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Posted on Thu, Dec 17, 2009 : 10:30 a.m.

Injured wildlife get a second chance at Howell Nature Center

By Cathy Theisen DVM

Compassion for wildlife has a name, and it's the Howell Conference & Nature Center's Wildlife Rehabilitation program.

Owned and operated by the Presbytery of Detroit, the Center has 2 central missions. The first is to rehabilitate injured and orphaned wildlife in order to return physically and socially healthy birds, mammals, and reptiles to their natural environment. And the second is to educate the public to become better stewards of our natural world.

I've been lucky enough to be an occasional volunteer at the infirmary, and wonder if others are aware of this hidden jewel in our area.

The infirmary, which has both state and federal licensure, handles over 2000 animals yearly.This magnificent undertaking is handled with a skeleton staff, a cadre of dedicated volunteers and the financial support of private individuals who care about wildlife. Volunteers clean cages, prepare a vast array of meals for a variety of species, medicate patients, change bandages and wounds and keep up with a never ending supply of dirty laundry.

Unlike the patients I typically see in small animal practice, these guys are hard-wired to resist any human handling, and the challenge is to help without causing any more stress than already exists. Add a constantly ringing telephone to the mixture of squawks and squeals, and you've got a picture of a typical day. Busy, dirty, and rewarding! If you would like to join this dynamic, enthusiastic corps of volunteers, contact the Volunteer Coordinator, by writing

Those that can't be rehabbed, for whatever reason, become living ambassadors to educate and inspire.These permanent residents are housed in an exhibit called Wild Wonders that blends natural habitat environments into the surrounding Michigan landscape.

These animals are used for seminars for civic and school groups, and they model for occasional wildlife photography workshops. Most importantly, they are granted a life that mimics a life in the wild as closely as possible, in spite of that broken wing or leg that just wouldn't heal. Looking for a meaningful gift for the animal lover on your list this year? Find out how to sponsor an animal or habitat at

In the few months that I've been volunteering, I already have some favorite stories. Consider the young pied billed grebe, who mistook a dark asphalt parking lot for open water. Oops! Though not seriously injured, the grebe has feet set well back on it's body, so needs to get a running start on water to take flight. Dazed, flightless, and hungry, someone found her in the parking lot and brought her in. Max Biwer, Infirmary Manager, assessed her condition and felt that her primary need was a good cleaning and restoration of her feather's waterproofing ability, along with nutritional support. She was recently released on an open body of water where other pied billed grebes were flocking, and grabbed a fish almost instantly after gaining freedom.

And then there's the story of the immature bald eagle found flopping on the ground by 2 duck hunters. After suffering a crop injury, she was unable to feed herself and became very weak and debilitated. When she came in, she was severely dehydrated and had to be force fed. Every day, she got stronger, quickly moving to an outdoor flight pen to minimize her contact with humans. Last month, staffers drove her back to the Shiawassee National Wildlife Refuge where she was found, and had the satisfaction of seeing her take flight and regain her freedom again.

Many of the animals in the permanent collection were raised by well meaning folks who let them get to close to people. Birds, especially, will imprint on people if that's who they have contact with, which is why many rehabbers either feed them with bird puppets or put mirrors in their cages. A handsome Cedar Waxwing at the Center, Pico, has the decidely unwild notion that he can perch on people's heads. Release for Pico would mean certain death...he is lucky to be part of the educational team here. In Michigan, it is illegal to rehabilitate wildlife without a permit, and there is a major ethical directive to keep wildlife wild.

Some of the other permanent residents are wildlife purchased as pets from animal traders. While it may seem pretty cool to have a cuddly bobcat kitten, the expense of providing a proper habitat and freedom for these animals as they grow is daunting. The center has 2 bobcats, 2 red foxes, and a coyote that are all refuges from the pet trade. Fortunately, they are assured a natural and secure life with important educational jobs that will surely impact others of their species.

Although the recovering animals are kept isolated, anyone can visit the permanent residents and see these magnificent animals up close. The Howell Nature Center is a great way to introduce your kids to an outdoor ethic, and deserves the support of the local community. Visit their website at or call the office at 517-546-0249 for more information.

Dr. Cathy Theisen is a relief veterinarian in Ann Arbor, with 23 years experience in small animal medicine and surgery. Comments to