By Tracy Ormsbee
Somewhere around the age of five, growing up in Westchester County, Wendy Hall noticed that whenever the developers came in and clear-cut an area for construction, the animals would disappear.
What was once a beautiful, wooded area quickly became developed after the addition of a train station, a story she has watched repeat itself many times. “I would say man’s greatest assault to the ecosystem is his lack of patience,” Hall says.
That began what has become a lifelong passion for rehabilitating animals and educating the public. “We all have a responsibility to the planet,” Hall says. “This is what I have chosen to be my responsibility to the health of the planet. I love the work I do and the people I do it with.”
Today Wendy and her husband Steve have turned that concern for animals—and forty-five years as rehabbers– into the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge in Wilmington, home to wolves, foxes and bears, coyotes, bobcats, a porcupine, opossum, owls, hawks, peregrine falcon, ravens, and a turkey vulture.
Every day the refuge is open, visitors can come and see the animals, even an hour-and-a-half “wolf gathering” that takes you along a trail to see wolves—and other animals at the refuge—up close. They still rehab animals, they educate the public, and, Wendy says with a smile, remain “a thorn in the side of the U.S. Fish and Wild-life Service and the DEC.” (She does make an exception for DEC Region 5, saying they work well together.) But in general, she believes the agencies stick too rigidly to hard-and-fast rules because of limited staff.
She recently rescued a great gray owl that had been hit by a car, taking away most of one wing. Yet the owl has retaught itself to do everything but fly. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is asking her to euthanize the bird. She refuses and says the bird, because it’s one of the only birds that has come to her without toxicity, should be studied. The owl is being evaluated now by an independent veterinarian. “It’s not the animals that make the job difficult; it’s the humans,” Hall says. And, she says, until we do a better job with conservation efforts, such as preventing agricultural runoff, habitat loss through clear-cutting and overdevelopment, and generally co-existing with nature, we will continue to see loss of wildlife. The animals tell the story in disappearing birds and bats—and more mosquitoes—abnormal liver systems, and the number one cause of death in wildlife: starvation.
The refuge was registered as a non-profit seven years ago, but the Halls have cared for animals on the property since moving to Wilmington in 2000. They ended up in the Adirondacks because, as Wendy says, “Wilmington is like a little Switzerland.” They bought a remote house on a beautiful spot on the Abusable River using money left to Wendy, a retired geriatric nurse and massage therapist, by a former patient.
The animals come to her when they’re injured. And then they may be released or become per-moment residents at the refuge. She took in a lynx that was dying of emphysema after the man keeping it as a pet, a smoker, moved to a nursing home. Ricky, the raven, lives with metabolic bone disease because he didn’t get the calcium needed (it comes from insects) in the beginning of his life. It’s a smart group, Hall says. The raven can play dead and imitate books on tape. A wood duck, which early on was being chased away from its food by a group of bullying geese, befriended the great blue heron because he knew the geese were afraid of it. “Animals are aware,” Hall says.
One of the refuge’s better-known stories is of Barnabee, the starving black bear the refuge took in last winter. The Halls assumed it was male but later discovered the bear was female—and pregnant with cubs. Hall, again, points to the complicated and fascinating workings of nature. It was delayed implantation that kept the fertilized egg from implanting in the womb before the mother was healthy, she says.
Hall works with schools and colleges, bringing animals to classes to help make the connection between the natural world and what’s happening to our wildlife. She hires volunteers and student interns from Adirondack colleges to help teach and care for the animals. And she sees people change their minds as they learn. “People have misconceptions about wildlife until you tell them their purpose,” she says. She gives the example of the opossum, which people used to consider a horrible rat-like creature. And then they found out the animals eat ticks and their body temperature makes it I’m-possible for them to contract rabies. “Now everyone wants one,” Hall says. “We have lot of people who come and want to see the opossum.”
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This story originally appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue.