Taking Wild Animals Under Her Wing

Barb cares for many baby squirrels; at least a dozen each year. They must be fed every four hours.

The bobcat was perched in the top of his corncrib cage, peering down at the beaver carcass that had just been placed there for dinner. As he made a deep, guttural growl, Barb said, “I love that sound. It’s like the wind blowing through the pines on a cool winter night.”

As a wildlife rehabilitator, Barbara Cole has cared for many beautiful, dangerous and fascinating creatures. One year, she treated and fed over 400 animals by herself. Currently, she’s tending to the needs of deer, great horned owls, vultures, snapping turtles, pigeons, red-tailed hawks, geese, a bobcat, possums and squirrels.

Before she became a rehabilitator, Barb spent 28 years teaching nursery school in Endicott. When the school closed, Barb had the opportunity to embrace her lifelong passion for helping animals. Her college training as a biology teacher proved to be extremely helpful, but as she pointed out, “Rehabilitators are not wildlife biologists or veterinarians. They’re hybrids who need skills in both areas to do their jobs well.”

While she was still teaching, Barb had made friends with a wildlife rehabilitator who lived right across the street from her in the small, rural town of Owego. One day, she approached Barb excitedly and invited her over to see something that would change her life: a litter of baby squirrels she was caring for. “People do this and are successful?” thought Barb at the time, remembering her own failed attempts to save animals during her childhood. “It was a revelation.”

Soon she was working with the New York State Wildlife Rehabilitation Council (NYSWRC), where she networked with other rehabbers and earned her license in 1984. Today, Barb is licensed in several animal rescue categories including migratory bird, oil spill training, and “to collect or possess,” which allows her to keep the animals that cannot be released, for education and training purposes.

The animal lovers who are trained to care for wildlife are quick to say that being a rehabber is no easy job, emotionally. “Rehabilitators care so much,” said Barb. “They can get involved too intensely. I’ve seen it lead, in some cases, to burnout, bankruptcy, and divorce.”

She added: “The hardest part of the job is determining if an animal is releasable or not. If not, I have to decide if it will do well in captivity, or if euthanasia is the best option. It is an especially difficult call for beginning rehabbers.

“In 23 years of rehabilitating animals, I have met the very best of people and the very worst of people,” said Barb. “There was a man who brought in a possum that he had shot in the head nine times with a nail gun. Another man, a big burly construction worker, came in with a tiny baby squirrel in his hand, and asked, ‘Can you name him Roy?’”

Barb continues to train with the NYSWRC, and served as its president for six years. New York State’s council, the oldest of its kind in the country, sponsors an annual Wildlife Rehabilitation Seminar designed to support rehabilitators in the field. The weekend-long educational event features wildlife rehabilitation experts from throughout the United States and abroad. Typical programs cover nutrition/husbandry, diseases, rehabilitation techniques and medical management and medications.

Animal rehabilitators are unpaid volunteers. They receive no funds from the government, and all costs for food, medical supplies, facility upkeep and training come out of their own pockets or from personal donations. The work can be extremely demanding, from delivering medical attention to feeding the animals several times a day. Despite the challenges, Barb feels that it is all worth it.

“I’ve met the most amazing animals,” said Barb. “I am very grateful to have gotten to know them.”


story and photos by Lindsay Adler