Help wanted: Why a rehab centre for wild animals is busier than ever

Just minutes after stepping off the plane, Max Muehlen of Toronto was scouring the woods of Nova Scotia in search of an injured bird.

It was the 22-year-old’s whirlwind introduction to life as an intern at Hope for Wildlife, an animal rehabilitation centre, in Seaforth.

“I enjoyed diving right in and getting hands-on,” said Muehlen. “There’s no better way to learn really.”

Hope for Wildlife brought on 50 interns this year, the most since the program started about seven years ago. But with more sick and injured animals coming through its doors, the centre’s founder said it can hardly keep up.

Hope Swinimer, founder of Hope for Wildlife, with Gretel, a pine martin. She’s one of the centre’s education animals. (Robert Short/CBC)

It’s looking for more people like Muehlen who don’t mind getting their hands dirty and want to spend 40 or more hours each week caring for all kinds of wild animals. 

“We’re really short this winter,” said Hope Swinimer, who founded the organization two decades ago. “Usually things slow down a little bit but that’s not the case.

“This work is very labour intensive, as you can imagine, so having those extra pair of hands is what gets us through. We wouldn’t be able to do it without our interns.”

She said people come from all over the world, including Turkey, Switzerland and Sweden, to take part in the internship program. Interns aren’t paid but they’re given a place to live and a vehicle to get around during their 16-week stay.

Stitch, a domesticated rabbit, was released into the wild by her owners and came to Hope for Wildlife with a large gash in her backside. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Two juvenile bald eagles stretch their wings in an outdoor enclosure. (Emma Smith/CBC)

“We don’t want to pick people who think it’s just fun because it isn’t fun,” said Swinimer. “It’s joyful and it’s an enriching experience but … it’s an incredible amount of hard work, and it’s sad because we see death almost every day.”

Some animals come into Hope for Wildlife so badly injured there’s no way they can be rehabilitated and have a life back in the wild, said Swinimer.

But there are the lighter moments too, like seeing an injured eagle gain strength and stretch its wings or witnessing the first few moments when a white-tailed deer is back in the wild. 

“There aren’t words to describe how amazing it was just to see like the joy on the animal’s face when it realized it could go do whatever it wanted and it was just free,” said 18-year-old Kambal Bloxham from Calgary. “It was this absolute almost bliss on their face.”

Susan Martyn retired from her job in B.C. and interned at Hope for Wildlife this winter. (Robert Short/CBC)

Bloxham graduated high school earlier this year and hopes to have a career in the medical profession. He said assisting the centre’s veterinarians has given him valuable experience. 

“A lot of the animals we see have very similar characteristics to humans and it teaches some really valuable skills … like tone of voice, body language, that kind of thing, because the animals really do pick up on it,” he said.

Some interns end up staying, like Tessa Jackson from B.C. She arrived in Seaforth nearly five years ago and never left.

Tessa Jackson, right, teaches Kambal Bloxham how to gently coax Chester, the hawk, onto his glove. (Emma Smith/CBC)

Now, she’s a full-time employee and even convinced her parents to move across the country.

“I’m hoping to go into veterinary medicine so I was really hoping to get some of that hands-on experiences, which you definitely get working here,” she said.

In 2018, Hope for Wildlife treated 4,500 animals and birds, 500 more than it typically sees, said Swinimer. She said it’s partly because the word is getting out about what the centre does, but there’s also far more run-ins between drivers and animals.

Volunteers and interns like Max Muehlen make up about 90 per cent of the centre’s 150-person workforce. (Robert Short/CBC)

Swinimer hopes if the interns take away anything from their experience it’s “what causes these animals to come to us in the first place.”

Muehlen, who plans to return for another three-month stint in January, said his days are rarely easy but it’s worth it. Like most of the people who intern at Hope for Wildlife, he’d never been so close to wild animals before.

“I got to syringe feed a porcupine for a couple of my first weeks here and there’s nothing like it,” he said.

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