I am constantly learning, but most of my learning happens in a really comfortable comfort zone. Pushing myself typically means learning a new tool online, or becoming better at having "difficult conversations" at work in my role as a team leader. But these things use the grooves and neurons in my brain that already exist.
I am 51. I can retire in 7 years, after 30 years of teaching. Getting older makes you really think -- how long it has been since I did something truly new? I need new brain cells, after all, and staying in a rut won't grow them as well as jumping into something I am unfamiliar with.
Last year I became an avid live nature cam viewer. Cornell University has a number of high-quality educational live cams, and their red-tailed hawk cam has expert
I don't want to get to retirement age without something new to be passionately involved in. I've thought for years that my love of cooking would lead me to culinary school when I retired. And that still might happen. But injuries to the nerves in my arms make it unlikely that I could spend all day doing knifework. So I began researching wildlife rehab.
Yesterday was my first day volunteering. Second Chance Wildlife Center is about 40 minutes from home, and I drove there in full awareness that I had no idea what I was doing. I had studied the pamphlet as directed, and actually started making flowcharts for what to say when people called for advice. But I knew I was jumping in with virtually no knowledge or experience...because that is exactly what I needed. To be uncomfortable and awkward. To not know what I was doing or talking about. At my teaching job, lots of people come to me for answers. I was ready to be the person who asked rather than answered!
I arrived and Jim, the volunteer coordinator, handed me a 503-page book titled Answering the Call of the Wild: A Hotline Operator's Guide to Helping People and Wildlife. He had helpfully marked pages and added in a flowchart for questions about baby squirrels, since right now, that is who we are primarily receiving calls about. I asked a lot of questions and Jim was incredibly kind and helpful. He's also passionate about helping animals and educating people about wildlife.
And so my day began. I was simultaneously excited to start, eager to read all 503 pages, and nervous to screw up. I sat at the front desk, reading while listening to the murmurs of birds in the room to the left and the scritchy scratching and squeaks of the 12 or so squirrels in the room to the right. Brittany, one of the master rehabilitators, was rearranging the squirrels because a few were having territory issues due to being in horizontal cages. One escaped and I could hear her humorously swearing at it and see her patiently working to catch it in a long-handled net. She put them in vertical cages and explained that she would never use the horizontal cages again! Some of the squirrels have been in cages since last fall, because they had been brought in as babies and could not be released in the winter.
Our first client was a man who had found an injured cardinal in a parking lot. He brought it in and I was ready - I took the bird in its container back to Brittany, and asked him to fill out the required paperwork - which included where he had found it, what time, etc. He wanted to talk - a lot. He stuck twenty dollars into the donation box before he left, and I could see Brittany behind the curtain working on the cardinal. I had successfullly processed my first injured animal!
Slightly more confident, I continued to study and take calls. At noon, the baby squirrels needed to be bottle fed. Audrey, one of the rehabbers, patiently taught me how, and I got to hold the baby squirrel while I fed him with a large syringe. He was as adorable as you would imagine, and held the bottom of the syringe like a baby holding his bottle. I was enamored.
One woman who had been trying to reunite four baby squirrels with their mother after a tree had been cut down near her home called several times. We worked with her throughout the day as she called with updates. One baby was picked up by the mother but the other three were still alone. She followed reunion protocol, but by 4:00 it was clear that they were really hungry and mom was not around. She brought them in and Brittany and I bottle fed them. The woman was extremely eager to feed them herself, so it was good chance for me to practice saying no. Clients frequently wanted to go in the back to see the procedures or "help," and gently preventing that from happening was part of my role.
Her baby squirrels would spend the night at Second Chance, and the woman would return the next day to try reuniting them again on site with their mother. Thank goodness for dedicated, caring people who are willing to put forth so much effort to help!
Another situation wasn't as positive. A man called because his wife had found a baby squirrel nine days ago and had been feeding it kitten formula. In Maryland, it is only legal to have a wild animal for 24 hours while you try to find it care, and this law exists for a reason. Without training, more harm than good is usually done to the animal. While her intentions were good, I am sure, this woman now had a really sick baby squirrel on her hands. Jim convinced her to bring it in, and her husband showed up with the squirrel. The woman had taken copious notes on feedings, and the husband handed me this note as I took the baby back to Audrey. I explained that while it was great that he and his wife cared so much, it was important that wild animals get expert care. He insisted that his wife "knew a lot about animals" and had researched it on the internet. I restated that it was important for experts to care for the animals. He said they had named the squirrel "Wilbur," and at that point I realized they had become too attached.
Audrey came out and told him that the baby was extremely sick and that they should not have tried to take care of it. It had a distended stomach and skin ulcers, and was in a lot of pain. She told him that it would probably not make it through the night. I could see his distress and understood their good intentions, but they had clearly become emotional and not acted in its best interests.
Audrey said after he left that she just hoped that they learned from this and would take more responsible action if it happened again. She was angry that the animal had been in pain unnecessarily. Brittany looked at the sick baby and was able to relieve some of its pain, and luckily the resident vet stopped in later and looked at him, too. She sent Jim to Giant to look for liquid simethicone to relieve the baby's stomach pain, and the prognosis was slightly more positive than had been thought.
The vet spent a long time in surgery checking out out an adult opossum who had
been hit by a car. She had repaired his broken leg and was x-raying him to check on healing. The break was not healing as well as she hoped, so she said she might put a metal pin in it.
We also got a call from D.C. Wildlife Rescue. They had a baby opossum that was only 33 grams and wanted to know if we could take it. The director of Second Chance is an expert with opossums, so Jim told them to bring the baby up from D.C. and we would take care of it. The idea that people care enough to drive a 33 gram baby opossum from D.C. to Gaithersburg blew my mind. It made me feel good about humans!
In slow times, I asked for work to do. I am not much for just watching other people work, but also knew my skills were limited. Audrey showed me how to fold the sheets and towels correctly so they would fit in cages, and I helped out with laundry throughout the day. I was paranoid that I would screw up the folding! Everything felt like new learning, and even folding towels felt like a challenge. I wanted to do a good job for them,and I concentrated on correct folds!
After the 4:00 bottle feeding, it was time to feed the adult squirrels, and Audrey let me help. They have a chart for what produce to give each squirrel, so we cut up strawberries, spinach, squash and blueberries and went to feed the squirrels in the large outdoor cages, who were being transitioned outside for eventual release. The office closed at 5:00, so I stayed and helped wash up, put away laundry, washed and dried dishes, etc. I didn't know where anything went and was constantly asking questions. I am sure I was annoyingly eager to please. I am grateful that they were all so patient and willing to teach me.
It was interesting and humbling to be on constant alert and worried about screwing up. It helped me remember how students must sometimes feel when learning new things -- afraid to ask questions, feeling they will look stupid, not wanting to seem too eager or too lazy.
It was good for me to feel uncomfortable, to stretch my brain to absorb new information. I am grateful to be able to do it in such a caring place with great people who are experts, and to work with animals who need help. I can't wait to go back and be uncomfortable again!
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