Wildlife center nurses animals back to health before release

BY Lauren Wanko, Correspondent |

The cages open so two great horned owls can fly back into the wild.

“That’s the best part, that’s the best part of what we do,” said Mercer County Wildlife Center Director Diane Nickerson.

The young owls, who fell from their nests, were raised at the Mercer County Wildlife Center.

“We take injured, and ill and displaced wildlife. We fix it, or raise it, and then release it back into the wild again,” Nickerson said.

The center, owned by Mercer County and operated by the Mercer County Park Commission with support from the nonprofit Wildlife Center Friends treats about 2,500 animals and receives about 18,000 phone calls a year from concerned residents about animals they’ve spotted in need of care.

“We try to solve as many problems as we can before they bring animals into us because a lot of things can be left where they are,” Nickerson said.

For those who need care, there are 150 volunteers ready to lend a hand. That includes seven veterinarians who perform all the surgeries on site. Initially, the animals are treated inside the center. Eventually, they transition outside for pre-release conditioning.

“[Pre-release conditioning] means building muscles. Flying, if you’re a bird, flying back and forth learning how to hit perches that move,” Nickerson said.

Common mergansers were less than 2 ounces when they first arrived at the center. Their mom and other siblings were hit by a car. On this day, they’re enjoying a dive for fish.

“About 80 percent of what comes in to us comes in to us because it’s had contact with us in a negative fashion,” said Nickerson.

Which is why the wildlife center invites the public to visit their free outdoor education environment which is where many of their 16 permanent residents, too injured to return to the wild, are on display. These residents earn their keep. The great horned owl has lived there since 1997 and has raised motherless babies, teaching them how to survive in the wild.

The kitchen and laundry room is where all the meals are prepared for the patients. They eat quite well when they are at the center — fresh fruits and vegetables, whatever protein they may need is available, formula for the baby animals and more. As for the laundry, staff and volunteers do about 20 loads a day from May through September, which explains why they need to buy a new washer and dryer every year.

Aside from the amount of work involved, unlike many household pets, these animals don’t give their human caretakers any affection. It doesn’t bother Nickerson. She says she knows they belong in the wild.

“We live in such a congested area that it’s incumbent upon us as the animals with thumbs and a brain to learn how to co-exist with these animals in a peaceful fashion,” Nickerson said.