After 30 years of caring for wild animals in a small shed in her yard, Linda Ostrand officially opened a wildlife rehabilitation center this spring, just when orphaned and injured animals abound.
“I’ve always wanted to be able to set up a center where wildlife could be given the same treatment as a domestic animal,” she said as Polly, an opossum she rescued as a baby last year, hugged her shoulder. “Because not too many people are going to pick up a squirrel with a broken leg and spend a few hundred dollars on an X-ray and casting.”
Our Wild Neighbors, at 1705 Old N.C. 10 in Hillsborough, has admitted about 100 wild animals since January, including a swan paralyzed by a brain infection, many pink baby squirrels and rabbits.
Ostrand, 67, a state and federally certified rehabilitator, says development is removing habitat and animals that often help humans; for example, possums eat about 5,000 ticks in a single season.
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“We’re trying to maintain balance in our local ecology,” she said.
Last November Ostrand bought and repurposed a 1,600 square-foot house to establish the center, after retiring from the international travel education agency she opened with her husband 33 years ago. Nearly all the equipment — cages, old drapes, a triage table and a desk — was donated.
“People are very open and willing to help,” she said. “Some with time, some with money and some with materials that are so imperative to us.”
Nearly 40 volunteers take turns helping with the nonprofit. Those volunteers who are state and federally certified often foster animals in their homes so they can feed them throughout the night.
“Lucky for us they grow up faster than human babies” Ostrand said, “so after a couple of weeks, we don’t have to feed them every three hours.”
Volunteers come in all ages
Gaia Gilfillen, 15, a ninth-grader at Orange High School, has helped Ostrand nearly every day after school for the past four years. She inputs data and cleans the cages once the animals are released. She hopes to become a veterinarian.
“What drives me, I think, is just knowing that I’m doing it for a good cause, and because I know that some of them will go out into the wild and be happy again,” she said.
Volunteer Judy Williams, 75, has been busy this spring feeding baby squirrels.
“It’s so nice when an animal comes in and they’re suffering, and we give them pain medication,” she said. “They don’t have to suffer.”
Always on call
Although the wildlife rehabilitation center doesn’t have specific hours, Ostrand and her crew are always available.
People concerned about possibly injured or orphaned animals should generally wait 24 hours before contacting a rehabilitator, who can assess whether the animal needs help.
“Our recommendation as a general rule of thumb is for people to live the wildlife alone,” said Daron Barnes, the permit supervisor for the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission, which lists rehabbers on its website. Deer, birds and other adult animals often leave their offspring alone while hunting or feeding.
There are 403 licensed wildlife rehabilitators in North Carolina, according to the commission’s website, ncwildlife.org/Have-A-Problem. Although the annual license costs only $7, rehabilitators must have the proper cages and facilities to treat the animals and are subject to yearly inspections, Barnes said.
At the center, Ostrand has a nursery with incubators for babies; a dark room for nocturnal animals; and another room that has cages with chunks of wood inside, where older squirrels and birds acclimate to more natural elements. She also has specific foods for the animals. The older squirrels eat chewy nutritious snacks while the babies drink different formulas.
The goal is to return the animals to their natural environment. Those that are so badly injured they need to stay serve a different purpose. Like Polly, whom Ostrand saved from dehydration a year ago.
“We take them to a variety of outings where we can introduce to people and have conversations about the fact that, yes, they do get into your garbage can, but human beings do so if they’re hungry, too,” she said.