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From left, Lees-McRae College sophomore’s Chelsea Smith and Andi Davis hold two of the Blue Ridge Wildlife Institute’s red-tailed hawks.


Originally published: 2014-03-27 17:38:29
Last modified: 2014-03-27 17:43:50

Wildlife ambassadors

by Allison Haver

Wildlife rehabilitation has always been a passion for Nina Fischesser, director of Lees-McRae College's Blue Ridge Wildlife Institute.

In 1995, Fischesser started a rehabilitation center at her house in Jonas Ridge, in Avery County, where she saw around 800 injured animals a year thereafter.

The center has been a part of Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk since 2003. 

The nonprofit organization holds both state and federal rehabilitation and education permits and is dedicated to wildlife rehabilitation, environmental education and research.

Injured animals from across the Western North Carolina region and other parts of the country are brought to the center, giving students the chance to have a hands-on experience, as well as professional training about wildlife rehabilitation, medical procedures, species identification and anatomy.

In 2013, the institute saw more than 1,000 injured wild animals, including songbirds, raptors, waterfowl and small mammals.

According to Fischesser, there is not another undergraduate program that offers a major or concentration in wildlife rehabilitation.

"It is a very unique program," Fischesser said. "It is the only program of its kind in the country, or even the world."

While a major in wildlife rehabilitation is not available yet for Lees-McRae students, Fischesser said the major will most likely be available for interested students as soon as next year.

In the program, students work with the institute's "wildlife ambassadors," which are animals that cannot be released back into the wild.

"Students are learning by real-life examples," Fischesser said. "They come to class and learn about how to take care of these animals and then work shifts (at the center) during the week."

The first class students take is a basic wildlife rehabilitation course and within the first week of instruction they are working with the animals.

"It's not like learning how to do CPR, where you work on a mannequin."

Fischesser said. "If you are learning how to tube feed an opossum, you are actually tube feeding a opossum."

Students in the program also participate in the institute's summer clinical, which is full time and lasts for three months.

"The summer clinical really is the meat and potatoes of the program," Fischesser said.  "Students work six days a week with hundreds of animals and by the end of the summer, they are pretty much running the show around here."

Volunteers are also welcome at the institute to do anything from cleaning cages to training animals.

 A seminar for those interested in volunteering at the institute will be held on June 14 at Lees-McRae.

The Blue Ridge Wildlife Institute is located in the Dan and Dianne May Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, which is behind the historic Mill Pond off of Hickory Nut Gap Road in Banner Elk.

For more information on the educational program or becoming a volunteer, call (828) 898-2568.