Blue Ridge Wildlife Center
text and photos By Cassandra Brown
Chirping erupts when you walk through the door. It’s feeding time for about 40 recently rescued Chimney Swift nestlings. And they’re hungry — very hungry. The birds must be fed mealworms every 15 minutes during the daylight hours.
Many of these birds are exterminated from house chimneys, one of their only habitats, until they are brought to the Blue Ridge Wildlife Center (BRWC). This is one of the only places that has successfully raised and released the birds back into the wild.
Located in Clarke County, the BRWC is more than an animal hospital. Its mission involves the rescue, preservation and rehabilitation of injured, orphaned and sick wildlife.
Turtles, owls, eagles, raccoons, snakes, skunks, and more — a menagerie of all different shapes and sizes of creatures from around the region fill BRWC’s cages.
Throughout the year, the center also provides education programs for children and adults and offers summer camps to teach the public about the importance of native wildlife.
Dr. Belinda Burwell, director and veterinarian, gathers information from admitted animals, watching closely for diseases, outbreaks, and toxicities.
“Wildlife is like the canary in the coal mine for our whole environment. You pay attention to what’s going on with them, and it can alert you to what’s going on in the environment,” explains Dr. Burwell, who has worked with wildlife for more than 26 years.
Brought in by animal control officers, veterinarians, local citizens and volunteers from the center, most animals are kept in covered cages to eliminate stress.
“Last year, about 220 different species came through the door. That is a real compliment to our staff because they know how to care for such a variety of different species,” Dr. Burwell says.
Located on a small portion of the Burwell-van Lennep Foundation farm, the center has outgrown its current 800-square-foot cottage and is in the process of raising money to build a new facility.
Since opening in 1994, the center has seen incredible growth. About 1,800 mammals, birds, and reptiles are treated a year. Most come in during the summer.
“It’s more than a job, it’s a passion and it does take real dedication,” Dr. Burwell says. A small staff of four, along with many volunteers and college interns, help run the center.
Raising orphaned wildlife provides an added challenge. Most baby birds need to be fed about every 15 to 30 minutes during the daylight hours.
Staff must bring baby mammals home to feed them every three hours through the night to make sure they get the nutrition they need.
Depending on the injury, it can take anywhere from a few weeks up to six months for an animal to recover. In rare cases, some animals that are too severely injured are kept and used for education programs.
“The goal is to always get them back out into the wild,” says Dr. Burwell.
The staff collectively decides when to return an animal to nature by assessing its behavior.
“We want to get them back in their own habitat where they already know their territory, where to get food, water, shelter. Their chances of survival are better. The babies — we try to find them safe, suitable, unpopulated habitats,” Dr. Burwell says.