs," Ms. Nickerson points out.

Another important feature of the planned facility is the separate treatment and recovery areas. Minimal human contact is critical in the animals' recovery process, and to keep the wild animals wild, the MCWC currently permits visitors only by appointment. The separate treatment and educational areas in the new building will enable the MCWC to host visitors and classes on its grounds without disturbing the recovery of wild animals.

Constant Care

Just as she finishes feeding the birds, more patients are brought to the MCWC: four baby possums.

The baby possums were shaken from their mother's pouch when a dog captured their mother. Because possums can't count, the mother probably didn't realize that they were gone and won't be coming back for them.

Ms. Nickerson holds each of them to judge their body temperature. Three are cold, one is warm. A baby possum's body temperature is four to five degrees warmer than a human's, so if they are cold to the touch, the baby's health is in jeopardy.

Like the rabbit, the possums are placed on a heating pad inside an incubator to warm them and to regulate their environment.

August is right in the middle of baby season, which runs from late February through the end of October.

"Right now it's starlings. Next month it will be baby squirrels and raccoons, then turtles," says Ms. Nickerson.

A Growing Problem

With open land decreasing and human population continuing to increase each year in New Jersey, there are that many more people to find animals.

While animal control officers can handle dogs and cats, they may not have the knowledge, skills, or permits to handle wild creatures.

Legislation was passed in the 1970s making it illegal to handle wild animals without the proper permits. To obtain the permits, a person must apprentice with a licensed animal rehabilitator.

Today, there are only 60 licensed animal rehabilitators in New Jersey, and approximately 12 wildlife centers. While Mercer County is fortunate to have a dedicated building and grounds, many centers operate out of the rehabilitator's house or office.

A Great Variety

In Ms. Nickerson's 12 years as a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, she's seen baby raptors, rare wood ducks, brown bats, red foxes, vultures, deer, and a great variety of birds.

If an animal is too injured or has become too tame to survive in its native environment and cannot be used for educational purposes, state law mandates that the animal must be euthanized.

The animals that Ms. Nickerson has rehabilitated and uses in her educational outreach programs include a Broad Wing Hawk who is blind is one eye; a female Grey Horned Owl that the MCWC uses as a surrogate mother to raise orphaned baby Grey Horned Owls; a Peregrine Falcon; and a black crow and a Red Tail Hawk with a human imprint – a condition that occurs when animals are raised from birth by humans and begin to think that they, too, are human.

Until the new center is built, Ms. Nickerson takes these animals on the road with her to community centers, Boy Scout meetings, camp programs, and classrooms.

It is nearly 3:30 and Ms. Nickerson still hasn't found time for her lunch. The Chimney Swifts need to be taken to the outdoor aviary where they learn to fly and catch bugs. Ms. Nickerson picks up owl pellets discarded from their previous day's feast on mice. These pellets will be used in an educational program with a local day camp where the children will dissect the pellets to learn about the owl diets.

As Ms. Nickerson returns to her office with a bowl of owl pellets that look similar to used charcoal, she is called to the phone to answer yet another animal emergency: a baby raptor was found injured near a bank.

Ms. Nickerson talks to the woman, who is alone in the bank, about what to do and who to call next.

After several phone calls, a Clinton police officer agrees to play ambulance for the raptor and will transport it to the center. The day is nearly over, but the work seems never to be done. More animals need to be fed, more cages to be cleaned, more phone calls to return. Ms. Nickerson's lunch still sits untouched and now cold on her desk. Caring for these animals is tiring, unrelenting, and often thankless, but as she waits for the raptor to arrive, she knows that if there's anywhere this animal is going to make it, it's here.

The Mercer County Wildlife Center is open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and takes patients until 6. For more information on scheduling outreach programs, donations, volunteering, or other ways to help, call (609) 883-6606. If you find an animal that you think is injured or abandoned, call the center for help. Do not leave animals at the door because the feral cat population will probably eat them.

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