Experts aim to help Georgia wildlife impacted by pandemic

Ballou the bobcat is one of AWARE Wildlife Center's two dozen resident "ambassador" animals. Small groups of ambassadors make more than 100 educational appearances in typical years, but these programs have been temporarily curtailed due to the COVID-19 virus. Courtesy of AWARE Wildlife Center

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

AWARE Wildlife Center is hit hard by pandemic but doesn’t give up.

The front door signs at AWARE Wildlife Center in Stonecrest convey conflicting messages. “Welcome to the Nest” greets an old wooden one to the right, depicting three carved baby chicks with hungry mouths agape. But a more recent notice is taped to the glass door itself, informing in big red letters, “AWARE is closed.”

Fortunately, the facility remains open to injured and orphaned wild animals to which AWARE — short for Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort — provides refuge and rehabilitation. Unfortunately, while the red-letter sign is intended for humans due to COVID-19 precautions, the center has had to sharply reduce the number of animals it admits, as well.

AWARE is a respected organization among copious metro area nonprofits that have trimmed operations due to the pandemic. That, however, is a club it would prefer not to be a member.

The first center of its kind in Georgia to serve all species when it opened in 2006, AWARE normally assists 1,300 “patients” annually. Because of changes due to the virus, however, it will be stretching to help 800 this year — the most notable of numerous virus-related changes.

“It’s heartbreaking for us,” admits Scott Lange, AWARE’s executive director. “We never want to turn away a patient.”

The main reason for the reduction in care is that, as part of health protocols put in place, AWARE’s army of volunteers has been reduced from 20 a day (out of an active pool of 100) to three.

Sami Netherton, Wildlife Care Supervisor at AWARE Wildlife Center, is shown with Boogie, a barn owl that was hit by a car and is now one of two dozen resident "ambassadors" at the center. Boogie is unable to return to nature because of a wing injury that healed improperly. Photo credit: Howard Pousner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Howard Pousner

Credit: Howard Pousner

Staff who normally supervise unpaid helpers instead are shouldering most of their work themselves. Now those six must handle everything in the indoor clinic where the most vulnerable patients are treated — preparing diets and feeding, medicating, cleaning poop out of cages, sweeping and mopping, and doing laundry. As another safety measure, they have been split into two pods of three members, each trio working 12-hour shifts that do not overlap with the other.

The three highly experienced daily volunteers, dubbed the COVID Crew, work outside exclusively, caring for animals in enclosures that are tucked here and there amid trees on the 4 acres that AWARE inhabits on the side of picturesque Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve. Staff members also serve these animals, but they stay far removed from the volunteers when outside.

“It’s taught me to appreciate the volunteers way more than before, and I already had a huge appreciation,” says Wildlife Care Supervisor Sami Netherton of taking on so much of the work usually done by the unpaid helpers instead of instructing and supervising them. “It’s been a buildup of exhaustion over the time, just realizing at the end of each day what I’ve done. And at the end of the week, certainly I’m like, ‘Oh wow, this was tougher.’”

An attorney who moved from AWARE’s board to become its leader in 2017, Lange acknowledges, “Twelve hours of constant physical labor is really challenging for the animal care team. But they’re willing to do it because that’s the kind of people they are.”

Netherton takes solace that, since March, the staff has referred hundreds of animal lovers trying to help injured (most often from encounters with automobiles) or orphaned wildlife to other Georgia rehabilitators. Usually, those are veterinarians or other licensed individuals on a list maintained by the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. Many of them, though, are at capacity.

There is no other facility around the state that accepts anything close to the roughly 100 species a year that AWARE did pre-COVID. That means the good Samaritans rescuing a hurt or abandoned animal typically must contact multiple “rehabbers” before finding a match, often driving long distances to deliver it.

Still, even with its temporarily tightened outreach, AWARE seemed abuzz, in a manner of speaking, one recent morning. On the sloping side of Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve, bees and butterflies flew and flitted about, enjoying wild yellow daisies that had sprung up here, there, everywhere.

A long, screened fence divides AWARE’s expanse on the granite outcropping. On one side are enclosures for longterm resident “ambassadors” — some two dozen animals such as owls, hawks, possums and turtles whose permanent injuries do not allow a return to the wild. On the other side, off-limits to all but caretakers (so that the wildlife doesn’t become too domesticated to return to nature), are spaces in various configurations housing animals that are being nurtured back to health and an eventual release. Bigger mammals needing more room to roam, such as foxes, coyotes and raccoons, command larger enclosures, with birds such as owls, hawks and vultures building up their stamina within flight enclosures.

AWARE Wildlife Center recently nurtured these orphaned opossum siblings to prepare them for release back into the wild. Before the pandemic, AWARE worked with as many as 250 injured or orphaned animals at a time; now it is limited to working with around 50 "patients." Courtesy AWARE Wildlife Center

Credit: Handout

Credit: Handout

Even before the pandemic, AWARE limited public visitation to free Saturday and Sunday afternoon meet-the-ambassadors tours. Now, those too have been put on hold because of the virus. So the charms of longtime residents such Boogie, the barn owl whose injured wing healed improperly, and Cleo, the skunk who someone tried to make a pet when she was young, are limited to a few folks in person (and more during virtual programs).

A similar pause on its Wildlife Education Programs — held at the center and off-campus at schools, churches and various public events — has challenged AWARE’s roughly $300,000 operating budget. Earned income is down more than 15 percent. The center usually conducts 100 of these programs a year, for $175 (on-site) to $300 (off-site) each, and merchandise sales normally bring in additional revenue.

That puts added pressure on AWARE’s fall benefit, Wild Night Out, in past years a soiree with food, drink and a fundraising auction that usually contributes $30,000 to the budget.

Because of COVID, the 2020 edition will be a virtual event renamed Wild Night “In,” centered on an online auction kicking off Thursday and culminating with a live stream from the center at 7 p.m. Oct. 22. It will feature appearances by ambassador animals, raffle prizes, volunteer interviews and more.

Scott Lange, executive director of AWARE Wildlife Center, watches an injured red-tailed hawk take wing above in a flight enclosure. The center, in Stonecrest on land that is part of the Davidson-Arabia Mountain Nature Preserve, has had to limit the number of new "patients" it can serve due to pandemic-related cutbacks. Photo credit: Howard Pousner for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Credit: Howard Pousner

Credit: Howard Pousner

Items being sold to the highest bidder that night include a South African photo safari, original art, restaurant and arts gift certificates, birding equipment, weekend travel accommodations and more.

Lange says he is “cautiously optimistic” that benefit proceeds will not fall off like so many other things have since the pandemic began. Most days lately, there have been only 50 patients (in addition to the two dozen ambassadors) at AWARE Wildlife Center, when there used to be as many as 250. But those 50 still require food, medicine and care regardless, so pitches for cash donations are sure to be part of Thursday’s live stream, too.

“Obviously, we’re looking forward to a time in the future when we can have all our volunteers back,” Lange says, “and be back at full power.”


Wild Night “In”

The online auction benefits the AWARE Wildlife Center.

Begins 9 a.m. Oct. 15 and concludes 7 p.m. Oct. 22. Free livestream (but donations are welcomed.)

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