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Wild Kritters of Niagara County bring comfort to creatures

A sparrow that collided with a car recuperates inside a cage in a converted spare bedroom. Throngs of squirrels come and go from their backyard soft-release enclosures until they are confident enough to stay away for good. Waterfowl that flew too close to a propeller now hobble around their lush outdoor sanctuary.

Taking care of these types of animals is all part of being a wildlife volunteer with Wild Kritters of Niagara County.

The organization does not operate out of a building with paid employees. Members of this network of certified wildlife rehabilitators work from their individual homes scattered throughout the county.

When a wild animal in distress is spotted, they spring into action.

President Kathleen Britton often is the first to receive a phone call when an animal needs help. Depending on the location and circumstance, the closest available volunteer springs into action.

“Turkeys and geese can run at 30 mph and be a real handful,” said Al Kiefer, another volunteer. “The trick to catching a skunk is to move slowly, stay in the right position, and trap quickly or cover it so it can’t spray. It has to believe you are not a predator.”

Untrained people should not attempt to interact with wildlife on their own.

“Ask before you act,” Britton emphasized. “The worst thing is to touch them. Leave it alone and call for help.”

Anyone can call Wild Kritters. They are also registered with the SPCA and all Niagara-area police agencies.

Once caught, rescued animals are cared for outdoors in structures built for the purpose, but some must be moved into the volunteers’ homes over the harsh winter months. The goal is to rehabilitate injuries or care for orphaned babies until they can be released back into the wild and survive on their own.

Different provisions are required for certain species. Songbirds need special fencing, birds of prey must be separated, and a Rabies Vector Species license is required to handle mammals such as raccoons, skunks and bats.

“Every person in the group has a bit of a specialty,” Kiefer said. “We have a diversity because you can’t handle all that come in.”

Baby birds need tube feeding every 20 to 30 minutes all day long for a couple of weeks. Volunteers who aren’t also working a full-time job step up for this task.

“We do keep some animals because they can’t go back into the wild due to an injury,” Britton added. “They aren’t pets. We make them ambassadors for the public to learn about them.”

A varied menagerie

Educating the public on how to harmoniously coexist with wildlife is part of Wild Kritters’ mission. The volunteers will conduct classes for groups of any size and age for free, but the group gratefully accepts donations of money or supplies.

Britton is currently housing six different species between her spare room and basement during the coldest months. She has an American crow that is only accustomed to being around humans, and a sparrow from Niagara Falls with a head injury. Nada and Jack are two American kestrel falcons (sparrow hawks) with neurological problems preventing their return to the wild.

A macaw parrot that will soon be ready for adoption was neglected after the woman who owned him died. He is extremely leery of men and became visibly nervous when Jim Dunham, another rehabilitator, walked nearby.

Five squirrels have secured another season of the easy life since they were rescued as tiny, bald babies and weren’t weaned and hadn’t had time to stash winter food by the Oct. 15 release deadline.

Duck Duck, a Muscovy duck who is blind in one eye and arthritic, has been with Britton the longest – almost 20 years. He and his mother were the last two remaining from a bunch that were living at Fairmount Park in Wheatfield before the human population and activity grew to a point where all the others were hit by cars.

Kiefer mainly cares for birds and squirrels and is handy building habitats for the animals. He became involved as a retiree after learning about the organization through a friend. His outdoor pigeon aviary is located in a wooded portion of his property that enables the birds to see and feel a part of the outdoor surroundings away from humans. All of the eight have a name and a rescue story even though they are being readied for release.

“Marsh was stuck on an outside porch fan and Prop Wash got hit by a propeller,” Kiefer related.

Melissa, Pure Heart, Matilda, Sure Bright, True Flight and Macy round out this flock. When ready, they will be released in groups or pairs so they can protect each other.

The right kind of care

Rehabilitator Peggy Camardella’s property offers outdoor structures for possums, tortoises and sometimes just stray cats, providing them a place out of the bitter winter cold.

Bart the barred owl looks larger than his 2-pound weight because of his 10,000 brown and white speckled feathers. His mesmerizing black eyes with midnight blue eyelashes blinked in slow motion as he fixed his gaze on Camardella. The trust and connection he has with his human caregiver is palpable.

Bart was hit by a car about 12 years ago and is unable to fly. Initially, he lived with Britton and wouldn’t let any other humans come near him. When Camardella visited, she would sit outside his cage and talk to him. He kept hopping closer to her and a bond developed. Now, Camardella’s star resident has his own habitat with a direct view into her sunroom so he knows she is near, and a camera that she uses to check on him at night.

The atmosphere inside Camardella’s sunroom is a stark contrast to the peaceful quiet of Bart’s outside surroundings. Harry and MacGyver and the other parrots and parakeets were full of squawks and chatter, with Harry extending a loud “bye-bye” as company departed.

Dunham’s yard is home to a structure that was built as an Eagle Scout project by Boy Scout Troop 841. Dunham recently rehabilitated six screech owls, including teaching them to hunt inside the enclosure that now houses two great horned owls named Charlie and Carly.

Charlie can’t fly since a collision with a car left him with a broken wing that never healed properly. Carly flew into a vehicle and has head trauma and a distorted eye with no depth perception. Their eyes are lighter than Bart’s since they are day hunters. The owls must be handled with thick gloves as they have sharp talons and can exert up to 300 pounds of pressure.

The mice that these penned owls and hawks eat are sent frozen from a conservation site in Germantown on the Hudson River for only the cost of shipping. Compressed furry pellets that lay around the ground illustrate that working with wildlife is not for the squeamish.

“The bones and fur of the mice and rats that the owls can’t digest regurgitate up and get spit back out in a clump,” Dunham explained.

Outside support

How do these caring people who rescue even the tiniest animals reconcile feeding some creatures to others?

“Hunters are the ones who find many of the animals we rescue,” observed Britton, “and we have rescuers who are also hunters.”

“The DEC (state Department of Environmental Conservation) will tell you, there has to be a balance of nature,” explained Kiefer. “If not, you can doom a species. Mice breed seven times a year. A red tail hawk visits my yard and occasionally takes a squirrel or a mourning dove. There is a yin and yang – a balance, and you just have to accept it.”

Several local organizations provide support to Wild Kritters. Walmart in Lockport, Wegmans and Blackwinds Pet Supply in Niagara Falls donate broken or returned bags of kitty litter and food. The 3F Conservation Society in Lewiston sponsors a wildly popular basket raffle fundraiser, annually in April.

Any donations of supplies and cash they receive go directly into caring for the creatures.

Wild Kritters is eager to help anyone interested in pursuing a license and offers classes and information, whether you want to work with them, on your own, or with another rescue organization. The DEC issues wildlife rehabilitator licenses, and the federal government provides additional licensing.

“The wildlife community is close knit,” Britton said. “There are never enough volunteers. We all work together and no person or organization is better than another. There is no glory in this. We are all in it for the wildlife.”

To learn more, check out wildkritters.com on the Web.