Their mission: making hurt ones healthy

Animal rescuers heed a call for help

October 14, 2007|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Terri Coppersmith didn't think twice when she saw the injured pigeon lying in an alley.

She picked it up and ran several blocks and across a highway to the local veterinarian.

"The pigeon had to be put to sleep, it couldn't be saved," said Coppersmith, a Westminster resident. "My parents weren't too thrilled with what I had done, but it didn't matter. Rescuing animals followed me most of my life."

Forty-five years later, Coppersmith is still saving animals. Only now she is doing it through a Westminster-based animal-rescue organization that she and her husband, David, 60, started about seven years ago.

The couple started Diamonds in the Rough after volunteering at a similar animal-rehabilitation program, Coppersmith said. But her desire to help animals started well before that.

After the pigeon incident, she rescued numerous injured and abandoned cats and dogs. When they became healthy, she went around the neighborhood and pounded on doors looking for homes for the animals.

"People would say, `Oh, no, here she comes again,' " said Terri Coppersmith, 53, who is retired from the Department of Defense, as is her husband. "But I didn't let that discourage me. I rescued animals as a child because I saw something that needed help. It was never something my family supported."

To start an animal rehabilitation program, the Coppersmiths had to obtain state and federal permits, issued by the Department of Natural Resources.

For a state permit, they had to volunteer for at least 200 hours at an established program and complete a two-day wildlife rehabilitation course offered by the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council. They had to build the caging and proper housing structures before the federal permit was issued, she said.

Today, the Coppersmiths say, they rescue about 850 sick, injured or orphaned animals a year. The peak season is May to September, though they say they keep busy year round.

Since the start of their program, the Coppersmiths have rescued birds, nonpoisonous snakes, turtles and small mammals such as possum and squirrels. The only animals they don't rehabilitate are ones that are susceptible to rabies, including bats, raccoons, foxes and skunks, she said.

The animals the Coppersmiths care for might have fallen from nests, been hit by cars, been poisoned or shot, or have broken bones. They are kept in cages in several outbuildings and habitats, or in a room on the side of their house. The cost of caring for the animals is about $8,000 per year, said Coppersmith.

Although they hold fundraising events, the couple have spent between $5,000 and $8,000 out of pocket each year caring for the animals, they say. This year, for the first time since they started the foundation, they hope to break even, she said.

But there has been a steady rise in the number of animals they rescue, Coppersmith said.

"There are so many animals out there that need to be cared for, she said. "It's becoming more physically challenging and emotionally stressful."

Caring for wild animals can be exhausting, she said.

"We have to feed the animals around the clock. We rarely get more than four or five hours of sleep in one night, and we can never both be gone at the same time," Coppersmith said.

Currently, they are helping an owl that was hit by a car regain strength in its wings so that it can fly again. And being bitten is an occupational hazard, she said, showing the scars on her hands.

"The owl tries to bite us, so we really have to pay close attention," she said.

In some instances, the Coppersmiths collaborate with organizations such as the Humane Society and the Carroll County Outdoor School.

Steve Heacock, principal of the Outdoor School for the past 32 years, has been working with the couple since the Coppersmiths started their program.

Heacock, also a licensed rehabilitator, works with raptors, or birds of prey. The Coppersmiths nurse the raptors and get them to a point where they are ready to be released, Heacock said. The school has flight cages where the birds can be prepped to be released into the wild again.

During the year, they collaborate on rehabilitating as many as 20 birds, he said.

"We get calls here that I can't respond to," he said. "I call them and they go out and rescue the bird. I'm grateful they are here. But neither one of us would be as effective without the other."

Regardless of who responds to the calls, there is a growing demand for rehabilitators.

Terri Coppersmith attributes the increased number of injured animals to several factors: climate change, habitat destruction and ignorance of an animal's place in the ecosystem.

"There is a major disconnect that people have about animals," she said. "People don't understand why we need wild animals."

Most of the animals the Coppersmiths see are brought to them by nature centers, veterinarians and animal-control agencies, she said. But they also receive calls from individuals. Whenever they receive a phone call, they screen the animal before they have it brought to them, she said.

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