“She had such a presence; you just thought she was going to be there forever.” So says Maria Del Castilho, a licensed wildlife rehabilitator at the Friends of the Feathered and Furry (FFF) Wildlife Center in Hunter. She’s speaking of her mentor, Barbara “Missy” Runyan, who was the Center’s director up until her sudden death on October 6 at the age of 51. Del Castilho describes Runyan as “beyond dedicated. It was her life to take care of animals…She had cameras on the animals and would watch them all night.”
Tributes have been pouring in for Runyan, who “moved to Hunter from Long Island” and “originally worked with domestic animals” before founding the Center in 2008, according to Del Castilho. Largely self-taught, Runyan developed innovative protocols for wildlife care by trial and error and voracious reading. Nowadays, in New York State, FFF is in a class almost by itself: not a refuge for abandoned or mistreated pets or a rescue for farm animals doomed for the slaughterhouse, but a facility specifically dedicated to helping wounded or sick wild animals heal and be released back into their natural habitat. “We release over 1,000 animals a year.”
Any kind of animal from any county in the state is welcomed, no matter how large. Besides the licensed rehabilitators on staff and the veterinarians on call 24/7 to treat sick or injured creatures, FFF has a “network” of “people to transport” and “volunteers trained to safely capture an animal, if appropriate,” Del Castilho says. In the case of megafauna, such as black bears and full-grown white-tailed deer, New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) staff will step in to help move them. Runyan was well-respected by the DEC, “had a good relationship with the State” and would often be consulted on best practices for caring for sick or injured wildlife: “She really made a name for herself.”
To house bears, Runyan’s husband, Dave Loberde, built a “huge” concrete-block bear pen that she dubbed Beartanamo, as a reminder that the animals belong out in the wild and that their stay is meant to be temporary. “Let wild be wild” was Runyan’s oft-repeated motto. “The goal is getting them back to the wild. We’re a wildlife animal hospital first,” says Del Castilho, noting that habituation of any kind, including bottle-feeding, cuddling or talking to the patients, no matter how cute, is strongly discouraged unless absolutely necessary for their treatment. “Missy always felt that we were doing a good job if the animals didn’t like us.”
In the case of bears, most of the injuries involve automobile collisions, which Runyan blamed largely on people’s tendency to put out food sources – trash cans, bird feeders et cetera – that lure bears into human neighborhoods. “The biggest hazard is us, one way or another,” Del Castilho says. Toxicity from ingesting rodenticides is another common ill effect of human activity on wildlife, and habitat loss from development takes its toll as well. “They’re hungry because their territory is being encroached on.”
For birds, especially raptors, a frequent culprit is lead shot or lures discarded by hunters and fishers. FFF has had many bald eagles as patients who swallowed lead pellets, became disoriented or even had seizures. “Lead poisoning causes neurological problems. It’s toxic, and they’re not flying properly, so they get hit by a car,” she explains. One of Runyan’s passion projects was educating hunters to “Swap out the Lead” and “use copper or other metal bullets.” The upstate hunting community has been “fairly receptive,” Del Castilho says, though she notes that copper “does cost a little more money.”
Recovery from blood poisoning by lead can take months, as the eagle undergoes a type of dietary therapy called chelation. Loberde built a flight cage 100 feet in height to allow avian patients to move around as much as their condition will allow while under treatment. The Center recently began a program of attaching GPS trackers to raptors released back into the wild, in order to monitor their progress.
Another area in which human contact is bad for wildlife is simply good intentions. Del Castilho herself was introduced to Runyan about eight years ago, “when I brought a fawn to her that had been hit by a car… I just fell in love with what she was doing and started volunteering.” However, many people interfere with newborn fawns that are in no danger, presuming them “orphaned” because the mother has left them alone for a time while foraging. “We got over 400 calls last year about fawns,” only about 30 of which actually needed medical help. “Kidnapped fawns are a big issue.” So are people who feed deer things that are inappropriate for their digestive systems, such as bread, which gives them “horrible GI problems.”
What can people do to help, besides leave the critters undisturbed? In the wake of Runyan’s death, FFF is regrouping under Loberde’s leadership and not currently seeking new volunteers. However, donations are always needed to keep the place up and running 24/7. “It’s very expensive to feed a bear for five months,” De Castilho says, not to mention the costs of medicine and supplies. The organization recently installed donor software on its website that enables supporters to sponsor a particular type of animal on a monthly basis, from $5 for a songbird to $65 for a bear.
No matter what, the Center’s dedicated volunteers are determined to carry on Runyan’s work. “We really want to keep going the way that she wanted it to go,” says Del Castilho. “She taught us really well.” To learn more about the Friends of the Feathered and Furry Wildlife Center, or to make a donation, visit the website at www.fffwildlifecenter.org. To report a sick or injured animal, call (518) 989-6534 or (518) 965-1864.