A squirrel in the house is no big deal for Phyllis Zupsic. The Springfield resident has 20 of them, in fact, and her house is more hospice than homestead at times.
Zupsic, 65, is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, and is part of the non-profit Wildlife Rescue League based in Falls Church, an organization dedicated to providing home medical care for wildlife through a network of volunteers like herself.
Zupsic has been a rehabilitator, specializing in squirrels and chipmunks, for 10 years, and admitted she has grown to love the little 3-pound rodents.
"I got into it by accident. It’s not something you go out looking for, because you don’t know anybody’s doing it," said Zupsic, who first found out about the league when a squirrel became trapped in the chimney of her home in 1994. After a call to animal control, Zupsic was put in touch with a licensed rehabilitator. Not only did she want to help nurse her squirrel back to health, Zupsic found she was interested in going further.
"I wanted to help the squirrel, but then the guy told me about this program where I could be an apprentice for two years," she said.
Two years later, Zupsic was part of the League. Started in 1984, it now has 450 members in Maryland; Washington, D.C.; and Northern Virginia, and nearly 50 licensed rehabilitators, according to Dawn Davis, president of the League.
"If it walks, crawls, slithers, and flies, there’s somebody there to take care of it," said Zupsic.
MORE SPECIFICALLY, the League serves bats, beavers, deer, foxes, groundhogs, opossums, rabbits, raccoons, raptors, skunks, songbirds, squirrels, waterfowl and game birds. Rehabilitators generally specialize, to be able to provide specific care and regular feeding schedules for their animals. By Zupsic’s count, she averages 130 squirrels a year. She even had to temporarily take her name off the League hotline earlier this year, when her squirrel count climbed to nearly 40.
Most of the squirrels she cares for are babies, which have either been separated from their mothers or been injured through a run-in with a car or cat. After getting a referral call from either an animal shelter, or through the League’s hotline, Zupsic nurses the squirrels back to health. It takes three months or more, but the goal is always to return the animals to the wild.
"We rehabilitate them to put them back out in nature as soon as possible," Davis said.
In the case of squirrels, that means feeding the babies every three hours during the day, and at 2 a.m. Zupsic uses powdered formula, which she mixes with unsweetened applesauce, her homemade recipe. The animals are kept in covered cages in her kitchen and back yard. Special-needs squirrels are kept in the bathroom, in the dark.
"She doesn’t refuse anything — hit by a car, broken leg, she’ll take it, work with it … she’s concerned about the interest of the squirrel, which is noble, I think," said Zupsic’s husband, Gene Zupsic. Phyllis takes squirrels with more severe injuries to her partner veterinarians at Burke Veterinary Clinic.
She even brought her squirrels to work with her, when she worked for the Department of Housing and Urban Development before retiring. She rode the Metro with them, and kept some in her desk drawers at the office.
"I had a very understanding boss," she said.
The League relies completely on the dues of its members and outside donations, as well as putting on regular fund-raisers, to pay for medical supplies and meetings. Rehabilitators work completely out of their homes, and pay for their own supplies, for which they are reimbursed.
To help with their efforts, Fairfax County recently awarded the League $10,000.
Supervisor Elaine McConnell (R-Springfield) said she has taken birds and animals to members of the League on occasion over the past six years and appreciates their work.
"They do such good work, and as a lover of animals, I'm so impressed with them," said McConnell.
Davis said she is hoping in the future the League can acquire a building for a permanent location, to provide regular care, as well as provide more classes for the public to learn about care of wildlife.
What makes the league go, though, is its volunteers, said Davis.
"These people are so committed. I just admire all of them, their kindness, their maternal instincts to take care of these animals," she said.