2014 PFIG Recipient Karina Payerhin

Career Administrator

Karina Payerhin
College of Arts & Sciences
2016 Graduation Year

Internship: The Wildlife Center of Virginia in Waynesboro, VA.

Notes on the first week

I just completed my first week at the Wildlife Center of Virginia and it has been a wonderful adventure so far. The Center, located in Waynesboro, VA, is a hospital for native Virginia wildlife that provides quality health care to thousands of animals each year so that they can be released back into the wild. I am working as a wildlife rehabilitator, an extremely hands-on experience that focuses on animal husbandry, nutrition, capture and restraint methods, hand-feeding techniques for orphaned species, wildlife laws, and release criteria. In just my first week, I have learned about and performed all of these tasks. It is a blast! The Center has a hospital area for veterinary procedures as well as flight pens for large raptors, an aviary, bear pens, a reptile room, and both indoor and outdoor baby bird and mammal ICU units. There is never a “typical” day at The Center, so I’ve had the chance to work in each of these areas doing something different every day.

I started out learning how to feed and care for birds of many different shapes and sizes. The bird ICU unit houses baby passerines— songbirds such as American robins, blue jays, American crows, common grackles, and European starlings. These birds need to be fed every fifteen minutes, which is a labor-intensive but rewarding job. I’ve learned how to handle and properly syringe-feed these birds, making sure the food goes into their stomachs and not their lungs. For raptors, such as bald eagles, broad-winged hawks, and great horned owls, diet preparation is different because they eat whole rodents and fish. I just started learning how to restrain these big birds— a slightly terrifying but awe-inspiring experience. The birds need to be exercised so that they can perfect their flying before being released into the wild. This requires the ability to restrain and hold them, a skill I am still working on.

The Center also includes a mammal ICU unit that houses baby opossums, eastern cottontail rabbits, squirrels, and even groundhogs. Each animal has to be tube-fed with formula and feedings ranging from one to five times a day. It’s a full time job to feed those hungry mouths! The care put into the design of each animal’s diet has amazed me— they truly are getting the highest quality care. I learned how to tube and handle each mammal, even the tiniest and most fragile baby rabbits. The hardest part of the whole process is actually stopping the animals from moving long enough to “burrito” them, or wrap them up in a blanket for control, when feeding. This type of feeding is certainly an art, but one that I’ve really enjoyed learning about and practicing!

Perhap,s the most fulfilling part of my work so far has been releasing animals once they are ready to survive on their own in the wild. I have volunteered to take boxes of rabbits and opossums back to Charlottesville with me, releasing them at dusk into a wooded area with fields nearby. Animal release is the perfect finale to all of the work we put into each animal at The Center, and I’m lucky that I get to see them happily run off into the woods as nature intended. Besides being involved in many more releases, throughout the course of my internship, I hope to identify many of the wildlife native to Virginia and know some interesting facts about each. I will continue to try to step out of my comfort zone and do something that challenges me every day. As a pre-veterinary student, one of my other goals is to figure out if wildlife medicine is something I would like to pursue as a career. Based on an incredible first week, it’s certainly looking that way! 


Six weeks later, I am still in love with my work and the animals at the Wildlife Center of Virginia. I’m halfway done with my time at the center, and it’s hard to believe how much I have learned in only six weeks. I have learned the daily procedures of care for every type of animal at the Center: from mammal ICU to the reptile room to raptors. I’ve even encountered different species of birds that I didn’t know lived in Virginia. And the best part?  I’ve played a huge role in saving these animals’ lives. We just recently released some opossums that came in to our center at about the same time as I did, as naked babies, weighing 20 grams and helplessly orphaned. There is no better feeling than being able to send these now grown, fully furred, and feisty opossums out into the wild, knowing that I was able to help bring them to this point.

I felt comfortable with all of the different tasks and assignments at the Center by the end of the second week, and then the fawns came. As cute as they are (they are essentially like Bambi), caring for them is much more challenging than anyone expected. Many of them are brought in by people who find the fawn alone in a field, thinking that it has been orphaned. However, these people don’t realize that the mother purposefully leaves the fawn alone all day, while she goes into the woods to find food. In effect, the center admits multiple fawns a day that are perfectly healthy and simply separated from their mothers. Each fawn is held in quarantine when it first arrives at the center, since fawns are prone to getting all kinds of diseases, some of which can be spread to humans. Once it has three negative fecals, it can be moved to our deer runs with the other twenty-two fawns that we currently have!

Every fawn gets fed formula from a bottle twice a day. Several of them have also been getting medicine recently, both in their water and orally, due to an outbreak of coccidia, which is a parasitic disease that attacks the intestinal tract. Luckily, they seem to like the medication more than they like their food; this is where the challenge often lies. Some fawns are always hungry and eat everything we offer them, but others have to be force-fed by shoving the bottle’s nipple into their mouths. They can be very stubborn, and it gets frustrating at times, but after feeding them for so many days, I would consider myself a fawn-feeding expert. I have also learned how to administer fluids to fawns: if they don’t eat half of the amount they are supposed to have during the day, even with force-feeding, they receive an injection of subcutaneous fluids in the evening to provide them with the necessary nutrients. It has certainly been a great learning experience, and I’m living up to my goal of continuously challenging myself every day.

Every day I am increasingly reminded of the importance of this, and all public service. This experience has intensified and underlined the importance of the hard work it takes to make a meaningful impact in public service, as well as the rewards that can be earned from all of this hard work. I really am lucky to have the chance to be a part of something that not only teaches me and prepares me for my future career, but also gives back to the community and environment.  I have decided that this type of career, with implications greater than simply providing a service to the animals that are treated, is exactly what I hope to have in the future.

In my remaining six weeks, I hope to continue mastering every skill required of me at the Center, from start to finish. I’ve already checked many things off my list at the Center on which I keep track of all of the tasks I’ve completed, and I have even helped to teach some of the newer members of our team. My original goal still remains: to challenge myself every day and step up to every opportunity and challenge that is thrown at me. Finally, I want to be able to catch a bald eagle! Now that I’ve completed six weeks of work, I am well-equipped and trained to actually catch and restrain a massive bald eagle: talons, beak, and all. I can’t wait for this experience and many more opportunities to learn about the amazing wildlife of Virginia!

Final Reflections

This week I said goodbye to the Wildlife Center of Virginia, my second home for the past three months. It seemed like such a long time period for an internship when I started at the beginning of the summer, but now I’m wishing I had more time to spend with the amazing animals and people there.

In the last half of my time with the diverse wildlife of Virginia, I became extremely comfortable with daily routines and tasks, as well as with some of the more rare ones, like catching a bald eagle! I had caught many larger raptors before, but none as large and strong as a juvenile female bald eagle (females are much bigger than males) that want nothing to do with humans. The technique is the same, but I had to hold on for dear life to prevent this big girl from flying right out of my arms. I felt incredibly accomplished afterwards. If I can restrain a bald eagle, I can handle anything!

As I became one of the more senior students, I got to do even more exciting and unique things, such as feeding the black bears! This summer, the bears were largely off-limits because many of them had been inappropriately possessed by humans for long periods of time, and they needed as little human contact as possible to facilitate their rehabilitation and release. Getting to ride up to the bear complex with tubs full of produce and “bear bags” made up of dog food and birdseed was something new, exciting, and a privilege. I respect the distance these creatures needed to get them back into their wild state of mind, but being able to see the adorable frolicking cubs and yearlings was a special treat.

I am so grateful to the veterinarians, wildlife rehabilitators, and my peers for teaching me things I will use for the rest of my life, both personally and professionally. I have seen my work ethic improve drastically, and I have come to appreciate the value of teamwork more than ever. I also developed the greatest passion for my work this summer. From the outside looking in, others may think a tiny, hairless squirrel is just another wild animal, but to everyone at the Wildlife Center, it’s a life that is worth saving. This requires such great dedication, perseverance, and a desire to really make a difference, and being able to see the tangible results in the form of animals being released back into the wild is what made my experience so very special.

Of course, there were challenging days, like when we were severely understaffed and three people had to do the work of six to make sure all of the animals were fed, cleaned, medicated, and exercised for the day. It was also never easy to watch an animal’s health decline in a way that can’t be improved, as often unfortunately happens in wildlife medicine. The only solace we had was that as their caretakers, we did everything we could to make their last moments as painless and comfortable as possible.

This experience has definitely shaped how I think about and approach my future. There is no doubt in my mind that I will work with animals for the rest of my life. For me, there is no other work that is quite as fulfilling, and I experienced so many awe-inspiring moments that I think can only come from working with animals. I will never work a desk job. Further, the work I do will have to be meaningful; I not only want to make a difference to the animals I treat, but also to the environment and people that interact with them. I am so grateful to the Wildlife Center of Virginia for this incredible opportunity. Finally, from me and the hundreds of animals that came into and back out of our doors this summer, I would like to thank the Parents Fund for its generous funding, making this experience of a lifetime possible for me.