A Lesson In Nature

Children's Book: Arnold Author Relays Vital Tips On Wildlife Rehabilitation

August 23, 2009|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,jonathan.pitts@baltsun.com

Almost everyone likes animals at least a little, but there's that handful who are born "animal people." So says Jennifer Keats Curtis.

They pull over for wounded pigeons. They take in orphaned cats. They're the ones the neighbors stop by to visit if a stray mutt comes calling.

It doesn't mean they know what they're doing.

"So many people want to help animals, but honestly, a good heart isn't enough," says Curtis, a veteran journalist and children's author whose fourth illustrated book, "Baby Owl's Rescue," debuts under the Sylvan Dell insignia next month. "If you don't know some basics and follow the right steps, you can do more harm than good."

The book, Curtis' fourth, deals with a brother and sister who must figure out what to do when they stumble on a baby owl that has fallen from its nest. It's based, in part, on the teachings of Kathy Woods, a wildlife expert who lives in Baltimore County.

Like all of Curtis' books, it aims to help children learn, in her words, "what's best for these wonderful animals who live right in our backyards."

An Arnold resident, the author used to be such a kid. When she was 8, she and her little brother, Matthew, found a cute but badly injured rabbit in their Severna Park backyard and tried to nurse it back to health.

They kept it in a box, made it a nest, gave it a carrot and plenty of water, and watched, hoping they could will it back to life with love.

To their horror, it died.

"It's one of my regrets," says Curtis, 40.

If only she had known someone like Woods at the time.

Starting young

Kathy Woods grew up overseas, the daughter of a civil engineer. Her dream was to be a veterinarian. But her parents didn't think it was fit work for a girl, so she ended up running doctors' offices for more than 20 years, eventually coordinating surgical procedures at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

But if every person has a calling, Woods found hers in 1992. That's when she volunteered for the whooping crane reintroduction program at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge. She loved helping replenish the numbers of the rare birds and restoring them to the wild.

Within a couple of years, she was a full-fledged wildlife rehabilitator, one of only about 50 in Maryland.

If you're anything like Jennifer Curtis was two years ago, you have little idea what that means.

"We take care of injured and orphaned wildlife," says Woods - always with the goal of returning the animals to their native habitat.

For 17 years, Woods has schooled herself in the field: nursing stray and sick animals, reading the latest books, trolling for donated supplies, attending seminars and keeping in touch with local wildlife vets. In 2000, after earning licenses from the state and federal governments, she used her own money to start up the Phoenix Wildlife Rescue, a nonprofit outfit next to her house on Manor Road.

One early mentor, wildlife vet Erica Miller, warned Woods early on that the work would be all-consuming. She was right. Woods works 14 hours a day caring for a barking, hopping, twittering menagerie-on-the-mend that currently includes songbirds, box turtles, crows, owls, rabbits, skunks, a fox and even a 6-month-old bald eagle from Calvert County, one of 400 that live in the state.

Every animal must meet its own legal "release criteria" before it can be returned to the wild.

Woods feeds baby birds every half hour starting at dawn, tends to splints, infections and medications, and answers more than 60 calls a day from members of the public who have found stunned birds, wounded dogs, lonesome fawns and disoriented owls and want advice or a chance to bring them in.

When Woods can't talk callers through a problem, she accepts the animals at Phoenix Rescue, giving them all the time they need.

"It's madness, but I wouldn't trade it for anything," Woods says.

A matter of fact

Matthew grew up to become a veterinarian. Curtis, a wife and mother of two daughters, Maddie, 12, and Maxine, 8, says she's blessed to be able to write about animals. "It's like being paid to learn," she says.

Like Woods, she has a passion for getting things right.

She generally begins a project by settling on a single animal or animal issue, usually one centering on a problem caused by humans - pollution, overcrowding, habitat incursion - and creates characters who can memorably tackle the problem in a fictional tale.

She's also known for exhaustive research. In last year's "Osprey Adventure," for example, a father and son find a fish hawk that has gotten tangled in fishing line. The story of its rescue is based on the experiences of Pete McGowan, a Chesapeake Bay biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Two years ago, though, she found herself thinking about owls. Enter Woods, who had worked with dozens over the years. Curtis learned about her through an Internet search.

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