By Winslow Umberger
Never doubt what two women with a mission can accomplish. Wildlife warriors Savannah Trantham and Kimberly Brewster had noticed a disquieting trend. More and more people in the mountains were seeking help for injured and orphaned wildlife. As Buncombe County’s population grew, so did the numbers of animals needing aid. These women were on the frontline of this problem. Both were affiliated with the WNC Nature Center: Trantham as assistant animal curator and Brewster as executive director of the Friends of the WNC Nature Center. They understood that the Center was not set up for this. Something had to be done.
They started Appalachian Wild with the mission of coordinating the needs of wildlife rehabilitation efforts in Western North Carolina. That was 2014. Thanks to their efforts and those of a small core of advisors and volunteers, Appalachian Wild opened its animal care facility in Candler on July 6, 2018. Buncombe County now has an amazing resource where a myriad of species needing attention can get the specialized care required to get them back into the wild. “Without this community’s strong sense of stewardship for wildlife, this facility would not be possible,” says Trantham, Appalachian Wild’s newly named executive director. “Their continuing support is vital to our functioning.”
Yet, not all understand why wildlife rehabilitation is important. “Every life, no matter how small, has a role to play in keeping our ecosystem balanced and healthy,” says Trantham. “It is the goal of wildlife rehabilitation to help return animals to their ecosystems so that they can continue to play their roles. While wildlife is everyone’s responsibility and deserves care from all people, wildlife rehabilitators are trained in fixing some of the damage humans cause to wildlife.”
When a pet becomes sick, it is taken to a veterinarian, so it’s understandable that people call their vets about wildlife. “Most veterinary offices know they can direct people to Appalachian Wild’s website for information and flow charts for what to do if they find wildlife,” says Dr. Sarah Hargrove of Cedar Ridge Animal Hospital. “Often, vets will stabilize animals and help with any wounds, but only a wildlife rehabilitator has the knowledge and experience to care for them until they can be released.”
Wildlife “belongs” to the state, and only those people licensed by state or federal governments can provide the specialized care wildlife requires. Appalachian Wild works in partnership with our state’s commission to do just that. “The North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission (NCWRC) is dedicated to conserving wildlife populations and keeping these populations wild,” says Justin McVey, a certified wildlife biologist for the NCWRC. “Unfortunately, there are cases where wildlife is injured or orphaned, and that’s when licensed wildlife rehabilitators come into play. They provide care without habituating the animals to humans, which takes skill and know-how. It is in our best interest to keep wildlife wild, and rehabilitators are an important part of making that happen.”
Wildlife rehabilitation facilities are important “training grounds” for students seeking hands-on experience and careers in the animal sciences. Nina Fischesser, director of the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Banner Elk, knows this firsthand. She was Trantham’s mentor in founding Appalachian Wild. “The students in our program learn by experience how much work goes into running a wildlife rehabilitation center,” says Fischesser. “It isn’t just about caring for animals. It’s also about teaching, fundraising, building and repairing enclosures. The list is endless.”
An important part of Appalachian Wild’s mission is to educate the public about the importance of native wildlife to our ecosystem. It is hoped that the education and work wildlife rehabilitators do will instill a sense of stewardship for the natural world. People protect what they value. The more they appreciate the natural world, the better the chance that future generations will grow up in a world filled with the wonders of wildlife.
The animal care facility is the first phase of a larger vision. Once ten acres of donated land are found, plans are to build a state-of-the-art wildlife rescue, rehabilitation, research and education center—a place that will make the citizens of Buncombe County proud and deliver first-class care to the wildlife this community holds dear.
Winslow Umberger is head of outreach for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit whose mission is to coordinate the needs of wildlife rehabilitation in WNC by providing care for injured and orphaned wildlife, supporting WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and providing conservation education. Learn more at AppalachianWild.org.