Wildlife caregivers seek shelter in a W.Va. Bill | VailDaily.com

Wildlife caregivers seek shelter in a W.Va. Bill

Daily Staff Report

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. – Patricia Hoffman-Butler was at her job in a D.C. art gallery when the call came: State wildlife agents were at her front door 80 miles away in West Virginia. They wanted keys to the pens where she kept the orphaned and injured raccoons that she was getting ready to return to the wild.She pleaded with them that day last fall to wait until she could get home, hoping to work out a way to save the animals she had fed, nursed to health and cleaned up after through the spring and summer. “Those animals are my reason to be,” she said later. She called local people she knew, asking them to go to her house and tell her what they saw. One reported dead raccoons on the front porch.When she arrived after a frenzied two-hour drive, a Division of Natural Resources agent handed her a search warrant. She saw men in breathing masks and white hazmat suits. She heard animal screams from the shed out back. By then, most of her five dozen raccoons were dead, euthanized by lethal injection.Wildlife rehabilitatorHoffman-Butler is a wildlife rehabilitator, someone who cares for animals in distress and then returns them to the wild. There are thousands of such specialists licensed in most states, but in West Virginia, what she does is illegal.Last month she pleaded no contest to one misdemeanor charge arising from the October raid, and this month two West Virginia legislators are using her case to push a law that would let trained rehabilitators like her care for afflicted animals.They are counting on especially strong support in this suburbanizing northeastern swath of the state, where many new residents come from greater Washington, bringing tenderhearted attitudes toward wildlife that sometimes clash with West Virginia’s hunting culture.DNR officials said they acted appropriately and oppose legislation that would require them to license rehabilitators. Hoffman-Butler’s animals were poorly cared for, they said, and even the best wildlife rescue work can spread rabies and other diseases. They don’t have the money to run a new program, they say, and their mission is not to help individual animals but to manage wildlife for hunting and other purposes.At the heart of their resistance to animal rescue – and supporters’ embrace of it – are conflicting ideas about wildlife itself. If you come upon an orphaned baby squirrel or an injured opossum, should you seek help? Or should you let the animal be, because nature plays rough and it’s not your business to interfere?Hoffman-Butler, 47, said she got into wildlife rescue the way a lot of people do, by finding an animal in danger. She couldn’t help that stranded raccoon in South Carolina a decade ago, but she vowed to learn how to save the next one. She trained with licensed rehabilitators in Virginia, has been vaccinated against rabies and said she has spent thousands of dollars on supplies.The Wildlife Rescue LeaguePeople are referred to her from Internet listings or groups such as the Wildlife Rescue League. They take her raccoons caught in chimneys, opossums hit by cars, baby animals whose mothers are apparently dead. She said she has rescued more than 100 animals in the past two years and released them on private land. “Up here, they are starting to build so much that these little guys need a voice,” Hoffman-Butler said. “They need someone to speak up for them.”She hand-fed the youngest ones and gave them stuffed animals to snuggle with, and she said she cleaned the cages at least once a day. “I took more (animals) than I should have,” she said, “but I realized I’d committed and followed through. It was a ton of work, but they were really healthy.”Illegal posessionShe thinks state wildlife officials knew what she was doing but did not interfere until they thought they had no choice. A DNR agent who had been alerted by a state trooper went to her house Oct. 1, cited her for illegal possession of wildlife and ordered her not to release any animals.Hoffman-Butler said she had planned to release the raccoons before a planned vacation later that month. Instead, she stayed home and pleaded with DNR officials to let her release the raccoons.On Oct. 27, state agents arrived again. It was then that they euthanized the animals. “We felt there was a significant disease threat with returning them to the wild,” said Paul Johansen, assistant chief of DNR’s wildlife resources section.”She knew that it was illegal, what she was doing,” said Maj. Jerry Jenkins of DNR law enforcement. “It was unfortunate that the animals had to be put down, but she’s the one that created the problem.”DNR sent 19 of the carcasses to a veterinary lab for testing. None had rabies, and all appeared to be well fed, Johansen said. One had parvovirus, a potentially fatal disease for animals, and half had roundworm, which can infect people. Both are relatively common in wild raccoons.Jenkins, who was at the house that day, said the smell of raccoon waste was “pretty bad,” the cages were dirty and “you could see lesions on their feet.”But animal rehabilitators who know Hoffman-Butler said she took good care of the animals. The smell was not surprising because “animals being terrorized excrete from every orifice,” said Ed Clark, president of the Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro.Clark, a past president of the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council, said he does not approve of Hoffman-Butler’s breaking the law but criticized West Virginia’s “overreactive, thuggish response.”Hoffman-Butler appeared in a Berkeley County court Dec.13 and was fined $20 plus court costs.”Because of the publicity that the raccoon story generated, there have been people who have expressed a need for animal rehabilitation and for that legislation,” said Del. John Overington, R-Berkeley, co-sponsor of the bill that seeks to license rehabilitators, require training and set standards of care. “I think many people were horrified at the way it was done, especially when you had a lot of juvenile animals just at the point where they could have been released.”He said the bill answers state officials’ concerns about disease by requiring supervision by veterinarians and will address objections about costs by raising license fees.West Virginia licenses only two wildlife rehab centers, both devoted to saving injured birds of prey, and Johansen said setting up a broader program poses problems beyond disease and cost. Many people rescue animals that don’t need help, he said: They think a fawn has been abandoned when its mother is away temporarily, or that a fledgling is injured when it is merely learning to fly.It is “relatively rare” to come upon a genuine orphan, Johansen said, and even then, “engaging in wildlife rehabilitation is not the way to go. When you bring that animal up and raise it under an artificial situation … it’s not going to have the skills it needs to survive.”But the bill’s supporters, including the Humane Society of the United States, said wildlife rehabilitators steer people away from rescuing animals that do not need aid. They said that people will raise an animal themselves, which creates worse problems, if they have nowhere else to turn.The bill’s opponents “need to … realize that this is a public service that rehabilitators provide for people and wild animals,” said Laura Simon, field director for the Humane Society’s urban wildlife program. “It’s true that rehabilitating an animal is not as good as mom, but if you don’t have rehabilitators, it’s the public taking them in.” Vail, Colorado

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