Just 20-30 minutes south-east of Atlanta, wildlife rehabilitator Michael Ellis is nursing some dwarf baby squirrels, teaching a great-horned owl independence and giving permanent shelter to a couple bobcats. His outfit, AWARE (Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort), is the biggest wildlife rehab center so close to such a big city I’ve seen.
Ellis, whose been rehabbing wildlife for two decades, says having big Route 20 nearby is crucial. You ride a few miles off the highway through farmland and the Arabia Mountain National Heritage Area and you’re at Aware, which looks like a house with an extensive kennel system. If you serve animals, why be near a city? Most wildlife injuries involve people (or their cars or cats). But more importantly, the best way to help animals is to teach people how not to kill them.
“I could spend 45 days saving one opossum or 45 minutes with one class of 30 kids and end up saving 1,000 animals over their lifetime,” Ellis says. The grim truth of wildlife rehab is that–except for maybe a few endangered species–its broad impact on animal populations is pretty much nothing. Squirrels and starlings are in no danger of going extinct. “But it makes a big difference to that one animal,” says Ellis. And each of the animal treated impacting the people who find them or learn about them at the center. That’s why Aware wants to reach every kid in Atlanta.
A few of those that can’t make in the wild live out their time at Aware. A local bulldozed a bobcat den, then decided to raise the cub instead of letting the mom retrieve it. The small shy cat hid in his house while I was there. Meanwhile a much bigger and bolder bobcat, Arigato, preened. He’s a southwestern subspecies that someone tried to raise in Georgia as a pet. Lauren Satterfield, a volunteer who hopes to study wildlife conflicts, says ill-treated Arigato is surprisingly friendly. Indeed, the big cat is absolutely flirty. A big ham, he nuzzled up to the fence, then turned his butt towards me. Much to my surprise, he sprayed me with his pee. All over. In bobcat world, I think Arigato now owns me; he was incredibly pleased with himself, lolling around showing off his spotted belly afterwards. A few flightless owls clicked their beaks at me. I don’t speak owl, but I’m pretty sure they were showing me that they are tough guys. Most patients are transients and never see the public so they won’t get too comfortable around people. Every fall Aware seems to get a batch of gray squirrels that have fallen out of trees that are about half the normal size and suffer from a skin rash.
Ellis modestly describes Aware as too small, but it seems to me better equipped and organized than most vet offices I’ve seen. Each animal gets an intake form and individual care, with a view to being released near where it was found. Although Aware meets the technical space requirements of each species, they’d like to give unreleasable tenants a bigger space and more natural and interesting daily life. “When it comes to permanent residents, they deserve the best,” Ellis says.
Sometimes they have to turn down requests from wildlife officials for big animals like bears that they don’t have the capacity to care for well–yet. That’s part of the reason they’re planning on adding 5,000 square feet of facilities over the next few years–provided they get the donations.
1.1 million fishermen
2 million wildlife watchers
Non-Residents Enjoying Wildlife in Georgia:
183,000 wildlife watchers