When Christine Cummings was a child in Illinois, she pretended to be a baby bird that had fallen from her nest whenever it was bedtime. Her parents had to place her back in her “nest” every night to get her to go to sleep. It’s a process that came to be called re-nesting, and it was a sign of what was to come.
Today, Cummings is the founder of A Place Called Hope, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Killingworth that cares for injured birds of prey and those that have fallen from their nests, until they can be returned to the wild. Her husband, Todd, has learned to climb tall trees to re-nest the baby raptors as soon as possible, which sometimes involves building replacement nests if the original becomes damaged in a storm.
“I was destined to do this; there’s no question,” said Cummings, who admits about 600 hawks, owls, falcons and vultures to her facility each year and re-nested 23 great horned owl chicks in just the first three months of 2019. “We don’t let nature take its course here, because 98 percent of the injuries are caused by humans,” mostly from vehicle collisions.
It takes great dedication – not to mention a lengthy certification process – to become a licensed wildlife rehabilitator, but those like Cummings who have completed the process say it is a tremendously fulfilling endeavor that meets a significant need in the community. It starts with attendance at a four-hour seminar sponsored by the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection and taught by members of the Connecticut Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.
According to Vickie Silvia, who began the process of becoming a rehabilitator in 2016, the class covers a wide variety of topics, from diet and critical care to animal diseases and caging for most of the wildlife found in the state. A retired police officer who lives in Old Lyme, Silvia said the exam that followed the class wasn’t especially difficult, but it required that she pay close attention during class and study the manual.
After passing the exam, trainees are required to volunteer for at least 40 hours with a licensed rehabilitator (who holds at least three years of experience), and identify a veterinarian who has agreed to provide guidance and emergency care as needed.
For Amanda Morgillo, finding a willing vet was the easy part. She works at a veterinary hospital in North Branford. Both Morgillo and Silvia spent most of their volunteer hours with Cummings at A Place Called Hope.
“I always learn something new every time I’m there,” Morgillo said. “Every day is a new experience and a new lesson.”
They initially spent most of their time cleaning cages, preparing food, and observing Cummings handle and care for the birds before getting the chance to get hands-on with the raptors themselves. Eventually they were allowed to help rescue birds in the field and process those delivered to the facility.
“My advice is this: when it’s time to get your volunteer hours, don’t get them all at one place,” Cummings said. “Get your hours at places with different kinds of animals until you know what you want to do.”
After receiving their initial license – officially called the Standard Rehabilitator Appointment – Morgillo and Silvia were allowed to care for a limited variety of species on their own, including rabbits, squirrels, chipmunks and opossums. But they chose to pursue wildlife rehabilitation in different ways.
Despite living in an apartment with her parents, Morgillo began caring for whatever animals her home could accommodate. “I know my limits,” she said. “I don’t have a huge space, I can’t build caging, I can’t have a possum and a squirrel at the same time. So I take in what I can, rescue what I can, and help Christine as much as I can.”
Silvia knew immediately that she wasn’t going to establish her own rehabilitation facility at her home. Her interest was in raptors, so she chose to continue volunteering at A Place Called Hope.
“The reality of working here and seeing how much they need and what goes into it made me realize that I was more interested in staying here and doing what I could for this organization,” said Silvia. “Unless she throws me out, there’s no way I’m leaving.”
Rehabilitating birds requires a federal Migratory Bird Rehabilitation permit, which Silvia has not yet obtained. But as long as she continues to volunteer at A Place Called Hope, she can help rehabilitate raptors under Cummings’ permit. (Rehabilitating animals that can transmit rabies, like raccoons, skunks and foxes, requires another level of authorization – and a series of rabies vaccinations.)
Many newly-certified rehabilitators soon realize that the time and cost involved in caring for animals at home may be more than they can handle on their own. But Cummings said that demand for rehabilitation services is overwhelming, and volunteers are needed for a wide variety of activities, from rescues in the field and animal transportation to educating the public and caring for the hundreds of infant rabbits and squirrels that need assistance during baby season in the spring and summer. It’s not necessary that every rehabilitator open their home to wildlife.
“Once you know what animals you want to work with, I recommend joining up with others who are interested in the same animals,” Cummings said. “Don’t do it alone or you’ll burn out.”
The Wildlife Rehabilitators Association provides support to new rehabilitators through networking opportunities and additional training, including classes Cummings teaches on wildlife rescue and transport, raptor intake and re-nesting.
Morgillo and Silvia agree that every minute of the work is worthwhile.
“There’s no way to describe the smile that comes across your face from being so close to these amazing creatures,” concluded Morgillo. “That they let you in their presence to help them grow and get them back out there on their own is awe-inspiring.”