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Apr 24, 2024

7 min. read

Wild at Heart: Meet the Rehabilitation Heroes Helping Wildlife in Ontario Image courtesy of the Atlantic Wildlife Institute. Text by Paul Gains.

It may be tough out there in the wild, but the spots where birds and animals cross paths with civilization pose more challenges due to traffic, power lines and urban sprawl. Fortunately, devoted wildlife rehabilitation centres step up to care for the sick and injured, going to extraordinary lengths. And it’s donations and volunteers that keep them running, along with a love for the creatures they help.

“Wildlife acts as a barometer with the environment and it is telling us what is happening out there,” says Brian Salt, founder of Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Centre, in Mount Brydges, Ont. According to Salt, we, as a culture, aren’t always paying attention, so rehab facilities like Salthaven are often more aware of changes. Salt has witnessed extraordinary wildlife anomalies recently. Eastern grey squirrels, for instance, normally have two litters a year. This year, for the first time in his 40 years caring for wildlife, he observed some having three. The reason for this is unknown, but Salt just rolls up his sleeves to help.

And all too often, help is needed. Road and building construction that bisects wildlife habitat or interrupts migratory routes leads to auto collisions with animals. Then, there’s disease and the effects of climate change that threaten habitats. Plus, urban expansion brings wild creatures and humans into closer contact, which can be harmful for both. Salthaven has taken in more than 1,300 birds and animals in just the last year, the majority of which were treated and released back into the wild. They range from hummingbirds to carnivores, and Salt also recalls taking in four coyote pups after their mother was hit by a car. Salt and his team of 50 volunteers—who cover three eight-hour shifts, seven days a week—work with affiliated veterinarians to care for their patients, which typically include many young animals either abandoned or orphaned.

Wild at Heart: Meet the Rehabilitation Heroes Helping Wildlife in Ontario Image courtesy of Salthaven.

Meanwhile, at Urban Wildlife Care (UWC), in Grimsby, Ont., Cara Contardi notes that “baby season” is her busiest time of year. Springtime brings an influx of young raccoons and squirrels, which requires extra precautions. Recent outbreaks of distemper and raccoon roundworm in Ontario have wildlife rehabbers worried, especially because these can be transmitted to domestic dogs and, with roundworm, occasionally, people.

Contardi has been running UWC since 1999, when she received her certification from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry. Wildlife rehabbers must be licensed by their respective provincial governments, with certain restrictions as to which animals they can admit. “I work with all the fur! That makes it easy,” Contardi says, laughing, “except for bears. We probably rehabilitate 500 patients a year. We are not a big organization, but we do our part.” When a call comes in, Contardi’s team of volunteers first ensures that the caller remains safe, as injured animals may lash out in fear. Next, they assess if the animal in question truly needs help. Deer, for instance, will often leave fawns unattended for hours while foraging, which prompts well-intentioned but unwarranted rescue calls. The UWC team also helps educate the public. And, Contardi notes, a thank you from a caller they’ve helped often energizes her to keep doing what she does.

Wild at Heart: Meet the Rehabilitation Heroes Helping Wildlife in Ontario Image courtesy of the Urban Wildlife Centre.

In New Brunswick, just outside of Sackville, Pam Novak runs the Atlantic Wildlife Institute (AWI), the sole wildlife rehab centre in the province. It’s also the only one federally licensed to take in migratory birds from all four Atlantic provinces. Apart from deer and moose, which the centre is no longer permitted to handle due to chronic wasting disease, Novak will take in just about every species. “We have bears in the province,” she says. “We have coyotes and red foxes. And we are able to handle all of those.” Calls to help bears are handled via forest rangers from the Department of Natural Resources who will assess the situation. If a bear requires rehabilitation, they’ll send it to Atlantic Wildlife Institute in Cookville, N.B., for care. No rehabilitation practitioner can save every creature encountered, but each successful recovery-and-release is cause for celebration, and the joy that comes from helping wildlife inspires the next mission.


What to do if you find an injured animal in the wild:

Don’t approach wildlife too closely and keep other people back, as well as pets.

Call a licensed rescue centre or local humane society before intervening and let the wildlife rescue experts coach you. They can help determine if an animal needs assistance.

Some wildlife rehab centres don’t have enough volunteers and may ask you to bring an injured bird or small animal to them. Keep a blanket and a cardboard box in your car, just in case.


Visit salthaven.org to learn more about the Salthaven Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Centre. Or try Wildlife Haven in Waterloo (wildlifehavenwaterloo.ca), where Joy Huggins takes in a wide range of wildlife species, from birds to chipmunks, beavers and coyotes.