Tucked away on the grounds of the Munn's Pond County Park in Hampton Bays is a rambling building that houses the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons. As the name suggests, this not-for-profit organization is the place to call when a wild animal in distress is discovered. Housed in a renovated barn leased from Suffolk County, the Wildlife Rescue Center is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. to help these animals, and their emergency phone line is staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The Wildlife Rescue Center began as a germ of an idea 20 years ago when center director Ginnie Frati found an injured groundhog and realized there was no place to take the animal, and very little information available on how to care for it. She began researching and found herself on a new path in her life. She discovered how to become a certified wildlife rehabilitator, and things began to snowball. "I was an administrator," she said, "I knew nothing about animals." It quickly became apparent that there were many animals in need, and that the increasing human population of the east end must be educated about the wildlife whose habitats they were encroaching on. Frati dedicated herself to her new calling and, as her reputation grew, she worked diligently to help as many animals as possible. Said Frati, "The center was at my house, I had cages out in my yard!" Soon her house was full to the rafters with baby squirrels in the hallways, turtles in the basement and swans in the swimming pool. The time had come to find a place to house all these creatures as they healed, someplace that could be available seven days a week.
In 1997, The Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons became an incorporated 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization. This was an important step, but only the first step. It took much hard work on the part of many people, and the cooperation of Suffolk County to make the dream a reality. In 1999 the County offered the use of the Munn's Park property, rent free, with the stipulation that the WRCH renovate an existing dilapidated barn. Frati and the other dedicated volunteers held fundraisers and made appeals to get enough money to start the renovation. Once some funds were secured, they began weekly Saturday workdays. Slowly, the number of volunteers began to increase and the building and outlying cages were finished. Finally, in June 2000, the center opened its doors.
When an animal comes into the Center, its condition is assessed in the triage room, which is equipped with oxygen, anesthesia, and a simple blood laboratory. If the animal is not in immediate danger, it is made comfortable and allowed to rest. "The stress of all the activity is often the most dangerous thing for a wild animal" said Frati. If there are no visible injuries, the animal is fed, and the staff monitors the behavior closely. Often, an animal has been disoriented by a storm, or stunned by a blow or - in colder seasons - overly chilled. After decent food and some rest in a safe place, they can often be released. "We try to get everything back out as quickly as possible" said Frati. Other times, a vet must be called in for more serious injuries, such as broken legs or wings. Each animal is given a case number so the rescuer can call and check on the treatment outcome.
On this cold and sunny day, the staff is caring for nearly 100 animals, even during what Frati calls "the quiet season". There is the usual assortment of swans, geese, and ducks, disoriented and chilled by a storm. An owl has been brought in, and is being kept in a dark and quiet spot, warmed by a heating pad, while his condition is assessed. There are quite a few owls on hand on this day; the most intriguing for the staff are a Barred Owl, which is a beautiful and uncommon large owl with zebra-like stripes across his chest, and a Shorteared Owl, which is causing lots of excitement at the center. Short-eared owls are endangered, and many doubt their existence on Long Island. This particular bird was found on Dune Road by the Ponquogue Bridge, his wings badly broken. Because his ability to fly will be compromised, he will not be released. "He will hopefully be used in a breeding program," said Franti, "or possibly as an education bird". Saving this bird is an important accomplishment, and finding him will have positive consequences for the species. Education Director Dennis Fleury is particularly interested in this lovely creature. "It's proof that they're here," he said, "and it's good news, they are great for rodent control." Many other creatures, great and small, are being cared for at the center as well; groundhogs, box turtles, a squirrel, and a Shelter Island wild turkey who was shot with an arrow, to name just a few.
The mission of the WRCH is to preserve and protect wild animals by providing rehabilitation services and education to the public. To educate, the WRCH has information available onsite as well as on their website to familiarize people with the animals they are most likely to encounter and how to tell if an animal is in need of help or if it should be left alone. They also have an outreach program, headed by Dennis Fleury. He handles animals that cannot be returned to the wild and designs school programs around them. On this winter afternoon he was returning from a preschool, where he introduced the students to a Great horned owl named Killala, a possum, a tiny screech owl and some box turtles. "The animals do really well, the kids love them," he said. "The animals have so much to teach them." Frati believes this education is crucial to the survival of these creatures in the future. "The kids can see animals up close, they learn about the perils that face these animals, it gives them food for thought, then maybe they'll make more environmentally responsible choices as they get older", she said.
The WRCH is funded entirely by donations, and they are active all year long raising money. Upcoming events include a silent auction and the annual Summer Gala. They also raise money through a holiday donations appeal and by soliciting memberships. Membership costs $25, and members are entitled to a periodic newsletter, containing interesting stories about different animals that have been rescued. Raising money to continue the mission has been difficult these last few years in the midst of the recession. The nature of the project makes fundraising challenging. "If people love animals, they like to donate to dogs and cats, because wildlife doesn't love you back, it'll bite you any chance it gets," said Frati.
There are many ways to help preserve the wildlife of the east end. Volunteers are always needed, and training programs are available for those who can dedicate some time each week. For those who cannot, there are other ways to help the center financially, through donations of cash, securities, real estate, items that can be auctioned, and more.
For information on how to help, contact the WRCH at 631-728-4200. To speak to someone about an animal in distress, call the hotline at 631-728-WILD (9453), or visit www.wildliferescuecenter.org and make a difference in a wild life.