For many twenty-somethings recently graduated from college, moving to a new state and living in a secluded spot several miles outside the nearest small town, surrounded by forest, would be a nightmare. Not so for Mary Evers, who in early November 2017 became Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary’s Manager. “I always wanted to work with bears,” says Evers. “They’re so amazing, and being part of releasing one back into the wild is the best feeling.” The opportunity to work with all sorts of wildlife through the entire range of rehabilitation – from intake exam to setting up an enclosure as they recover to releasing them back into the wild – is what excites Evers. Managing Snowdon is a perfect fit for her.
During the summer of 2016, Evers worked at Snowdon as one of two summer interns. She was attending West Virginia University, working on a degree in Wildlife and Fisheries Biology. After her internship, she returned to finish her degree, graduating in May, 2017. She was working as a wildlife rehabilitation intern in Canada when she learned of the job opening with Snowdon and immediately applied. “I so wanted this job; it’s my dream job,” Evers explained. “They’re hard to find.” As Snowdon’s Manager, she’s provided a house and vehicle in addition to a salary.
The local terrain was also part of the appeal. “I love hiking,” Evers says. “As an intern, I hiked every day off. I love the mountains and canyons here; we don’t have canyons in the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, where I’m from.” Evers remembers hiking up to Box Lake at the start of her internship, eventually losing the trail because of snow and having to turn back. At the end of her internship, she did the hike again, reaching the lake. She’s looking forward to doing much more hiking now that she’s here full time – if she can get some free time.
Evers’s transition into the job has had some challenges. One of the biggest has been faulty generators, the only supply of electricity to the compound. Some days the house provided for her – which had been empty for a while before her arrival – had no water but electricity, other days no electricity but water. Luckily the heat source is propane, so she doesn’t worry about lack of heat in winter. “I like the isolation,” says Evers, who did bring her cat with her. “I’ll go into town occasionally to be with people. I’m thinking about volunteering with MCPAWS.” Over the holidays, Evers’s older sister came to visit. “She loved it,” says Evers. “She’s a high school teacher, so getting a break from the kids was very relaxing for her.”
Those challenges – cranky generator and unreliable electricity, isolation – quickly recede to the background as Evers starts talking about the animals that come to Snowdon and how she cares for them. At present, things are slow, she says, with just two young bears, a great horned owl, and Snowdon’s resident peregrine falcon, Indy, who joins Evers when she does education and outreach programs.
One of the bears, a female named Yoga, came to Snowdon the day before Evers arrived to start as Manager. Yoga arrived weighing just 10 pounds and with a head wound. She was put in a temporary enclosure to help Evers monitor and increase her weight and check on the wound after it had been drained. Evers doesn’t talk to an animal in these situations; since the over-arching goal is to rehabilitate and return animals to their natural habitat in a condition that promises survival, keeping interaction with humans to a minimum is critical. “We want as little contact with humans as possible,” says Evers. “Especially the fawns, because they attach to humans. We distance ourselves to let them remain wild; respecting wildlife means keeping them wild. With baby birds, I wear a hood so they don’t see a human face. With fawns, I might initially have to bottle feed and stimulate them too defecate like their mothers would do, but eventually I use a bottle rack when feeding them to minimize contact. Bears have a natural fear of humans, and I want to maintain that. Yoga hated it when I came near her to check her head wound, huffing and fake-charging me, mad that her space was invaded, which is good.” In just a month, Yoga’s weight tripled, thanks to lots of dog food donated by MCPAWS and McCall Pet Outfitters. “Yoga loves apples,” Evers says. “More than elk or salmon! She just loves eating apples.” She has now moved into the one-acre bear enclosure where she never has to see a human.
The other bear, a male named Yogi, was already in the sanctuary’s one-acre bear enclosure when Evers arrived in November. Yogi arrived in October, young and underweight, venturing too close to homes. “When cubs are orphaned and underweight going into winter, they’re in danger of not surviving. Being underweight and alone means something happened to their mother, usually something human-caused like hunting.”
Yogi seems fine having Yoga share his space. “They get along well,” says Evers. The enclosure includes some dog igloo shelters, and recently Evers noticed the two bears sharing one, making her smile, knowing its good for animals to be around their own species. Eventually, the two bears will be released back into their natural habitat. If it appears they’re closely bonded, they may be released together; Evers will decide in the spring. Before Evers arrived, Snowdon had released six bear cubs that had been rehabilitated; two rescued from Oregon were returned there, maintaining the policy of releasing animals in familiar territory whenever possible.
Snowdon is Much More than Bear Rehabilitation
The other current Snowdon resident undergoing rehabilitation is a great horned owl. According to Evers, a couple found it and brought it to the sanctuary. The intake exam disclosed that the bird had an injured left eye, was underweight and weak, and covered in lice. It was very docile, which Evers attributes to its undernourished state. The eye injury appeared due to trauma – perhaps from a car strike. Weighing just 500 grams at intake, the owl is now at a more normal weight of 1500 grams. The eye injury won’t ever heal to a point where the bird can hunt, so it won’t be returned to the wild where it would only starve. It has rebuilt strength, though, and the lice are gone. It’s now living in an outdoor enclosure. Since the owl has been wild and is “feisty” it can’t be used as an education bird, so Evers hopes to release it onto the sanctuary property with an open door to its enclosure where she will leave food so it can have some freedom but also a steady source of meals.
When spring arrives, and into summer, Evers anticipates lots of fawns arriving at the sanctuary. It’s normal for a doe to forage while leaving her fawn alone and hidden. “People think the baby is abandoned and pick it up,” Evers says. “Once that happens, mom won’t come back. It’s best off with its mom, so people should make sure that the mom is dead or the baby truly abandoned before moving it. There are some signs of abandonment, like pale gums which means its dehydrated which could be become mom’s gone, or it’s laying with its neck straight out, which isn’t normal.” Evers adds that if a fawn is injured, then of course they’ll take it in.
Springtime also brings calls about baby birds that, it turns out, don’t need rescuing. Evers offers advice to those of us finding fledgling birds: “If you can find the nest, re-nest it. It’s a myth that mother birds will reject a baby if it has been handled by a human; the mothers are very loyal. If you don’t see a nest but you can hear a distressed mom, tape a box (nest) to a tree and the mom will come to it.” Sometimes birds get hurt when they fly into a window, falling stunned to the ground. In those situations, Evers recommends putting the bird in a quiet, safe space – maybe in a box, where predators like cats or dogs can’t get to it – allowing it time to recover so it can fly off on its own.
The many calls received by the sanctuary about non-injured, non-abandoned fawns and baby birds that don’t really need help tells Evers that education will be a big part of her job going forward. For example, in addition to helping people understand fawns are often left alone and are fine, she wants to convince people that providing food for deer, fox and bears isn’t doing them any favors, because they become habituated to those resources and others find them a nuisance, setting up a scenario that usually leads to the animals being destroyed. Evers cited an example of a screech owl named Nugget that came to the sanctuary two years ago. Nugget had been found as a fledgling and kept as a pet, fed hotdogs and chicken nuggets (thus the name). Keeping such a pet is illegal. When the owner tried to re-wild Nugget, it failed because he couldn’t hunt; he had never learned. Nugget was an education bird until he passed away, but he was robbed of his freedom, which Evers finds troubling.
So Evers’s to-do list includes school and community outreach, programs that often include Indy, the sanctuary’s education peregrine. Indy came to Snowdon in 2011 after flying into barbed wire in her hatchling year, causing injuries that made her non-releasable. Evers says she enjoys taking Indy out of her enclosure every day, perched on a gloved hand as Evers walks around the grounds. During presentations, Indy is an invaluable teaching tool, and garners far more interest and attention than a PowerPoint presentation.
Snowdon is currently without a winter caretaker, a six-month position that helps with feeding, cleaning, snow removal and preparations for the busy summer until two summer interns arrive to help for the three summer months. Volunteers and board members have been filling the gap, to Evers’s relief. The interns are usually college students, like Evers when she interned at Snowdon, and she’s looking forward to mentoring them each summer, sharing her passion for rescuing and rehabilitating wildlife. Being Manager of Snowdon is a difficult, all-consuming job, but clearly Evers is thriving on the demands.
“I’m blessed to live in this beautiful place, doing what I love,” says Evers. “It’s so rewarding. It can also be hard, because there’s lots of death in rehabilitation. You care, and it’s hard to see the suffering. It’s hardest when they first come in, in bad shape and weak, and you wonder how long they’ve been hurting. You want to take their pain away. They can’t talk, tell you what’s wrong. That’s difficult. The reward is seeing their recovery.”
All photos courtesy of Mary Evers/Snowdon.