The front desk of the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons is the drop-off spot for injured animals on the East End. As in an emergency room at a hospital for people, the general public is not allowed past this point. But on Christmas Day, Nick Marzano, a raptor handler and trainer, revealed the inner workings of the only wildlife hospital in the area.
Through a network of 40 volunteer rescuers and transporters, animals in need are brought to the center for immediate care. “It’s mostly car versus animal, and car wins,” said Mr. Marzano. About 50 percent of the animals that come through the center are from Southampton, 40 percent are from East Hampton, and the remaining 10 percent are mostly from the North Fork. The center offers classes to its volunteers on different rescue and transport techniques. “With deer it’s a big deal because you have dart guns. We have stories of bucks going after people and pinning them to a tree,” Mr. Marzano said.
Augie Frati, a volunteer whose wife, Virginia Frati, is the center’s executive director, sat at a desk directly behind the main reception area with nine framed photos of a deer rescue at the Shinnecock Inlet in Hampton Bays, just above his head. The Coast Guard, police, and volunteers joined forces in the summer of 2009 to help the deer. The step-by-step photos are like a storyboard of the event, which involved people in the water with the deer, a man aiming a blow-dart gun, and the tranquilized deer being carried away.
The center, which opened in 2000, was started by Ms. Frati. She had discovered nine years earlier that no such facility existed on eastern Long Island, so she took matters into her own hands, becoming a wildlife rehabilitator, then working with Julius Tepper, a veterinarian, to treat harmed animals. Ms. Frati turned her house into a makeshift clinic for a time.
The center’s current home was secured in 1999 through an exchange with the Suffolk County Parks Department. The Parks Department offered land with a decrepit barn in Munn’s Pond County Park in return for the center’s agreement to improve the property, which would then be considered a gift to the county. The nonprofit corporation, with a five-person staff in addition to its volunteers, operates on an annual budget of $400,000, raised solely from donations. Howard Stern, the radio personality, and his wife, Beth Ostrosky, an actress and model, are contributors who help the center stay afloat. According to Mr. Frati, attempts to receive federal funding for the center have been unsuccessful.
In addition to maintaining the hospital and the expensive undertaking of feeding and rehabilitating the animals, the center is also an educational resource. “A man who has a house in Water Mill called the center from Italy in search of a place that could deal with an owl out there,” Mr. Frati said. Internationally or nationally — Mr. Frati also said that Kim Basinger, who used to live on the East End, called from California about a squirrel — the center has quietly and steadily made its presence known.
The center’s resident animals are taken out for educational programs, and volunteers and staff also work to raise public awareness about local wildlife and how to “cope and help” when wild animals are injured. The center wants people to know that “there’s a place where they [the animals] can be rehabilitated and put back into the wild,” Mr. Frati said.
The center is open seven days a week, year round. On Sunday, the staff was preparing a Christmas meal to eat together that afternoon. “We’re not activists. We just care about the animals and how they’ve suffered,” said Mr. Mazano, who has been a volunteer at the center for over eight years and started the raptor program. The center relies heavily on its volunteers.
There are approximately 25 to 35 hospital volunteers and several veterinarians help out a few hours a week. Volunteers are warned: “If death bothers you, you can’t be here,” said Jim Hunter, president of the board of directors. “We lose about 50 percent of the animals that are brought in,” he said.
Animals receive urgent care in the emergency room, set up with an oxygen tank, a steel surgical table, and cabinets of medical supplies. Syringes lie in a cardboard box on the counter, an X-ray viewing screen is on the wall, and a microscope sits in the corner. Center staff and volunteers assess an animal to determine whether it needs to be taken to a veterinarian or to an animal hospital in Riverhead.
If the animal is treated at the center, it then goes to secondary care in the next room where animals in various states of recovery are kept in metal or wooden cages. A woodchuck that was hit by a car was in critical condition with a split lower jaw and a dislocated knee. Five blue construction tubs, each with its own 80-degree heat lamp, are stacked to create what center staff call “turtle towers.” The lights keep them awake during the winter — otherwise they would hibernate — so that they can receive medicine. The 35 turtles in residence are rehabilitated by Beth Groff, who tends to lawnmower injuries, dog bites, and a hammer and nail incident this past summer.
Karen Testa of Jamesport donates food for the turtles, who consume organic raspberries and other groceries, and provides salaries for two employees who monitor them. “Everything the turtles need, I supply for them,” she said. At present, the center has a snapping turtle and a red-eared slider. Some “are not native,” said Ms. Groff. “They’re pets from Canal Street that got too big for people to handle.”
The secondary care room also has bathtubs for water birds — the center sees plenty of geese, ducks, and swans. A mute swan had cuts on its wrist joints and legs, and a herring gull was “beat up,” Mr. Marzano said. “Winter takes its toll.” Many of the animals brought to the center are malnourished because they could not find enough food to eat. Another room, the medicated area, held an adult opossum with head trauma, a red-tailed hawk, thin and weak, and a very sedate red fox whose left eye popped out of its socket after it was hit by a car.
In the pre-release area outside, animals are encouraged to acclimate back to the wild. They are observed in cages to determine if they can swim, fly, and tolerate the cold. There are waterfowl pens with water, and an aviary for small birds such as thrushes and robins. “We separate the birds,” said Mr. Marzano, who described the crows as a highly intelligent species, but a little neurotic.
A mammal complex contains woodchucks, baby squirrels, and deer. There is a doe in the back pen that cannot handle being near people. “They [deer] don’t like people, and don’t do well in public. Most die here,” said Mr. Marzano. Another problem with deer is imprinting, “They’re so adorable, you can’t help it,” he added. Stress is also a factor for the animals, and more difficult on deer and rabbits.
“Animals are released or we find them a home or a wild animal farm through a network of rehabilitators throughout the country,” said Mr. Marzano. “I’d rather an animal be released,” he said, “About one out of every two gets released.” There is a door that opens to the park when the animals are ready to go.
Mr. Marzano has raised and trained an owl named Meep since she was 2 days old. Meep is imprinted and cannot be released. Three years ago, he started an education program to show the public what the center does, and he takes Meep along as “an ambassador” to schools, senior citizen homes, and libraries. A red-tailed hawk named Beauty is another ambassador, and one for whom Mr. Marzano has great affinity. Diagnosed with a fungus on her lungs, Beauty has a year to live. She sits on a heating pad in a cage shared with three other hawks, and gets first pick of the frozen mice donated by labs upstate. Mr. Marzano has worked with Beauty for almost seven years and describes her as “the love of my life.”
Beauty accompanied him to an educational lecture at Marders in Bridgehampton last month, and Mr. Marzano said that a woman came in the next day to thank them. She had taken her son, a veteran who was injured in Iraq, to see the animals. He suffers from post-traumatic stress and other difficulties. After seeing Beauty in bandages he told his mom, “If that bird didn’t give up, neither will I. I’ll keep trying.” A veteran himself, Mr. Marzano became emotional conveying the story. “It’s powerful,” he said, “It’s a microcosm of everything I want to do. And it was Beauty, she’s an unbelievable bird.” She has been sick for a while, but has remained resilient. “Her spirit and will have touched so many people. It was meant for her to stay alive to touch that G.I.,” he added. “I’m honored to be around her and all the other animals.”
Mr. Hunter, the board president, recalled a robin that did not sing at all while at the center. Ms. Frati had rescued the bird, and when she and Mr. Hunter released the robin together, “he flew out of the box, onto a branch, and started singing,” Ms. Frati said. “It was like he was singing to us. It was fantastic.” Afterward, Mr. Hunter turned to Ms. Frati and said, “That’s our paycheck.”