For love of birds

By Michele Wellard, Manager of Wildlife Rehabilitation

Somehow, I’ve become one of only two licensed wildlife rehabilators in four counties, including Philadelphia, Montgomery, Delaware and Chester. How did I get here?

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, living in London, England, I worked in social services. Although I loved my social services work, something was missing, and also, I was obsessed by birds. More than once I was caught by a boss with an injured pigeon on my desk, waiting for me to drop it off at a rehabber on my way home. On weekends, I’d go to Blackheath, a huge field, and feed the crows the scraps my mother-in-law had saved up for me.  One time at work, I left a group session of unemployed adults I was teaching, to run outside and pick up a crow who had been hit by a car while I watched from the window.

When my British husband and I moved to the USA in 2007, we settled in Manayunk, in Northwest Philadelphia. Soon after, many people I met in the neighborhood said the same thing to me – “You love birds? You love animals? You should check out the Wildlife Clinic at the Schuylkill Center! You should go volunteer!”

My husband and I became members of the Schuylkill Center, and soon started attending events. We attended the “Owl Prowl”, an event that shows off our clinic’s owls. At the Owl Prowl, I saw the Director, Rick Schubert, and some of his volunteers and, more importantly, I met Loki, an Eastern Screech Owl. Loki was an education ambassador– which is what we call the animals who live permanently at our clinic and who come out for educational programs. I fell in love.  I was transfixed by his wide eyes, beautiful feathers, and gentle countenance.   At the end of the program, I rushed to the volunteers and begged: “How can I volunteer? How can I get involved?” They gave me info on the next clinic volunteer orientation; I attended, and became a volunteer. To volunteer at the clinic, no experience is necessary; only a desire to work hard, learn, and get dirty, and abide by the clinic rules. I was certainly ready for that.

When I started feeding baby birds, and helping the rehab director with injured animals, I knew I had found my home. And I was in the right place at the right time: soon after I became a volunteer, the clinic was looking for an assistant rehabilitator, a position I was delighted to get. During apprenticeship model of training, I worked under the director’s tutelage and also his permits, while he taught me everything I need to know: medicines, biology, nutrition, anatomy, housing and husbandry, and helping people who bring animals to the clinic.

To help Rick run the clinic most effectively, and once I had enough experience, we decided it was appropriate for me to pursue the knowledge and credentials of the Wildlife Rehabilitation licensing system, so that I could work at the clinic with my own license. To become a licensed rehabilitator in Pennsylvania, one must have at least two years’ experience, have a person who already holds the license as a sponsor, and have a veterinarian sponsor.  We have several volunteer veterinarians at the clinic with whom we work closely, and one of them gladly wrote my letters of recommendation.

In 2010, I drove to Reading, Pennsylvania to take my first wildlife rehabilitator licensing exam  – Passerine, which covers passerines (songbirds) and waterfowl. To pass this exam, I needed to know biology, anatomy, diseases, drug dosages, medical math, fluid therapy, nutrition and calorie calculation, and all the technical aspects of raising baby birds. When I passed my written exam, I sat for an oral interview with the members of the Game Commission’s council for wildlife rehabilitation. They grilled me on all aspects of rehabilitation, and our facilities and procedures, and granted me my first license.  Two years later, I took the exam to get my qualification to rehabilitate raptors.

Loki, the screech owl who was my inspiration, is still at the clinic, but he is growing old, and we describe him now as “Educator Emeritus”. He’s retired from education programs and will have a home at the clinic for the rest of his life.  But I will still always credit that owl with giving me the spark and motivation to pursue this career, and finally, in my 40s, to find the life’s work I was always meant to be doing. I have now been working in rehabilitation for almost 10 years, and I can’t imagine ever doing anything else. It’s my life blood.

Michele and Loki then and now