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Healing the Animal Kingdom

One man is the difference between life and death for creatures great and small

Doc Wexler with a baby black vulture.

Deep in the maze of Chesapeake Ranch Estates, St. Francis of Bay Country gives sanctuary and modern medicine to the creatures of our wild. From tiny to the mighty, all are welcome — within the guidelines of federal and state agencies and six permits that control the work of Orphaned Wildlife Rescue Center.
    “My main thing is that every life form has a right to live,” says Ron Wexler, whose lifelong calling is giving “the helping hand that makes the difference between life and an ugly death.”
    Twenty-five years ago, Wexler, 66, merged his life with his commitment. Doc Wexler, as he is widely known, turned three acres in the woods of Calvert County’s largest unincorporated community into a sanctuary for creatures up and down the food chain.
    Over the years, Orphaned Wildlife Rescue Center has expanded, adding six outbuildings and seven outdoor pens for birds in recovery. The biggest pen, 20 by 70 feet, is the last stop for eagles regaining their wings. The biggest building houses human creatures, the interns who come each summer from vet schools nationwide to help and learn.
    Still, the center of operations is Wexler’s small ranch home, where regular shifts of human volunteers share tight quarters with Wexler and creatures of many species.
    In a quarter-century, Wexler and his many helpers have ministered to more than 35,000 injured or orphaned creatures, so successfully that last year they achieved a record 94 percent survival rate.
    On this winter day, about 28 animals of 11 species are in residence. But the eagle has flown.
Top of the Food Chain
    The latest bald eagle was rescued, waterlogged and near drowning, off Patuxent Naval Air Station.
    “The nine-month-old juvenile had swallowed a lot of water and was not breathing well, so we put a tube down into his lungs to drain and suction, medicated him for shock and gave him an antibiotic,” Wexler recounts.
    After three weeks, off he flew, good as new. If he’s lucky, he might have the kind of future enjoyed by a earlier rescued eagle, Baby Bird, who’s nested on Wexler’s land for nine seasons since his recovery from a near-fatal ear infection.
    “He and his mate have a couple of babies every year,” Wexler says. “Save one eagle, and 20 more are alive.”
    A pair of volunteer pilots — the Ranch Estates has its own airport — keeps air watch for eagles, osprey and pelicans, the latter common winter patients when delayed migration can mean deadly frostbite.
    Topping today’s food chain are hawks and owls.
    Just in, a red-shouldered hawk slumps on the floor of a mid-size dog crate. His talons grip the mesh, a good sign since he’s suffered a cranial injury on impact with a house. The fallen raptor was reported by a St. Mary’s birder.
    Her vet made the link to Wexler’s Orphaned Wildlife Rescue Center. Within a half-hour, the stunned hawk was rescued by Shannon and Dave Edwards of Gentle Hands Animal Removal, the rescue team among the Center’s three dozen volunteers.
    “Because of the cold, this hawk would have been dead by night,” Wexler says, lifting the injured bird from its cage.
    Further along in recovery are a pair of barred owls. The smaller still slumps, favoring a broken wing surgically mended. He’d hit a car.
    “Smaller song birds’ bones are so light that we use hypodermic needles as bone pins,” Wexler explains.
    The larger owl, its wing healing after a collision with a house, sits upright on a branch perch in his dog cage, fixing me with enormous blinking eyes.
    “You can pet him,” Wexler says, opening the cage. “Talk gently in a quiet, deep voice and bring your arm directly over his head.”
    I stretch my arm over the curved, yellow beak, a killing weapon, to scratch the sweet spot at the base of his neck, out of pecking reach despite the 270-degree rotation of his head.
    “After two or three days, they trust you,” Wexler says. “It’s a beautiful thing to be able to handle all these guys.”
    It takes reaching through light inches of layered feathers to touch the tiny, warm neck of the bird. Perhaps 18 inches tall, the big round-topped bird is almost all feathers.
    “They eat 12 to 15 mice a night,” Wexler says, as I glance at my fingers.
    Raptors and snakes also dine on mice, which used to cost the Center $5,000 a year. Now, a breeder who supplies researchers ships frozen rejects, 400 pounds of mice at a time.

Owls to Opossums
    “In two weeks, we’ll be able to release her back where she knows her food sources,” says Wexler of the raccoon in his arms. She arrived earlier in the week, hypothermic and near death.

A baby opossum.

    She’d been nicked by a car and lay in the snow all night until people saw her moving and called animal control, who delivered the creature to Wildlife Rescue. Only handlers with rabies pre-exposure shots are certified to handle “rabies-vector species,” including raccoons, foxes, skunks and bats.
    Wexler, who has that certification, started a slow intravenous drip of warm fluids to bring the raccoon’s temperature up slowly, gave drugs for shock and antibiotics for upper respiratory problems.
    “Three days later, I can scratch her head,” Wexler says.
    Wexler is a state veterinary-certified wildlife specialist and holder of many wildlife licenses. He also is a teacher to whom rehabilitators, veterinarians and students come to learn the animal healing arts.
    A draped towel curtains the raccoon from sight of raptors. Coon, hawk and owls share the recovery ward, the converted back porch of Wexler’s home, with three doves and a crow, all with broken wings.
    Next door, an incubator room is under construction for the hundreds of babies — mammals, birds and reptiles — who’ll arrive at the center at the start of the spring breeding season.
    A step away is the kitchen. The pantry is stocked with recovery cages, most empty today except for a bat and an injured pair of possums.
    “They’re so sweet,” says Wexler, cuddling one of the pointy-nosed, rat-tailed mammals. Afterwards, he must change his shirt. “She peed on me,” he says.
    “No matter what kind of animal, whether you call it soul or will to live, they all feel pain and need our help,” Wexler says. Possums to pelicans, owls to ospreys, turtles to turkey buzzards, deer mice to bald eagles — all come under his care.
    Abutting the possum are two aquaria of box turtles, half-dollar-sized orphans to adults whose crushed shells have been surgically repaired.
    Meals for the guests are prepared in a separate, fully equipped kitchen, with several freezers and a spanking new refrigerator.
    Humans make do with the old fridge.

Cats to Dragons
    Earlier this afternoon, a three-foot black rat snake left for a new home with a herpetologist in Baltimore.
    Alone now among big reptiles, a giant bearded dragon basks under a sunlamp in his aquarium. But he won’t be lonely for long: He sleeps with Wexler and two cats.
    “He loves to cuddle; he tucks in my shoulder. He cuddles with the cats, too,” says Wexler, of the lizard that, he notes fondly, is “still a baby” of 14 months.
     Reptiles are popular with Orphaned Wildlife Rescue staff, who are all but one, volunteers. Jennifer Stilley earns a salary for managing the office and website, as well as everything else that needs doing.

Doc with a baby fox.

    That’s plenty and constant. For this small house is the only center of its kind in all of Maryland.
    The home’s narrow hall ends in a surgery that can do just about anything to carry Maryland fowl, small mammals and reptiles across the bridge from near-death to life.
    What they can’t do — X-rays for example — is donated by local vets, especially St. Mary’s Animal Hospital and All Kinds Veterinary.
    “Creatures that would have been dead are now alive,” Wexler says.

In Search of an Angel
    For all its good works, Orphaned Wildlife Rescue Center has no sustaining angel.
    The gift of frozen mice saves more than 10 percent of the Center’s meager budget, $47,000 last year.
    Wexler is the core funder of his Center, having deeded his property to it and endowed its foundation with $100,000. Only the interest from that principal supports operating expenses. The rest trickles in.
    “Ninety percent of donations are under $250; the average is $25,” Wexler says. Putting back together a crushed turtle, for example “may take several eight-hour surgeries plus meds, costing maybe $150, plus food over the months we have to keep them.”
    Corporate gifts of $1,000 or $1,500 come from energy companies Dominion Cove Point and SMECO. The biggest single donation is a grant of $2,500 from Snyder Foundation for Animals of Baltimore. Burger King of Solomons collects thousands in small donations.
    Even so, Wexler says, “it’s never enough.”

How to Help

    Make tax-deductible donations large or small by PayPal to or by check to OWRC, 12199 Bonanza Trail, Lusby, MD 20657.
    To volunteer, call Jennifer Stilley at 410-326-0937.
    Learn what to do for injured or orphaned wildlife at, questions tab. Find drop-off directions and listings of rehabilitators at the Contact tab.