Lifestyle Pets, Animal Welfare

The Wild Truth: Ambassador Animals

Connecting Us with Nature

By Paula Musto

Remember the first time you encountered a wild animal up close and uncaged? The experience may well have made a lasting impression. Some call it magical, a wow moment that may prompt rethinking your connection to the nonhuman world.

Chances are you met an ambassador animal, one of the well-trained critters who play a significant role in educating people on the importance of wildlife. Ambassador animals, which are often part of exhibits and presentations at schools, nature centers and wildlife parks, include a variety of mammals, birds and reptiles.

Nina Fischesser with an orphaned opossum. Photo by Holly Wilbur

“There is nothing like seeing a live animal up close—it is much more impactful than reading about wildlife in a book or pamphlet,” says Nina Fischesser, director of the May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center (MWRC) at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk. “These animals play a significant role in teaching us about wildlife and raising our awareness of conservation and environmental issues.”

The center offers the only program of its kind on a college campus that trains ambassador animals for educational purposes. What even ardent wildlife enthusiasts may not realize is the amount of effort that goes into preparing these animals to interact with humans.

Under Fischesser’s tutelage, the Lees-McRae students spend countless hours working with a variety of species, almost always animals who can no longer survive on their own in the wild. Instead, with professional handlers lending a hand, they serve as ambassadors to our world.

“These animals inspire us and make us want to protect natural habitats where wildlife can thrive,” Fischesser says. Scientists have warned that habitat loss and other environmental factors, including climate change, have put up to one million species at risk of extinction around the globe. Wildlife education and outreach efforts are now a dire mission.

Lees-McRae student Jillian Duckworth

Fischesser, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, founded the MWRC 20 years ago to help give animals, often injured or orphaned due to human activities, a second chance. Today, the mission includes training the next generation of wildlife rehabilitators and educators.

Fischesser and a five-person staff, including two veterinarians and a cadre of students, care for hundreds of animals that arrive at the center each year, with the goal of releasing those who recover back into the wild. But even after rehabilitation, not all of the animals are able to survive on their own. Some move on to ambassadorship. Currently, these consist of a menagerie of possums, squirrels, snakes and turtles, along with a variety of birds including owls, hawks and an eagle. The training process can be long and sometimes laborious.

“Not every animal has the right temperament or ability for this work,” Fischesser says. Training includes becoming comfortable being handled and the ability to tolerate environments that can include noisy children and camera-toting adults. Fischesser and her students keep a sharp eye out for signs of stress. Orphaned animals, she says, are most often best suited for the job because they begin interacting with humans at an early age.

Lees-McRae pre-vet major Ashley Maddox with Sealy, a Barred Owl. Photo by Paula Musto

“Every animal has a story as to how they got here,” Fischesser says as she introduces Thunder, a white squirrel who fell out of his nest and suffered neurological injuries. Though rehabbed and feisty, Thunder is not a good candidate for release, having lost too many survival skills. Instead, he is a standout ambassador at wildlife presentations.

Another hardworking ambassador is Sealy, an orphaned Barred Owl rescued by well-intentioned people who tried to raise a species that grows into a sizeable bird. When tending to Sealy became too difficult—wild animals seldom make good pets—the owl ended up at the rehab center. Student trainer Ashley Maddox has been working with Sealy for more than a year and the results show. The handsome bird is always calm and attentive throughout presentations, and wins over audiences of all ages.

“I love telling people about owls—how they can turn their heads 270 degrees and make a distinctive hooting sound,” says Maddox, who hopes to one day attend veterinary school. When Maddox mimics the owl’s distinctive sound, Sealy responds, fluttering her ample feathers and striking an inquisitive pose.

Wildlife biology and pre-veterinary medicine majors comprise a large number of the students who study at the center, with many going on to careers in wildlife rehabilitation, management and education. Graduates include the director of nearby Grandfather Mountain and the manager of the nationally renowned Pelican Harbor Seabird Station in Florida. Two graduates of the program now work with the American Eagle Foundation at Dollywood and another is the founder of Appalachian Wildlife Refuge.

The Western North Carolina Nature Center offers an excellent opportunity for visitors to interact with a variety of species. Ambassadors in residence there include six snakes, three turtles, two toads and a salamander.

“I have the greatest job in the world,” says Tori Duval, the nature center’s outreach manager who trains the animals that participate in presentations at the nature center and other local venues including senior citizen gatherings. “It’s magical,” Duval says, “when you see people, no matter what their age, connect to wildlife.” Quite simply, it can change how we think about our fellow creatures with whom we share the planet.

Paula Musto is a writer and volunteer for Appalachian Wild, a nonprofit that helps injured or orphaned wildlife, supports WNC’s wildlife rehabilitation network and provides wildlife conservation education. Learn more at

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