An alligator lurks below the cattails of a murky pond, a barn owl weaves between pine tree branches, a bobcat gingerly pursues a field mouse, and a turtle basks under the blanket of South Carolina’s sticky heat. The Palmetto State boasts of a diverse wildlife that inhabits beloved wetlands and woodlands. The animals that scurry across the wooded shrubs or glide along a pond’s muddy bank are irreplaceable to the unique habitats that stretch across South Carolina.
With rising developments and increased interstate activity, South Carolina wildlife has encountered formidable threats to their survival. Carolina Wildlife Center, an injured wildlife animal hotline and medical facility, addresses the problem of wildlife survival by providing medical services for injured animals as well as wildlife education for South Carolina citizens.
In 1989, Carolina Wildlife Center began its mission to rescue and rehabilitate South Carolina wildlife. Five Columbia area ladies discovered the alarming numbers of injured wildlife and dedicated their garage space to help wild animals in distress, thus creating Carolina Wildlife Center. In the first year, fewer than 100 animals, predominantly songbirds and squirrels, received treatment. Now, 25 years later, Carolina Wildlife Center has treated more than 65,000 wild animals, including 200 different species.
According to Julie McKenzie, director of rehabilitation, the most common animal Carolina Wildlife Center treats are birds. They care for roughly 3,500 animals per year, and birds constitute 1,400 of the patients. The most common species that visits Carolina Wildlife Center is the South Carolina state bird, the Carolina Wren. Approximately 400 Carolina Wrens receive care each year. Cats, cars and glass windows are the predominant source of injuries for these songbirds.
“Songbirds demand extremely intensive care. Baby birds require feedings every 15 to 20 minutes from sunrise to sunset, handfed as a mother bird would in the wild,” explains Jay Coles, executive director of Carolina Wildlife Center. “As the young birds progress, the feedings drop to every hour, two hours, three hours, and then wild release. It’s hard to understand the intensity until you see our facility in all of its chaos!”
In addition to songbirds, squirrels, opossums and turtles also comprise a large percentage of Carolina Wildlife Center’s occupants. Orphaned litters of squirrels and opossums arrive helpless, most rescued by individuals of the South Carolina community. “We have to take over for the mom. Our ultimate goal is to administer the best possible care so we can achieve a healthy wild release,” Jay shares.
Turtles often require rehabilitation after car accidents. Broken shells leave the turtle maimed and defenseless. The Carolina Wildlife Center staff pulls the shell back together and uses wire or ties to hold the broken segments together. For Julie, each injured turtle finds a special niche in her heart. “I have had a fascination with turtles since a young age, and that fascination has grown into a passion. I have dedicated most of my life to helping them. It is sad that some people see them as disposable pets,” she says.
South Carolina turtle injuries are not singular to automobile hits. A 40-pound snapping turtle recently entered the care of Carolina Wildlife Center with a 3-inch arrowhead penetrating his head. “The old turtle was trying to get out of the lake and was stuck. I struggled with him for 15 minutes trying to rescue him,” tells Jay.
The fishing arrow required surgery for removal and left the old turtle with bleak chances of survival. Yet with the nurturing and professional care from Carolina Wildlife Center, the snapping turtle happily returned to his habitat in time to enjoy summer’s refreshing waters.
Fishing in South Carolina often results in complicated animal injuries treated by Carolina Wildlife Center. “Turtles and gulls will swallow the fishing hooks, and accessing the animal’s deep throat is a difficult procedure. We typically need surgery,” Julie shares.
While songbirds, squirrels, opossums and turtles comprise a large percentage of Carolina Wildlife Center’s patient list, beavers, armadillos, bobcats, marsh crabs, wood storks, herons, nighthawks, snakes, and even ants are indebted to the facility’s rehabilitating care. One fortunate barn owl entrapped in a chimney now flies unfettered due to Jay’s rescue services. “It was a smooth and quick operation — I identified where the owl was, pried the flue open, dropped the owl down into the fireplace and lifted her out,” tells Jay. After rehydrating the dehydrated owl, Jay released his newfound feathered friend.
This past year, Carolina Wildlife Center successfully rescued and released an injured baby bobcat, a monumental landmark in the facility’s medical history. To raise and release a wild bobcat requires arduous care and precautions, which makes the success rate low. Typically a rescued bobcat is displaced in a sanctuary. “The key component to raising and releasing a wild bobcat is that the animal has to maintain its fear of humans. In order for the bobcat to be releasable, it has to be raised with almost no exposure to people,” shares Jay.
This particular baby bobcat was snagged in a farmer’s chicken coop. The mother took her cub into the coop to feed, yet she escaped while the baby remained ensnared. Instead of disposing of the cub, the farmer brought the 6-month-old into Carolina Wildlife Center for proper care and a hopeful release. The staff built a barricaded enclosure that blocked the bobcat’s view of humans, and vice versa. The pen had a double trap door that allowed the bobcat to leave the enclosure without seeing humans, which gave the Carolina Wildlife staff an opportunity to clean the area. The Carolina Wildlife staff fed the baby bobcat raw meat, mimicking the actions of a mother; however, as the bobcat grew older, the staff tackled the task of teaching the cub how to catch and kill her own food, using mice as prey.
The bobcat’s only view of her native habitat was a series of ledges that climbed up to a high perch looking out toward a natural park. Once the baby reached 1 year, the bobcat rejoined these woods that she’d had only mere glimpses of while growing up. “The first time I saw the bobcat’s face was when I caught her for release. She was not happy to see me,” Jay says with a chuckle. “But I sure was happy to see her go. She was a beautiful, oversized cat with a deep, gravely growl that was very intimidating.”
By catering to each animal’s individual needs, Carolina Wildlife Center offers a diverse range of services that requires constant attention and labor. A typical day at Carolina Wildlife Center revolves around the immediate demands of the patients, which includes feeding, washing, cage cleaning, releasing and medical care. The animals’ evolving needs create multi-variable demands for the Carolina Wildlife Center staff to juggle. For instance, turtles require daily soaking in order to keep their skin moisturized, while baby birds require food in 15-minute increments. Food preparation and feeding constitute a large bulk of the staff’s work due to the specificity of each animal’s diet. “We replicate what the animal would feed on in its natural habitat, whether fruit, animals, insects, worms or vegetables,” explains Jay.
“While caring for the animals, it is important to be compassionate,” Julie adds. “We need to understand that they are scared because we are predators to them.”
In addition to attending to the animals’ medical needs, staff attends to the Carolina Wildlife Center hotline. As South Carolina citizens discover injured animals, the next step is uncertain. What is the proper protocol for rescuing or re-nesting baby birds, bunnies or squirrels? The Carolina Wildlife Center hotline offers information and guidance for each crisis.
As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, Carolina Wildlife Center not only rescues and rehabilitates wildlife in South Carolina, but also offers education to alleviate wildlife-human interaction issues. “Eighty percent of all wildlife injuries and wildlife orphans are a result of human impact. We keep creating situations that force wildlife to adjust. By building highways and new developments, we are damaging habitats and water sources,” explains Jay.
Through Wild Wonders Outreach Programs and Camp WILD Things, Carolina Wildlife Center strives to educate South Carolina’s young generation about the state’s wildlife and importance of habitat preservation. Wild Wonders Outreach Programs targets schools by creating a program that matches the school’s curriculum. The Carolina Wildlife Center staff takes wild education animals into classrooms to facilitate active learning with children. Trinity, the three-legged opossum, Luna, the barred owl and Lucy, the leucistic rat snake, visit these classrooms to aid Carolina Wildlife Center’s educational program. “It is a great opportunity to get in front of the kids. This year we have reached 100,000 children through these programs and events!” Jay exclaims.
While Wild Wonders Outreach Programs offers classroom entertainment, Camp WILD Things provides summer fun. An on-site summer camp, this program offers four weeks of camp activities for two different age groups. “Camp WILD Things is a fun way for children to learn about wildlife and experience wonderful adventures,” says Jay.
Started with the determination of the five Columbian ladies in a backyard garage, Carolina Wildlife Center continues its mission in South Carolina to bolster the state’s wildlife through medical care and wildlife education. Carolina Wildlife Center works hand in hand with a network of specialty wildlife rehabilitators throughout North and South Carolina to provide the best possible care and best chance for release of wildlife back into its natural habitat. With compassionate staff and a humble facility, this organization has grown into an irreplaceable institution of the Palmetto State.