Melissa Stanley's grandmother was nicknamed Snow White because of her affinity for birds, and she was also known to prepare meals for injured raccoons.
"I guess it runs in the family," Stanley said with a smile.
As founder and executive director of the Richmond Wildlife Center, Stanley has helped care for her share of birds and raccoons. Tortoises and rabbits. Opossums and ... well, the list goes on.
Marking its fifth year in 2018, the all-volunteer center provides veterinary care and rehabilitation for sick, injured and orphaned wildlife, along with handling field rescues and facilitating adoptions of domesticated animals it treats. Stanley is a veterinary assistant and a state-licensed wildlife rehabilitator; several local veterinarians provide surgical and medical care to patients.
The nonprofit wildlife center – the Richmond region's only such operation – is based on the second floor of the Winterfield Veterinary Hospital in Midlothian, and a recent day reflected the variety of nature itself.
With Stanley monitoring the anesthesia tube, Dr. Carolyn Clay was expecting to perform a fairly simple operation – until she found cancerous tumors that, left untreated, would certainly cause death.
So after more than an hour of surgery, including the removal of three masses, everyone exhaled. The 6- to 8-year old female Lop rabbit, which had been rescued from inhumane conditions at a private residence, not only wouldn't get pregnant, but she had a rosy outlook.
"We just gave her more years to live," a surgical assistant said.
In the lull between pre-op and surgery on the rabbit, Clay and Stanley turned their attention to other patients.
A baby opossum weighing only 58 grams – roughly the equivalent of half a plain bagel – had arrived at the center after being rescued from the pouch of its mother, which had been hit by a car.
"Even if the mother dies, the joeys can survive," Stanley said.
During this follow-up exam, Clay saw that the opossum’s tail abrasion was healing nicely. A second juvenile, which had been brought to the center after a passer-by saved it from an owl attack, was also doing well, with weight and injuries improving.
Meantime, other wildlife center volunteers were busily seeing to other tasks: feeding animals in cages, doing laundry, even tending to the center’s "ambassadors" – two tortoises, a box turtle and a domesticated Pekin duck – that were exploring the space.
Malena Radeva, a student at the University of Richmond hoping to become a veterinarian, volunteers several times every week. She highlighted the wildlife room, an enclosed space for animals scheduled to return to the wild, and made sure to hold conversations outside the room – so the sound of human voices won’t imprint on the animals and complicate their transition to a natural habitat.
That day, room residents included two birds (a scarlet tanager and cardinal), ducks, the rescued opossums, two snakes, a chipmunk and a flying squirrel, all housed in small but tidy separate enclosures.
Radeva’s summer plans included driving the scarlet tanager to the Columbus Zoo – a drooping wing prevents the tanager from migrating, so it can’t live on its own.
When injuries prevent an animal from being returned to the wild, it is deemed "nonreleaseable," and what happens next varies dramatically. Federal and state regulations are very specific about individual species and the nature of injuries.
While the goal is to return animals to their natural habitats – "we want to have them go on to reproduce and live out their lives fully functional with a good chance at survival," Stanley said – options may include placement on exhibit or for educational purposes with an accredited zoo or similar facility, or even euthanasia.
"Hawks have to have perfect vision to hunt," she noted. "And adult animals, who have lived most of their lives in the wild, don’t do well in captivity. They get really stressed."
The domestic exotic pets that the wildlife center admits can never be released into the wild. They must be adopted to a loving "forever" home or appropriate professional facility depending on the species.
Randy Francis, the wildlife permits coordinator for the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, said the agency relies on its network of licensed "rehabbers" to deal with individual cases and provide information to the state.
"Without having rehabbers willing to care for the animals, many of our staff would have no choice" but to euthanize injured animals, he said. "Without people like [Stanley], our staff would be overwhelmed."
Francis said Stanley and the Richmond Wildlife Center communicate well with the game department and "provide a wonderful service.
"Rehabbers provide wildlife with a second chance," he said. "That’s what she does."
One volunteer who had finished his work and headed out was Stanley's father, Rick, whom she credits with supporting the nonprofit – emotionally and financially – from the beginning.
"I am so thankful that my dad supported me," Stanley said. "He saw how happy I was."
The Richmond native was a teen when she found an injured songbird and contacted a wildlife rehabilitation club for assistance. Directed to a member’s house, she left the bird in the care of someone who didn’t have any medical training.
"Even at 15, I knew that bird wasn’t going to get what it needed," Stanley said. "That’s haunted me ever since."
Years later, Stanley came upon a kitten in the middle of a road, stopped her car to grab it and found a vet who offered pro bono care.
"That cat bit and scratched me, but a light bulb went off," she said.
Originally a biology major at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, Stanley began working at an animal clinic, handling "exotics" (snakes, turtles and tortoises, birds, etc.), police dogs and wildlife.
"I realized [that] cats and dogs are great, but everyone does cats and dogs," she said of her interest in caring for the outliers.
Stanley gained more experience at the Riverbanks Zoo and Garden, a private zoo with its own veterinary hospital on site. The lead doctor welcomed Stanley’s enthusiasm and "let me do more at that age than anyone would do now," she said.
That included helping deliver a baby giraffe, performing a root canal on a (sleeping) tiger and restraining (with others) a full-size anaconda for a medical assessment.
Another benefit of the zoo, she said, was being able to sit and watch the animals – to simply observe their behavior. That knowledge is important in diagnosing issues.
"Animals will hide their illnesses to trick predators," Stanley said. "That still exists in exotics and pets. Someone’s rabbit or guinea pig dies, and people think it’s a sudden death, but it’s not: That animal has been hiding something."
Wanting more formal veterinary education, Stanley transferred to Virginia Tech to study animal and poultry sciences. Her plans to become a veterinarian got derailed, and with a degree in finance, she later worked in that industry. But at age 30, she decided to return to her first love: animals.
In 2010, Stanley launched a nonprofit designed to provide financial support to families who could not pay for their pets’ medical needs. "That wasn’t sustainable," she said.
But during that time, Stanley often received calls from people who needed care for their exotic pets or injured wildlife they had found. "There was still a huge need," she said.
In April 2013, Stanley opened the Richmond Wildlife Center. Clay came on board as the volunteer veterinarian, noting that the center is the only site in the Richmond region where – under one roof – wildlife can receive medical treatment and rehabilitation services from trained professionals.
"People want to do good ... and they end up doing what they can, which isn’t always in the best interest of the animals in most cases," Clay said. "The center has made a difference in helping getting wildlife out of the public’s hands.
"A person wouldn’t go to somebody’s garage for critical care; neither should a wild animal."
The center now has two additional volunteer vets – April Rice of Winterfield Veterinary Hospital and Christopher Patterson of the Three Chopt Animal Clinic – but Stanley is the only paid staff, and her compensation is tenuous.
From the beginning, Stanley’s father made sure she had insurance and a nominal paycheck. When he retired in 2016, she launched a GoFundMe page. She is working on a new fund drive with a goal that would provide her with a salary and insurance, and to hire a full-time veterinarian as well as a wildlife rehabilitator.
Instead of being in the clinic, Stanley would devote a year to securing corporate support that would enable the clinic to purchase land on which a new building could be located, along with the outdoor cages that are used to transition wildlife to their habitats. Currently, those enclosures are three-quarters of mile away from the shopping center where the wildlife center is housed (a variance from the state was required for the arrangement).
Stanley is grateful for the support of Winterfield Veterinary Hospital, highlighting its donations of supplies, equipment (radiology, ultrasound, laser therapy, etc.) and even staff time. (For example, during the Lop rabbit's surgery, a man approached the hospital reception desk, saying he knew of someone willing to adopt chickens. Because Stanley was in the operating room, the Winterfield receptionist assisted.)
But "the day I opened, we outgrew the space," Stanley said, adding that she can’t take any patient that requires 24-hour monitoring because there is no room for a staff member to sleep or shower.
Clay noted how important additional funding is to the center's work.
"People don’t realize the financial needs that are required for us to be here," she said, citing business and permitting costs along with equipment and medical needs. "There’s no government funding for wildlife. There’s not a lot of grant money for wildlife, either."
When more than 500 animals in Louisa County were rescued from inhumane conditions this year, Stanley accepted 100 of them – creating even more challenges, because there are state requirements about keeping wildlife away from any animal that could be a pet.
"If someone takes the time to rescue something and bring it to me, I have an ethical obligation to treat it," she said.
Clay noted that the center’s goal is to educate about the care and proper treatment of wildlife. She, Stanley and the other volunteer vets regularly attend conferences and network with other providers to ensure they are up to date on the latest medications and procedures.
A living embodiment of their mission is Beau, the center's resident African sulcata tortoise.
At the time he was found in a private yard, presumed abandoned by his owner, he weighed 10 pounds. Now healthier and weighing more than 50 pounds, the roughly 10-year-old reptile has a life span of 50 to 150 years and has become an ambassador for the center – and a reminder that some pets are more than a lifelong commitment.
Stanley and Clay see a direct connection between animal and human life.
"Animals are the first signs of problems that relate to human health," Clay said, pointing to how birds revealed the dangers of lead poisoning. "When you see outbreaks in wildlife populations, you see them move to the human population."
Stanley added that the first indicators of the Ebola virus emerging in Africa came from the veterinary community, which identified the disease in bats. And the opossum has a blood protein that offers protection from venomous snakebites, a discovery has led to efforts to develop an antidote for humans.
"Wildlife," Stanley noted, "helps us in a lot of ways."