By Paula Musto
While internships are often de rigueur for college students, experiences can vary from mundane tasks to eye-opening discoveries. This fall’s savvy group of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge (AWR) interns says it is definitely the latter.
After years of textbook learning and endless lab projects, seven students—all seniors at the University of North Carolina Asheville—are finally getting the handson experience they crave. And, for some, it’s a lifechanging experience.
AWR’s animal care facility in Candler is dedicated to treating injured or orphaned wildlife with the goal of rehabilitating and returning the animals back to the wild. The animals (opossums, rabbits, beavers, squirrels, groundhogs, birds, turtles and ducks, to name just a few species treated) have been hurt or abandoned, often due to human activity in their native habitats.
“This is very different than anything I’ve ever done,” says Ashley Ward, 23, an environmental studies major. “I am not only fulfilling an academic requirement but also doing something that makes a difference.” Interns work an average of 15 hours a week performing a variety of tasks, including preparing formula for babies, helping tend the wounded and coaxing feisty critters back into their enclosures. It’s all in a day’s work at the facility that has taken in nearly 3,000 animals since it opened in 2018.
“I’ve had a lot of lab courses—and dissected a lot of animals—but actually taking care of wildlife is very different,” Ward says. “It makes you realize that every creature on earth has a purpose and contributes to our planet.” Carlee Benfield, a 20-year-old biology major, echoes this sentiment. So much so, that during her internship she is earning credentials as an apprentice wildlife rehabilitator in hopes of one day becoming fully licensed to rehabilitate wildlife.
“I didn’t realize until my internship what a crucial role these animals play in our ecosystem and their importance to humans,” Benfield says. “The quality of our lives depends on respecting nature. Instead of us thinking that the world is all about us, that we dominate nature, humans need to understand that the cottontail rabbit, the baby squirrel and those funny looking possums are just as important.”
Benfield says the best part of her animal care duties is releasing rehabilitated animals back into the wild. “Wow, it’s incredible to see the good you’ve done and let a rehabilitated animal return to the wild,” she says, recalling the first time she helped release an opossum into the woods. “It’s absolutely beautiful.”
Twenty-one-year-old Tessa Snyder, another senior majoring in environmental studies, had to decide between an internship with a local farmers market or the wildlife center; she chose the wildlife, though was unsure what to expect. It is turning out to be a rewarding experience far beyond meeting academic requirements.
“It’s made book learning come alive,” Snyder says. “Classes can be boring. And, especially during this time of COVID-19, actually working with wildlife helps you see the world differently and not stress so much about the future.”
Sarah Schaeffer, 23, began her university studies as an engineering major, but decided that it wasn’t a good fit and switched to ecology. Her wildlife internship has shown that this was the right choice.
“I always loved animals, but had never held a squirrel or possum before,” she says. “Now, I make their food, clean their enclosures and once even watched an autopsy on an opossum. I’m learning so much that I will put to use one day no matter what I decide to do after graduating.”
Students interested in an internship can visit AppalachianWild.org to learn about opportunities. In addition to animal care, AWR offers internships for young wildlife enthusiasts interested in educational activities and public outreach.
Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to help injured or orphaned wildlife, support WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and provide wildlife conservation education. To help save wildlife, donate and learn more, visit AppalachianWild.org.