Sometimes the oddest chance can evolve into a life changing event.
Di Conger, Director of Last Chance Wildlife Center in Thurmont can attest to such a moment of kismet while recalling a visit by a teenage neighbor 25 years ago. The girl asked Di to help a young blue jay. She thought that by virtue of Di owning a parrot she must surely possess some special insight into avians.
But Di, then living in Bethesda and working in hospice care, had no such specialized knowledge or training, so she did the next best thing. Acting true to form, she set out to help the girl and the wild bird.
"It took me all day to find a rehabber. I didnít even know there was a field in wildlife rehabilitation," Di says. "He asked me if I could transport from Silver Spring to Bowie. That was the beginning."
"It mushroomed very rapidly." Di explains too, that she was looking to make a change from working in hospice care.
"Iíve always been connected or drawn to people and animals in trouble. It wasnít anything I sought out," Di says. Whether by accident or design, she and her staff aid up to 700 animals in distress a year, quite an accomplishment for someone who had virtually no experience with animals during her formative years.
Ten years after helping the blue jay, Di was working with animals affected by an inland kerosene spill at Baker Park. She had the opportunity to visit Thurmont. There she found a 13 acre place that afforded her much sought after peace and quiet, with adequate space for outdoor cages to care for more animals among the tall
It is the domain of the wild things at Diís place.
A brief visit on a winter day allows one to see a small parade of animals stop in to eat at the porch feeder. Squirrels and a variety of bird species come and go to the sliding glass door, drawing the attention of Diís pet housecat "Tunes". Tunes is confined to the house, for as Di points out domestic cats are often
responsible for many fatal injuries on wildlife.
A rat appears near the eaves and moves furtively down the wall. Di doesnít seem concerned about of what she identifies as a Wood Rat. She believes his stay will be cut short when the black snake living in the attic comes out of hibernation.
Di describes how the snake lazes on the porch in the summer, so she thoughtfully checks for him before folks come to call who might not welcome its presence as nonchalantly as does she.
Her stories of close encounters with wildlife just outside the house are numerous and rich in detail.
Just before midnight a few years ago, she heard a loud banging on the exterior wall of her house. She came into the kitchen to see what she thought was a man hammering something against the wall. Flipping on the porch light, she found a black bear pounding the bird feeder on the stone siding, so close that she could detect
saliva dripping from its muzzle.
She casually mentions the raccoon who decided to homestead on the place a couple of years ago.
"Mom decided it was a great spot to have babies. Theyíll come up at nightÖone headíll poke up, then another. Iím like, ĎCan you do this somewhere elseí?" Her concern about raccoons is well founded. "They carry a roundworm which is a zoonoticóhumanís can get it, particularly young children because itís a hand to mouth
number. You know what kids are like. Other animals can get it, so I donít like them to use my area as their latrine."
Di urges people to first consider the pros and cons of encouraging wildlife around their homes because for some it can be a double-edged sword.
"People will call up and say theyíd love to have a bluebird house. I ask a few questions about their property Öand where they work." If she finds that they have a long commute she tries to explain why it may not be a good idea.
"That means for a large chunk of the day thereís no one to watch that box. Sparrows will kill them. I tell people if they arenít going to be vigilant in watching those babies, donít put the box up," she say.
Di seems to be an unflappable woman, undaunted by the constant threat of jaws and claws of various birds and small mammals. Safe handling and treating everything from feisty biting creatures such as chipmunks to large raptors like great horned owls, hawks, and eagles is a subject in itself.
Not only does each species require different handling techniques, but the type of food offered to the animals and frequency of feeding is also species specific. She attributes her knowledge and expertise to 25 years of continuing education, networking, and consulting veterinarians to whom she credits for the generous
donation of time and medical expertise to the Center.
Lacking her dedication to the animals and able assistance of many volunteers, LCWC would be limited in the number of animals that could be rehabilitated. One of Diís biggest concerns is the lack of nearby "rehabbers" who hold the state and federal permits necessary to legally possess or care for a wild animal.
"Opposumtown Veterinary Clinic has permits, but due to changes in staffing, is only able to take injury cases," Di explains. "When baby season rolls around, there isnít anybody else."
The challenges of running a wildlife rescue are many, but one tops of the list for Di.
"Mondays are always bad. People think we are closed on weekends," she points out.
So come Monday, she and the staff anticipate the arrival of many very needy animals and nonstop phone calls from the public with their wildlife concerns and questions.
"It takes a minimum of an hour to feed the baby birds." Di said. "That leaves me no time in the next hour, and I have to start all over again. If something comes in that needs a wing set that takes a half hourÖI can never catch up."
She describes things moving along at a frenetic pace especially during "baby season", sometimes hastening the end to a phone call so she can return to caring for the animals.
"If Iím on the phone too long, Iíll hear Ďem. The natives get restless. Itís time to feed, describing what she calls animals "phenomenal sense of time". She adds, "Öand, as soon as you finish feeding, the room goes quietÖfor a short period of time."
She suggests that people become more educated about wildlife, especially how to determine if an animal needs medical or supportive intervention and if so, transport the animal to a wildlife rehabber without delay.
"If you have to chase an animal all over the pea patch, leave it alone ówith some exceptions. With kids, I try to explain that Mother does a much better job feeding a baby than humans can," Di explains.
"People with the best of intentions in their heart can royally mess it up," she feels. In one case someone brought in chicks so inadequately fed while in the individualís care that they had to be euthanized. Another well-meaning person brought in an animal that had been fed ketchup for days.
In another instance, someone brought in an adult bird with a broken wing, and severely malnourished. Di asked what had been fed, and the person replied "seed". Unfortunately, the person incorrectly identified the species of bird ó rather than a seed eater, the bird was in fact, an insectivore.
Di points out that itís against the law to keep birds that are protected under The Federal Migratory Bird Act. And to posses other wildlife, one must obtain state and federal permits after passing requisite exams, periodic renewals, and put in hours of continuing education to maintain eligibility.
A question that comes up is if one should intervene if they happen upon a prey animal killing another animal for food. Di believes that is a personal decision, then illustrates with an example of a call she once received about an injured ruddy duck.
"It is one of the smallest diving ducks...adorable little thing not even the size of a pigeon. A hawk got it. It was beyond repairótotally. The person had interrupted the hawk." Di says she didnít have the heart to say, ĎOkay, now you have a hungry hawk and a dead bird.í Itís tough because itís a natural instinct to say
ĎStop, donít take it,í Generally, I count to ten and say let it go. Itís hard
sometimes. But everybody has to eat."
But, for the cases with more promising outcomes, the Center has facilities to deal with a multitude of injury/rescue cases that come her way each year. There animals are examined, treated, fed and housed until they are able to transition to the outside enclosures or aviaries prior for release in their home territory
Eventually the conversation turns to one of Diís favorite creatures, chimney swifts.
"They are physically incapable of perching. When they are babies, I put them on a slab board that I cover with receiving blankets. Because they are aerial insectivores and eat high up, you cannot let them self feed in captivity. So I have to feed them every hour until they are released. But I canít give them anything close
to what mother brings them.
Di uses the chimney swift to illustrate the concept of "hardwired" instincts in animal species.
When the chimney swifts are flying well and have good weight, Di takes them to be released and assimilated into a known colony of the birds.
"I go down at dusk. They are fascinating birds because you can hear them before you see them. The skyíll be empty a moment and my guys are like ĎLemme go, lemme go!í. Thatís hardwired. You release one or two. They get up in the air and immediately start going after insects. They are wonderful with mosquitoes," she
"Then here come three, four, eight, nine and they take them in. Thatís "hardwired".
As night falls at the release site, she describes how the swifts funnel into the chimney along with her rescues to roost for the night.
What Di seems to appreciate most about the chimney swifts is something more abstract than their eating large numbers of mosquitoes every day.
"They are so different from the standard songbird. "They are very gentle," she says thoughtfully. "They have no weapons."
It is quiet and serene at Diís place as the sun sinks behind the mountain. There is no traffic noise, radio or televison noise, no cell phones tones interrupting the serenity of the cold afternoon. There isnít even the sound of hungry birds, for the only wild residents over-wintering at Last Chance are quieter types waiting
for spring. Di asserts spring is the optimum time for their release so the little creatures can rebuild their lives in the wild, when ample food abounds and plenty of foliage available for nest building and cover.
Suddenly, there is an abrupt thud at the front of the house. Di discovers a black capped chickadee on the deck planking, alive but stunned by an unfortunate collision with the sliding glass door. She picks up the bird carefully, then holds it as gentle as a whisper in her cupped hands.
Di elaborates on the immediate care it will receive, and how she plans to sustain it until it is strong enough to be released. Her words come softly, almost inaudibly so as not to further alarm the stunned bird. But her words donít really matter to the wee bird.
Itís her gentle touch that says it all.