At the home of Erika Yeri, baby raccoons nestled together for warmth, waiting for their surrogate mother.
Still infants, the animals must be fed on a regular basis. For the next couple of months, Yery will nurse the raccoons until they are old enough to be let loose in the wild. In the past 22 years, Yery has rehabilitated thousands of wild animals at her home in Alexandria.
"You really have to love animals to do [wildlife rehabilitation]," said Yery.
FOR MOST ANIMAL "rehabbers," as they call themselves, helping these animals is a commitment of all they have.
It’s extremely time consuming. It can sometimes be expensive. It’s emotional. "And we do it all from our own homes," said Yery, adding that their homes become temporary way stations for the animals’ transitions into the wild.
Because of all of these sacrifices, such as providing the animals room and board, rehabbers are often in high demand.
Last year, the Wildlife Rescue League, an organization that links rehabbers to animals in need in the Washington, D.C. area, received more than 10,000 calls.
Yery, who is fully licensed to rehabilitate animals, focuses mostly on small mammals in the area, specifically animals that are high-risk rabies species, including raccoons, foxes, bats, skunks and groundhogs. She said squirrels and possums are not part of this group. Because of her focus, she has regular checkups with her doctor.
Barbara Prescott, who rehabs chipmunks, flying squirrels and infant squirrels in her home, said it’s a full-time job. "It’s nice to see them get well and see them go back into the wild," said Prescott, who helps more than 200 animals each year. In her 19 years as a rehabber, Prescott has helped other animals back to health, including beavers, skunks, owls and an albino squirrel. Currently, she is nursing several newborn squirrels back to health. In a few weeks, she will be releasing several flying squirrels that she rescued when they weighed 6 grams and were about the size of a kidney bean.
Many of the animals Prescott is caring for now require regular feeding, sometimes as often as every three hours, which she does individually with a syringe.
FOR ROBIN MCCLARY of Woodbridge, rehabbing has taken her to virtually every community in Northern Virginia, from Reston to Springfield. A social worker by day, McClary spends most of her other waking hours rescuing and rehabbing injured or abandoned waterfowl, mostly ducks and geese. She has saved geese nesting in the median of Route 50, ducks that have attempted to cross Interstate 66, and other waterfowl that tried to make office high-rises their home.
"It’s hard to have much of a social life," said McClary, of the time commitment.
At her house, McClary has built a 24-by-24 foot aviary to bring waterfowl in her care back to health.
This season, McClary has rescued 200 orphaned ducklings and 57 orphaned goslings. Licensed to help waterfowl and other animals, McClary has helped 400 animals this past year.
ONE OF THE BIGGEST problems for rehabbers is helping animals that have illegally been taken in as pets. "It may be cute to raise a baby raccoon, but it is dangerous and can get the person in a lot of trouble," said Yery.
Rehabbers say that many people take in wild animals when they are young, cute and cuddly. Sometimes children beg their parents to keep a baby animal they found, said McClary, but one of the hardest jobs rehabbers have is putting the wild back into domesticated wildlife. Rehabilitating domesticated animals is often more difficult and time consuming than rehabbing a wounded or injured animal, said McClary.
A few years ago, McClary rescued a Canada goose that had been illegally raised as a pet. The goose was so domesticated, it would often willingly jump into people’s cars. When McClary took the goose into her care, it would often want to sit on her lap. She spent more than two years teaching the goose "to realize it was wild."
"I know people might find a cute duckling and the kids love it, but don’t keep it," said McClary, who runs the Citizens for the Preservation of Wildlife.
Rehabbers also urge people to call the Wildlife Rescue League at 703-440-0800, if they find an injured or abandoned animal.
"People don’t know we exist and they take [animals] to the shelters, where they usually get [put down]," said Yery.