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Woman leads mission to help injured wildlife

Diana O’Connor’s business card describes her as “a volunteer for wildlife,” but that doesn’t begin to describe the round-the-clock care she gives injured, starving and abandoned animals.

O’Connor has a home in Westmoreland County but spends most of her time at the Wild Bunch Wildlife Rehabilitation Refuge in Warsaw. She’s operated the 83-acre center—as a volunteer—since 2000. Erica Yery, president of Wild Bunch, which has headquarters in Alexandria, bought the Richmond County property and put it in a conservation easement through the Virginia Outdoors Foundation.

O’Connor and her handful of volunteers take in about 1,200 animals per year, ranging from bald eagles and blue jays to raccoons and red foxes. Their tasks vary from chopping up fresh fish for juvenile ospreys that haven’t mastered hunting to cleaning up after skunks.

“As long as you don’t make any sudden movements, they won’t spray,” said volunteer Martha Berger.

The humans’ goal is simple: to help animals make their way back into the wild. Those with injuries or illnesses too severe have to be dealt with as well.

“If an animal can’t do what it’s made to do, if it can’t hunt, if it can’t fish, if it can’t live alone, it has to be put down,” she said.

That’s no easy task, even for someone who’s handled thousands of injured animals in 33 years as a rehabber.

“I’ve been doing it all these years, and it still hurts,” she said.

‘PIRANHAS WITH FUR’

O’Connor is certified by the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the National Wildlife Federation. She’s the only certified rehabber in the Northern Neck and one of few statewide who take on such a menagerie.

Some rehabbers specialize in small mammals or bats, turtles or lizards. O’Connor handles every small- to medium-size feathered or furry creature in the Old Dominion, except three.

She is 70 and has a disorder that causes her bone tissue to die. O’Connor has had her hips replaced 10 times; her shoulders, two times each; and her knees, three times apiece.

Because of her physical limitations—even walking is a struggle—she can’t handle deer. And she won’t accept beavers or river otters because both require specific habitats she can’t replicate. Cute as river otters appear, she calls them “piranhas with fur.”

“The whole time they’re eating, they’re fighting,” she said. “You have to see it to believe it.”

That brings up a point O’Connor often makes—the cuddliest baby grows into a fierce combination of claws and teeth.

It’s like the baby raccoon she currently has in the house, along with a young skunk to keep it company. She and others feed raccoon cubs by bottle while they’re housebound, then move them to an outdoor cage to prepare them for the wild.

Cubs are cuddly, but when they reach 15 or 20 pounds and sexual maturity, it’s a different story.

“We call them little grizzlies,” O’Connor said. “They are extremely strong, and they are extremely intelligent.”

DON’T PLAY WITH ANIMALS

Don’t even get O’Connor started on the horrible things people can do.

She took a painter turtle out of a tub of water and pointed to its injuries.

A 14-year-old girl deliberately smashed its shell. Her parents were fined for her cruelty.

Four box turtles were badly deformed because the person raising them—even though it’s illegal to do so—thought the reptiles lived in water, not the woods. The turtles were subjected to the wrong diet and habitat, which caused the innards of three of them to get so squished inside their shells that they died.

A fourth survived, but has deformities from its misshapen head to its nub of a tail.

As well-meaning as people are, their actions can be harmful to themselves and wildlife, O’Connor said.

“You don’t want to play with any kind of wildlife,” she said.

And, those who see injured and abandoned animals shouldn’t try to care for them when they don’t know what they’re doing.

Get them to a wildlife rehabber, she said.

That’s how a young osprey ended up on the center’s front porch late one recent night. O’Connor didn’t know where it was picked up or what problems it had.

Volunteer Ron Moon slipped on thick gloves and brought the bird to the examining table. He held it by its feet so the osprey would flap its wings—and O’Connor could observe it for injuries.

Its wings were strong, eyes were clear and mouth looked as it should. Moon put the osprey on its back, and O’Connor saw the problem.

The skin over the bird’s breastbone was paper thin, a condition O’Connor has seen a lot. It suggests the osprey hasn’t gotten enough to eat.

That can be remedied. Moon put the bird into a cage on the porch so volunteers can feed it and get some meat on its bones. When it’s stronger, the osprey will be moved to a flight cage that’s so impressive, it looks like it belongs at a zoo.

O’Connor used money her mother left her to build the 3,000-square-foot cage that’s shaped like an octagon and cost $80,000.

Ospreys and owls, red-tailed hawks and the occasional eagle have free range and can do laps through the building. Wooden slats and high ceilings give the cage an open, airy feeling.

The volunteers don’t want the birds to get too fat and out of shape, so they’re brought to the flight cage before release.

“Sometimes I chase them around, just so they can get exercise,” Moon said.

SHE DOES ALL SHE CAN

Wild Bunch is always looking for volunteers and donations. O’Connor estimates the center spends at least $10,000 per year on specialized food and veterinary bills—and that almost a million dollars has been spent to operate the facility since 2000. The center gets some federal grants, but most donations come from individuals.

O’Connor takes animals with severe injuries to veterinarian Sam Marsten at the Warsaw Animal Clinic.

“She really works hard and has knowledge,” he said.

There was a time when O’Connor rescued animals herself. These days, she has to rely on individuals and animal control officers throughout the region to bring patients to her.

Cpl. Kevin Keeve of Northumberland County is one of her regulars. He goes out of his way to retrieve injured creatures—and would go through “hell and high water” to save an eagle. He’s seen O’Connor bring back animals he was sure were goners.

“She does everything she can do in her powers,” he said. “And she is one helluva person, that’s the best I can say. I couldn’t imagine anyone better to work with than Diana.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

 

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