Sanctuary worker discusses wildlife rehab

By Page H. Gifford, Correspondent

Kat Werner, from the Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary in Nelson County, visited Lake Monticello Sept. 29 with her friends: a screech owl, box turtle and a corn snake. She spoke to an audience of 75, most of them inquisitive and wide-eyed children learning about wildlife and what the sanctuary does.

Werner discussed when you should help wildlife or let nature take its course.

“In an area highly populated with wildlife it is good to know when an animal needs help,” she said. “When it is injured, contact the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro. They are equipped and staffed to deal with injuries and medical care; we are not. If an animal is orphaned then we take care of it, rehabilitate it and release back into the wild.” She added that they do not take domestic animals.

Werner began her discussion by stating that keeping wildlife as pets is not a good idea, as it makes them non-releasable into the natural environment. She told the story of a call they received from a conservation police officer about a hoarding incident in a home where they found Rosie the black vulture, who had been raised as a pet since babyhood.

“Her primary feathers had been cut, making flying impossible,” she said. “This is traumatic for a high-flying scavenger who has become accustomed to humans.” She then produced the box turtle for viewing. “Box turtles’ population is declining because of either habitat destruction or getting hit by cars.”

If you find a turtle, she said, let it go in whatever direction it is headed. Do not turn them around but get them to a safer area to continue their journey. If they are headed across a road, put them on the other side in the direction they were headed and she stressed never to remove them from their natural habitat.

Children asked many questions. One was about how long they lived.

“They can live up to 100 years,” Werner said. She explained that turtles close inside their shells to ward off predators. They hibernate and since the weather has not been typical, animals may come out of hibernation earlier than usual. “They love to burrow into the leaves. If you see any box turtle eggs, cover them with chicken wire to protect them until they hatch at the end of August through September.”

She said most of the day at the sanctuary is spent feeding the animals. Most are fed by a syringe, except rabbits and possums who also have a tube to the stomach. Rabbits become highly stressed with too much handling and possums have a specific nipple in the pouch when fed by their mothers. They feed birds every 15 minutes and never feed baby birds; they require special formulas.

Skunks will warn anyone that comes near them with a stomping and scratching behavior prior to spraying. The babies will actually follow humans around if separated from their mothers.

Sanctuary workers replicate the animals’ natural environments, encouraging them to climb, fly and swim. Eventually after rehab they are released into the wild. Werner added that we can help in several ways to maintain and protect the natural environment by picking up litter, keeping cats inside, checking laws on trapping and non-trapping, and not feeding the wildlife; it is against the law. She also suggested using more natural deterrents and fewer insecticides.

The sanctuary is open 9 5 p.m. If you encounter a possible orphan after hours, visit the website.

“It must be determined first if it is orphaned and efforts should always be made to reunite it with its mother,” Werner said. “Check for any signs of injury. It could be weak or shivering.” She described methods of keeping babies or other wildlife warm: a sock filled with uncooked rice warmed in the microwave, a heating pad on low, or a hot water bottle beneath a container.

“If a baby bird falls from the nest, scan the area for the nest and other babies,” she said. If a nest cannot be found, she added, then improvise and use small plastic containers like a flower pot, berry box or butter tub, but add holes to it. Hang it on the tree in the location where the bird was found and the mother will find it. The mother bird listens for the babies so wait two hours. For baby squirrels the method is the same, but wait six to eight hours for the parent’s return. Birds will sometimes use the makeshift nests; squirrels will remove the young and return them to the original nest.

“If you see a fledgling hopping around, that is normal: mama is nearby. This is how they learn,” she said.

Werner then brought Autumn the corn snake around to visit. The snake was named Autumn, no doubt, for her beautiful fall colors. Corn snakes are non-venomous constrictors, which was evident by the way Autumn was twisting herself around Werner’s arm as she spoke.

“Corn snakes like to climb trees to hunt and hide,” she said. “They are good snakes, keep away venomous snakes, and were favored by farmers to keep other critters out of corn cribs, hence their name. They eat mice and other small rodents and will eat two mice a week. They have a slow digestive system and get their water from the food they eat.”

Last to make an appearance was Alphie, the one-eyed screech owl, the smallest of the owls. Alphie sat quietly on his perch, watching the audience from his cage as Werner explained they offer tours to 10 people or fewer for anyone interested in learning more and seeing firsthand the work they do at the sanctuary.

To learn more about Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary visit

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