By FRANK CARINI/ecoRI News staff
Video by JOANNA DETZ/ecoRI News
SAUNDERSTOWN, R.I. — Chi Chan bought the foreclosed house — the owner died before moving in — for $400,000 little more than a year ago. While she has no plans to move in herself, squirrels, a chipmunk, a snake, and an owl now call the place home, at least temporarily.
Before buying the Tower Hill Road (Route 1) home, Chan had spent most of the past two decades working out of a two-car garage in Wickford. She’s not a mechanic. She’s a volunteer veterinarian for the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island. In fact, it could easily be argued that Chan, fellow veterinarian Meredith Bird, and executive director Kristin Fletcher — all licensed and trained wildlife rehabilitators — are the clinic. The trio has been working together since the early 2000s. They have never been paid, and they also take care of wild animals at their homes.
For 13 years, from 2000-2013, the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island, which began as a nonprofit in 1993, was housed in Bird’s garage. For about four years, the operation worked out of a barn on Shermantown Road, not far from Chan’s “home.”
ecoRI News recently visited the clinic, speaking with both Chan, who makes veterinarian house calls in South County to pay her bills, and Fletcher and visiting with the patients — some we never saw, such as a Cooper’s hawk with a brain injury hidden in a cage covered by towels, because humans staring at them only increases their stress. The animals receiving care when we visited Oct. 9 included:
A snapping turtle that had been intentionally run over Aug. 31 attempting to cross a street in Harrisville. A motorist following the culprit stopped and brought the crushed reptile to the clinic. She told clinic personnel she saw the driver purposely swerve to hit the good-sized animal. The turtle’s shell was glued back together, but the animal isn’t eating. Chan isn’t sure if the turtle will make it. Tube feeding a snapper isn’t really an option.
Another, smaller, snapping turtle that had been kept as a pet. Since the animal was being fed by humans, it wasn’t eating a proper diet and its shell growth hadn’t kept up with body growth. The turtle is being fed a fish-heavy diet and should be well enough soon to be released.
“This is the reason why people shouldn’t keep wild animals as pets,” Fletcher said.
A painted turtle with a head injury and an injured back leg. The animal was brought in Aug. 28, and Chan expects it will recover and be released.
A barred owl found Oct. 8 on Weybosset Street in Providence. The bird is suffering from cortical blindness caused by a head injury. Chan said the owl should regain its sight and will likely be released, in the area where it was found.
A black racer snake that got caught up in blueberry netting, and birds with conjunctivitis.
“I literally want to save all of them,” said Fletcher, a Portsmouth resident who has been the organization’s executive director since 2003; before that she ran a group home. “But I know we can’t. I still cry when I see wings torn off and back legs crushed. Sometimes euthanization can be a huge gift.”
The clinic is mostly a volunteer organization that typically has three to five paid employees on staff depending on time of year and funding. With no state or federal money available, the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island works with a budget limited to fundraising proceeds, grants, and private donations and with less-than-sophisticated equipment; Chan admitted many of her diagnoses are guesswork.
The nonprofit is also hoping to eventually pay back Chan the $400,000 she spent to buy the clinic a true home; Chan has spent another $155,000 on renovations, money she doesn’t want paid back.
The Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island sees about 5,000 animals annually, with birds, rabbits, and squirrels leading the way. The clinic, however, sees plenty of different species: bald eagles (including one that had been shot three times by a pellet gun; it had to be euthanized) and other birds of prey such as hawks, falcons, and osprey; deer fawns (adult deer can’t survive in rehab; “They slam into sides to get out and end up breaking their legs,” Fletcher said); killdeers; wood ducks; common eiders; a bobcat named Max (he was confiscated from a northern Rhode Island resident who had bought the animal in another state as a pet; Max is currently living at a Florida sanctuary); a fisher (because the cat had suffered a hairline fracture of the jaw it couldn’t be released into the wild and was sent to a zoo in Quebec); and bats, foxes, raccoons, woodchucks, and skunks (because these animals are the five rabies vector species in Rhode Island, no animal older than 10 weeks or so can be treated and special precautions must be taken).
About 50 percent of the animals brought to the clinic survive, according to Chan. That percentage matches the national average, she said.
The clinic doesn’t handle larger animals such as coyotes and bears. The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management handles those cases.
The Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island works with the Bradford-based Born To Be Wild rehabilitation facility, which specializes in care for birds of prey, East Greenwich-based Ocean State Veterinary Specialists, and Tufts University. The animals that die or are put down, are set to Angel View Pet Cemetery & Crematory in Middleborough, Mass. Some of the dead, though, are fed to the clinic’s recovering patients.
Both Chan and Fletcher noted that many of the animals they see have been injured or displaced by human impacts: collisions with windows and power lines; hit by cars; poisoned indirectly by eating rats and mice that were purposely poisoned; trees cut down; development; cruelty.
“A husband might think his wife is crazy for driving a mouse down here, but people have different views on life,” Fletcher, 58, said. “To me, individual lives matter, and it feels good to save one.”
While some people — like the person who purposely ran over the snapping turtle this summer — may think saving a squirrel is a waste of time and money, Chan, 55, asked, “Where do we draw the line? Deer? Seagulls? Morning doves? Pigeons? Do only the ‘special’ species get care?”