If only Wes Laraway’s parents had bought him that hamster. Maybe then, he wouldn’t be in the line of work he’s in today.
At least, that’s the joke Laraway likes to tell when people ask him why he became a licensed wildlife rehabilitator.
At any given time, there are 150 animals living on his sprawling 165-acre Middleburgh property, which is home to the nonprofit, all-volunteer rehabilitation center that Laraway and his wife, Darcy, have built during the past decade. Each year, more than 400 domestic animals and 100 wild animals pass through the New York Wildlife Rescue Center’s doors.
Llamas, alpacas, goats, sheep, a pot-bellied pig and an emu roam in a fenced-off yard overlooking the Schoharie County landmark Vromans Nose. In a small building called the nursery, baby animals — a cottontail rabbit, starling and robin — live in cages and crates, recovering from injuries inflicted by cats and cars. Chain-link, circular enclosures house a bobcat and three foxes. Two other cages are under construction; when complete, they will hold bears and rabies-carrying species such as raccoons and skunks. A lone cow grazes on a hillside.
In the barn, there are nine horses, including a 15-year-old Clydesdale named Jake, raptors — a great-horned owl, two red-tailed hawks and a pair of falcons — a half-dozen whitetail fawns, several peacocks and numerous rabbits.
Hidden behind a wooden door is the center’s most notable rehab project: Oscar the bobcat.
Oscar arrived in Laraway’s care after getting struck by a car in the Dutchess County town of Rhinebeck in June. He suffered a fractured pelvis and a broken femur — injuries that would have made it impossible for him to survive in the wild. Initially, it appeared that euthanasia was the only option. But Laraway refused to give up.
“He’s a young cat,” he said. “I thought he was worth saving.”
Laraway brought Oscar to the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine, where surgeons Dr. Stuart Bliss and Dr. Heather Knapp-Hoch removed the head and neck of the femur and stabilized the broken pelvis with a steel plate and seven screws. Now, the 20-pound male bobcat is recovering, living in a metal cage that limits his mobility so that his body can heal.
“If he were to rip the plate and screws loose, that would be a really bad thing,” Laraway said.
When he gets better, Oscar will move to a larger enclosure.
He is the only wild animal at the center that has a name.
“I’m against naming wildlife because they’re not pets, and when you name a wild animal, you start to think of it as a pet,” said Laraway, a trim, energetic 40-year-old who teaches 10th grade history at Middleburgh High School. Oscar, he said, “got a name when we went to Cornell. They wanted a name for intake, and I said, ‘Well, he’s such a grouch: Oscar the grouch.’ ”
One at a time
Wildlife rehabilitators provide aid to injured, orphaned, displaced or distressed wild animals with the goal of releasing them back into their native habitats. There are approximately 1,000 wildlife rehabilitators in New York, and the New York State Wildlife Rehabilitation Council’s Web site provides contact information for rehabilitators throughout the state. Laraway runs one of the largest nonprofit operations in the Northeast.
The organization’s motto: “Saving One Animal at a Time.”
According to the council, in 2008, New York wildlife rehabilitators cared for 19,489 animals, successfully releasing 3,958 birds, 4,741 mammals, 245 reptiles and 16 amphibians into the wild.
“There are thousands and thousands of animals that are cared for by rehabilitators each year,” said Kelly Martin, president of the state council.
The rescue center takes in exotic animals, domestic animals and wild animals. They come to the Laraways in a variety of ways.
Some, such as the fawns, were orphaned when their mothers were killed by cars. Others, such as the peregrine falcons found on Vroman’s Nose, also were hit by cars. Others reflect economic reality. A donkey, for instance, came from a man who lost his job, wife and house and wanted to find a safe home for his animal.
Stories of dire financial straits are becoming more common, Laraway said.
“We’re getting a lot more phone calls from people who are worried because they can no longer provide proper care for their animals,” he said.
Many of the domestic animals will eventually be adopted and leave the facility. When two kittens sniffed visitors at the barn, he said, “If you touch a kitten, you have to take it home.
“I’ve dedicated my life to saving animals,” Laraway said. “One guy can make a difference. Oscar lay by the side of the road for hours before one guy pulled over, saw that he was still alive and called state police.”
From llamas to exotics
Laraway and Martin emphasize that they are licensed and regulated by the state and federal government. They take a dim view of what they term fly-by-night animal rescue operations, which they say are too often run by people who turn out to be hoarders, letting animals live in filthy conditions because they are unable to properly care for them
“A legal rescue facility cannot be a one-man army,” Laraway said. Martin said that the state council discourages people from caring for injured or sick animals themselves.
“Wild animals present a whole different set of challenges,” Martin said. “The council spends a lot of time educating the public that taking care of a wild animal is not in their interest or the animal’s.”
Laraway’s center started off 15 years ago as a llama and alpaca rescue.
The Laraways had bred the animals, using them for hiking and backpacking and for their wool. But they noticed that many of the people who had purchased llamas and alpacas, hoping to breed them and get rich, started abandoning them when that market crashed. So they stopped breeding and turned their attention to rescuing the animals.
“We saw what was going on, and we didn’t like it,” Laraway said.
Gradually, they expanded to exotic and domestic pets, and four years ago, they decided to do wildlife rehabilitation.
The rescue center is not a zoo.
State law prohibits Laraway from showing rehab animals to the public, though he does have permits that allow him to use animals deemed unreleasable — a deaf fox, a declawed bobcat that was born in Florida, sold as an exotic pet and then abandoned, an owl with a wing fracture — for educational purposes.
But on July 18, the center will have its first open house, from 4 to 6 p.m., in an effort to raise funds for the expansion of the new raptor center, which is in the barn. Laraway said that animals destined to return to the wild will be tarped off or removed from public view.
Phase one of the raptor center — the construction of eight separate units to house the injured birds of prey — is complete. Phase two will see the construction of a 150-foot flying area that will run the length of the barn. Here, the raptors will be able to practice flying and test their wings before being released into the wild. “When we put animals back into the wild, we want them to be successful,” Laraway said.
Laraway said he wants to see the center carry on, providing a permanent place for wildlife rehabilitators to work. Right now, approximately 20 licensed rehabilitators volunteer at the facility, as do local high school students. This summer, Laraway will have 15 students come work for him through the county’s jobs program.
“My intention is for this thing to outlive me,” he said.
The Laraways acquired their property 10 years ago. It had once belonged to Laraway’s grandparents but had been unused for years and among local children was known as the “spook farm” because of its location — above an old cemetery — and its abandonment.
Laraway said that he was always interested in animals but he didn’t begin his animal work until after he’d graduated from high school and was living in Brazil as an exchange student. There, he learned to take care of injured wildlife, such as baby sloths and capuchin monkeys. When he returned to the U.S., he studied at SUNY Oneonta, where he met his wife. She is also a teacher and wildlife rehabilitator, though she focuses mainly on squirrels. The couple has three children.
Though he said that many of the injuries he sees are caused by human actions, such as road construction and sprawl, Laraway says that “if we cause the problems, we can fix them.”
Fifty percent of animals released back into the wild will die, Laraway said.
“My mentality is, ‘Let’s not focus on the 50 percent that die. Let’s focus on the 50 percent that live,’ ” he said.
“It’s a challenge,” Laraway said. “But if you do it well, you’re going to have a successful release. I love the release part. To me, watching six raccoons wander off into a swamp is my reward for doing this.”
Last week, Oscar crouched in his cage, growling and hissing when the door to his room was opened and several people poked their heads in.
Laraway said he expects that Oscar will stay through the winter and be released at the end of June.
To monitor Oscar’s recovery while he recuperates, visit www.nywildliferescue.blogspot.com.