Animal instinct: Rehabbers at Voices for the Voiceless aid of sick, injured wildlife in Delaware

The baby boom looms just around the corner, toward the end of March.

And when it arrives, Toni Oddo of Lewes and Vicki Bowman of Bridgeville will likely be very busy.

Working around full-time jobs, the two permitted Delaware wildlife rehabilitators, whenever possible, attempt to save lives of nondomestic animals through their voices for the Voiceless Wildlife Rescue and Rehab.

“If you hit a dog or a cat, you scoop it up like the world is coming to an end and take it to a vet,” said Ms. Bowman. “But if you hit a raccoon or a possum, or you shoot a deer, and you don’t kill it, and it wanders out into the road, people would see them and say, ‘Just let nature take its course. They die every day.’ I don’t take very well to that. It’s not nature if a human does it. If you hurt an animal, you are obligated. You’ve got to have humanity somewhere left in this world.”

Nor does Ms. Oddo adhere to the “let Mother Nature takes its course” justification.

“Well, Mother Nature didn’t put this thing into that path. It’s hit. We (humans) have hurt it. We’ve taken their habitat away,” she said.

Animals killed along Delaware roads take a huge toll on wildlife. And often, a dead doe, opossum or raccoon leave behind offspring.

Voices for the Voiceless, founded in March 2019, responds to hundreds of cases annually, answering calls from everyday people, the state, police agencies and licensed live trappers, such as Jay Wilkins, who operates Wilkins Wildlife & Bedbug 911.

“What these girls do is pretty unique. To me, a rehabilitator is something you do from the bottom of your heart. It’s inside of you. You either do it, or you don’t. There is no halfway,” he said. “These ladies are the most compassionate, heartfelt ladies I have ever helped, and I continue to help on a regular basis.”

Ms. Oddo, who also cares for her 86-year-old mother, said Voices for the Voiceless can receive up to 1,000 calls a year, at all hours of the day and night. And that’s a conservative estimate.

The voluntary effort mostly involves rescuing and rehabbing baby critters — fawns, raccoons, rabbits, opossums, squirrels, foxes, groundhogs and skunks, among others.

Any calls for birds often enlist the expertise of Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research. “Anything that is federally protected, we are allowed to retrieve those birds, but we have to turn them over to Tri-State Bird. They have all permits to deal with federally protected birds,” Ms. Bowman said.

Additionally, turtles are under the umbrella of a veterinarian in the Middletown area.

Vet on call

An instrumental cog in the Voices for the Voiceless effort is veterinarian Dr. Michael Metzler and Four Paws Animal Hospital in Bridgeville.

“The hard work is done by those ladies, really and truly. Most of the time, if it comes to me, it is usually bad, and more than half of those cases are euthanized, which is disheartening. And it’s sad. But the idea is, the ones we save (are) gratifying,” said Dr. Metzler.

“We’ve saved anything from skunks to raccoons, squirrels, deer possums. We see it all. We learn by doing. My goal is to make their lives a little easier, to help make decisions that are difficult for them to make and to do it humanly. In most cases, we offer them medications, in a fair shake to get these animals back to normal.”

Ms. Bowman said she appreciates the extra support.

“If it wasn’t for the kindness of Four Paws Animal Hospital, Dr. Metzler, chicken donations from Mountaire and donations from the public, we wouldn’t be able to keep the rescue going,” she said.

Voices for the Voiceless basically operates on donations and voluntary support. But the cost for food, medicine and gas is not immune to inflation.

A main avenue for fundraising is the software tool, Network for Good.

Mr. Wilkins also honors his pledge to help.

“Because they are a nonprofit, my company is donating $50 per trapping job that we do in the month of March to help them offset expenses that they incurred by helping wild animals and the general public that calls upon them for help,” he said. “It’s important to help where you can, when you can.”

Though there is no state funding supporting the women’s effort, there are rules they must follow.

to Michael Globetti, spokesperson for the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, permits are issued to those trained in wildlife rehabilitation according to a new program administered by the Division of Fish & Wildlife.

“For someone to become a wildlife rehabilitator in Delaware, they must apprentice under a previously permitted wildlife rehabber for 12 months, and they can then be independently permitted to rehab the wildlife species groups for which they have received training,” he said. “To rehabilitate native birds or endangered species, additional federal permits from the US Fish & Wildlife Service are required, as well as the state permit. DNNREC does not allow rehabilitation of nonnative species.”

Off-season is quiet

Presently, all is pretty quiet at Voices for the Voiceless’ two rehab locations — in Bridgeville and Lewes — though care of injured and sick animals continues. But the volume of those calls pale compared to the anticipated baby boom.

“The babies, they start coming in March and April. So we’re gearing up now,” said Ms. Bowman. “Another thing is people like Jay, trappers that trap at houses. They give us all the babies. You might get four or five raccoons at a time.”

In most cases, the goal is to get young animals to the point of eating on their own.

Wildlife successfully rehabbed are typically released at several large farms. Orphaned fawns that have been rehabbed can be introduced to nearby herds.

Ms. Bowman’s base is her small farm on about 12 acres in rural Bridgeville. It includes a small area fenced in for fawns. After young deer are used to being bottle-fed, the gate is opened and “food is put out until they don’t come back. By the end of August, they have to be gone,” she said.

She releases all opossums she possibly can because they eat thousands of ticks a year.

And baby skunks? “They are adorable. They are so cute,” Ms. Bowman said.

There is accountability, however. Ms. Oddo and Ms. Bowman must submit data under rules DNREC sets out. It’s a yearly report “on how many (of) each species, how many died, how many were released and where released,” said Ms. Bowman.

Their stories have both happy and sad endings. And some cases are gruesome, such as a fawn they discovered that had been shot on the side of a road. It was still alive, with buzzards and ticks eating away at its flesh.

How it began

Seeds for this initiative were planted years ago, when Ms. Oddo came across a baby raccoon.

“I searched out how to take care of it or what to do in the state,” she said, adding that she eventually took the required classes and was permitted as a licensed wildlife rehabber.

“It is just kind of flourished. People were sending calls to me and (through) word of mouth,” Ms. Odo said. “Vicki and I actually met through a possum that was injured or hurt. Vicki had taken it to the vet at Four Paws, and they wouldn’t do anything without a permitted rehabber. So I called and said, ‘Put it under me.’”

A friendship with a common bond was then born, and Ms. Bowman became a licensed rehabilitator.

“We became friends,” said Ms. Odo. It’s snowballed. Being down here in Sussex County and having our rabies vaccines, we were the ones that could handle the foxes and groundhogs, raccoons, any rabies vectors.”

Mr. Wilkins’ engagement began when he sought out a way “where I could aid the juveniles for wildlife if they were injured or displaced (and) needed some human being that would be able to feed them or shelter them until they could (get) back to the wild. The best way I thought for me to learn that was from someone who was experienced at it.

“And through checking with other wildlife trappers, I ended up meeting Toni Oddo. She and I kind of connected right from the word ‘go.’ I became her apprentice in the beginning. I just needed the basic info, so I would know what to do with these animals.”

Family ties

Over time, Mr. Wilkins has developed a skill for keeping mamas and their little ones together, which reduces the number of calls to Voices for the Voiceless.

“In my part of my business, I have learned how to not even depend on the rehabilitator,” said Mr. Wilkins. “They tell us these animals will shy away from their young (and that) if they are separated, the mothers won’t take care of the young. I know for a fact that is a lie. I introduce the parents back to the young on a weekly basis. If they are left alone, left in a peaceful condition, less noise, they can come back and get their young as they please. They will completely relocate their young on their own.”

Aside from the occasional pesky squirrel that is making removal difficult, “everything we do in our business is a live-trap scenario for the most part,” said Mr. Wilkins. “We basically want to get the animal who is creating the human/animal conflict. We want to remove the animal from the situation because it is easier for us to remove the animal than it is the … human.”

Mr. Wilkins added, “It speaks volumes (about) Vicki and Toni both of their compassion for animals. And although I am compassionate for animals, too, I am also held at bay to handle my clients’ problems. We always discuss the easy way. The hard way is not something I like to do, but unfortunately, it comes with the territory.”

Dr. Metzler said Four Paws’ staff is amazed at the compassionate commitment of Voices for the Voiceless.

“These ladies are wonderful. They are very caring. They are kind. They are very intelligent. They know these animals well. Our job is to help them make a difference in the world. And they most certainly are,” he said.

Understanding nature

Mr. Wilkins offered an explanation regarding a common call he receives.

Typically, being a marsupial, opossums will carry young in their pouches, he said. But with raccoons, it’s different.

“Females are going to leave their litters. Once she is comfortable enough, she will go out and feed herself. She has to feed herself, which is sometimes during the day,” he said.

On occasion, this leads to calls from people reporting a rabid raccoon because it’s out in the middle of the day. “And that is not the case. That is a birthing mother raccoon who has to eat on her own. That is a human that doesn’t know what they are talking about,” said Mr. Wilkins.

In some cases, a trapper may euthanize that raccoon and take her pups to a rehabilitator. He added that Delaware gives trappers discretion on what to do with such an animal, while Maryland is a rabies vector euthanization state.

“I don’t agree with some of those laws,” said Mr. Wilkins. “There is a good reason God created this animal. We may not understand why, but it has a job in the ecosystem. If you continue to kill them, … if you are taking that animal’s purpose, it is no different than taking a human’s purpose of what they are supposed to do.”

Who to call?

For those experiencing an animal/human conflict issue, one option is to visit here, which lists wildlife operators by county.

However, perhaps the first option might be to call Ms. Oddo or Ms. Bowman, he said.

“Because, personally, nobody is going to take better care of the animal than these two. They also have the knowledge and the experience that the average person does not,” said Mr. Wilkins. “And they have the backing of a local vet, which is also not found in other realms of wildlife rehabilitation.”

For information on Voices for the Voiceless Wildlife Rescue and Rehab, call Ms. Oddo at 302-344-6348, Ms. Bowman at 302-275-6767 or visit its Facebook page.

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