Wildlife Rehabilitators in Rhode Island
These volunteers care for injured owls, hawks and bunnies until they're ready to return to the wild.
The busiest seasons by far for wildlife rehabilitators are late spring, early summer and early fall, when baby animals arrive by the carload. Because the animals are usually healthy but often need round-the-clock attention, volunteer rehabbers are best suited for caring for them.
Gail Bembenek may be the champion of Rhode Island’s baby animal care givers, having nurtured more than 370 baby Eastern cottontails last year, along with numerous gray squirrels and opossums. Nearly all were raised in her dining room in Jamestown.
A retired Navy commander, she says she had “planned to become a veterinarian, but instead became a veteran.” It all started when she discovered an injured opossum in her neighborhood several years ago and later learned about the wildlife clinic.
“I’ve always been an animal person — no different from a lot of people,” Bembenek says, noting that she focuses on rabbits because that is where the need is greatest. “Rehabbing baby bunnies is far less successful than most other animals. There’s something the mom bunny provides to the babies early on that we haven’t learned to provide.”
Only roughly 60 percent of the rabbits that arrive at Bembenek’s door survive to be released, and each death takes an emotional toll on her. “Bunnies are so cute, I’ll do whatever they need,” she says. That means boiling the syringes used to feed the animals and taking other steps to ensure that contaminants are not introduced into their system.
“You have to have a special touch to raise bunnies,” she says. “You have to be calm and gentle. You either have it or you don’t.”
Bird cages, pet carriers and other containers cover every surface in Bembenek’s dining room, and all contain rabbits or squirrels of varying ages. Of the five cages on her dining table, two hold softball-sized rabbits nearly ready for release. “I can tell when they’re ready to go by the size of their poop,” she says. Four ragged-looking young rabbits less than three weeks old drink formula from a dish in another cage, two young squirrels hide under a blanket in the corner of a pet carrier, and five rabbits just three days old snuggle in a small white box that had arrived just hours earlier, their eyes still closed. A large domestic rabbit Bembenek calls the House Bunny wanders unencumbered from room to room.
Whenever a batch of baby rabbits arrives at her door, Bembenek inspects them for broken bones, administers medication for any wounds, and sets them on a heating pad to keep them warm. She feeds them several times each day and rubs their genitals with a warm wet cottonball — imitating their mother’s licking — to stimulate them to urinate. Eventually they move from a small cage to a larger cage and from formula to solid food. And when necessary, she euthanizes them. “I cry every time,” she says. “But it’s also the most wonderful resource you could have when they’re obviously in pain. It’s the kindest thing you can do sometimes.”
When the animals are ready to be released, she finds a willing landowner with good habitat and no dogs or cats around, and she happily gives them their freedom.
Bembenek’s commitment to caring for every animal she can means she often misses family events and accomplishes little else. She admits that the animals always get fed but her husband does not. Yet it’s a lifestyle choice she is happy to make, and one that her husband tolerates.
“I feel like 95 percent of the animals we save come to us because of man, so in my own way I’m trying to make things a little bit right,” Bembenek says. “That’s what drives me. It’s nothing fancy. I just feel like the animals have gotten a bum deal. I did twenty-two years of service for people, and now I’m doing service for the animals.”
At the Grills preserve in Westerly, a mile from the Born to Be Wild Nature Center, John Maxson removes a twenty-gallon plastic tub from the rear of his pick-up truck and places it on a boulder delineating the border of the property’s parking lot. A young female Cooper’s hawk thumps inside the tub anxious to make her getaway. The bird was struck by a car in West Warwick two months prior and suffered a broken wing, a wound to her leg and a ruptured crop (a throat pouch where food is stored).
“You can tell she’s ready to go,” Maxson says.
After nearly eight weeks of care at the wildlife clinic, the bird had been transferred to the Maxsons’ flight cage to assess whether she was ready for release. A few days later she was declared healed and healthy and capable of taking care of herself.
Maxson pulls on a pair of leather gloves, snips two plastic zip-ties that had secured the lid on the tub, and quickly lifts the lid. The crow-sized bird with a streaked chest and striped tail bursts from its enclosure, flaps four times and alights on the closest tree branch it can find. She peers briefly at Maxson, then scans the area and hops to the next highest branch. After stretching her wings and shaking her tail, she darts into the woods and, without looking back, is gone. The whole process of releasing the bird takes less than two minutes.
Maxson calls it a typical release for fast-flying, bird-eating raptors like Cooper’s hawks, especially when compared to the slower, soaring hawks that commonly perch on street lights as they watch for mice to eat.
“When the soaring hawks are released, they usually stick around for a while,” Maxson says. “Cooper’s hawks don’t have time for that. They’ve got things to do.”