FAIRFAX — Have you ever looked an owl in the eyes?
When you do, there’s an undeniable sense of intelligence, power and beauty that’s staring back at you.
I had this experience several weeks ago when I visited Audrey Von Lepel, a 59-year-old doctor and the person behind Teal Nest Wildlife Rehab. At her home facility in Fairfax, Von Lepel rehabilitates orphaned and injured wild animals.
It was one of those bone-chilling, single-digit-degree days. I stepped out of my car just as the sun was setting, met Von Lepel and shortly walked across crunchy snow and ice to a large cage in her yard. Inside, three mottled brown and white Barred Owls sat up on some branches, looking down curiously at their new visitor and hesitantly taking dead mice Von Lepel was offering with some tongs.
Two clicked their yellow beaks, a warning sign that they were feeling a little defensive, a little threatened. One kept flying around in his agitation, but I didn’t take it too personally. I was, after all, barging in on their house.
As I looked around and tried to take some photographs in the darkening cage, I was captivated by the owls’ large dark brown, almost black eyes. Looking a wild animal full in the face, I felt this sense of reverent awe.
In an effort to calm down the owl flying around, Von Lepel showed me how to scratch his neck right behind his head. His eyes closed slowly, calmly – he was visibly enjoying the scratching. It was exhilarating to not only feel the soft, warm feathers, but to be this close and feel connected, though not in control, of the owl.
Though I’m a fairly optimistic person, I know not everyone approaches them the way I, Von Lepel, or other respecters of wildlife do.
Von Lepel told me that the owls had either been shot by hunters or hit by cars. In the past, she’s received animals that have stoned by children in schoolyards, and once, she came across a young man throwing rocks at a baby crow in her driveway.
“Kids are just not out in the woods the way they should be,” said Von Lepel. “Children who love animals and who aren’t afraid of animals can relate to other beings. They learn compassion for all beings.”
Von Lepel got her own start early in her childhood. Growing up on Long Island, she helped her father do waterfowl rescue and learned the difference between caring for pets and for non-captive, wild animals.
“I was five years old and taking care of baby birds,” she told me. When an oil spill occurred nearby, Von Lepel and her father would race out to help.
Von Lepel never lost her love or her devotion to caring for animals and getting them back into the wild. In 1988 she moved to Vermont to practice medicine and care for wildlife.
“And I’ve been doing it ever since,” she said.
With the more 1,000 animals she’s taken in over the years, Von Lepel has seen a lot of critters pass through her house.
“I’ve had everything except a bear,” she said. “There’s always something in my house.”
Several weeks ago, Von Lepel was taking care of the three owls, two flying squirrels living in a giant sock in a cage in her basement, and a pigeon in a cage in her dining room.
“And that’s winter,” she said.
As for caring for the animals, Von Lepel said there are highs and lows.
The upside, of course, is that she gets to be around animals all the time, and that she gets to help them heal and return to the wild.
“It’s just so much fun,” Von Lepel said.
She said that when she takes in orphaned animals, they often do well and can be released once rehabbed. One of the more difficult parts of wildlife rehabilitation, however, is being responsible for the animals who don’t do as well.
“It’s the injured animals that are tough,” said Von Lepel. “I would say 50 percent of them don’t make it.”
If an animal is in extreme pain, isn’t able to recover from its injuries enough to return to the wild, or if there isn’t a wildlife education program available to take an animal with disabilities, Von Lepel is required to euthanize it. It’s a difficult, emotional, but necessary part of the task at hand.
“I always think that it’s better that they die at my hand and they’re comfortable [rather] than in the road,” said Von Lepel.
There’s also the challenge of taking care of so many animals when she’s the only wildlife rehabilitator in Franklin County. What with a lengthy application and licensing process, significant facility needs, the emotion of losing or euthanizing animals, and being on-call around the clock, wildlife rehabilitation is not the easiest job.
“It is killer sometimes,” said Von Lepel. “I get more calls now. We are now encroaching on [animals’] habitat.”
With such a large caseload, Von Lepel relies on two local veterinarians – Milton Veterinary Hospital and Dr. Bill Gunther of Champlain Valley Clinic in St. Albans – for animal medicine help.
“They give their services for free,” said Von Lepel.
She also has the aid of her family as well as her business partner, John Schraven. Von Lepel said that helping with wildlife rehabilitation has been particularly special for her two daughters, now in their twenties, who grew up caring for porcupines, beavers, birds, squirrels, bobcats…. you name it.
“They’ve been doing it since they were very, very little,” said Von Lepel. Before kindergarten, her daughters were in the backyard pool with an otter, teaching it to swim and living out any animal lover’s (my) dream.
“They’re both just very passionate about animals,” Von Lepel said
Despite the time, emotion and energy that go into wildlife rehabilitation, Von Lepel said she does it for both animals and humans.
“I feel like I want to be the ambassador between people and wildlife,” she said. “We could learn a lot from the animals. They have their own system, their own way of living.”
By knowing more about wild animals, Von Lepel said she hopes people – both children and adults – will not fear them as much, appreciate their autonomy, and respect their habitat and existence.
“I feel like we need to take care of them and respect them,” Von Lepel said.
Once we finished our interview and I left for home, Von Lepel had plans to go finish feeding the mice to the owls in their enclosure. They would be more awake with the onset of nightfall, and they would probably feel more comfortable eating with the strange lady (me) out of the way.
While beautiful – and let’s admit it, pretty cool – to see up close, I’d rather glimpse the owls briefly in the treetops while, say, walking in the woods. There they could scan with their dark, deep eyes, find some scuttling prey and, fully healthy, spread their wings into the night.
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To learn more about wildlife rehabilitation and what to do if you find an injured animal, visit: http://www.vtfishandwildlife.com/wildlife_rehabilitation.cfm