2014 PFIG Recipient Laura Szczyrba

Career Administrator

Laura Szczyrba
College of Arts & Sciences
Environmental Sciences & Spanish
2016 Graduation Year

Internship: Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary (RWS) in Schuyler, VA.

Notes on the first week

After my first week interning at Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary, I find myself scanning various areas for injured or orphaned animals. Located in Schuyler, Virginia, this animal rehabilitation center is not what it seems. I arrived at Rockfish thinking I must have punched in the wrong address into my GPS, the facility is located at a beautiful home in a wooded, landscaped area. Upon arrival, I was immediately greeted by three excited dogs, a suspicious cockatoo, and Nathou Attinger- the inspiring woman who founded this non-profit organization back in 2004. I related to her founding story a lot, she started out as a young woman who cared for the injured animals she encountered, just as I had once cared for injured turtles I found on the side of the road with my father. Jessie, my internship coordinator, and Nathou led me on a tour of the property, introducing me to a blind bard owl, a one-eyed hawk, many opossums, countless ducks, geese, foxes, crows, and a myriad of other rescued animals.

On my first day, Jessie taught me how to feed the baby birds in the nursery. It was a very intimidating task at first, as the feeding tube had to be inserted far enough down the bird’s throat to ensure the bird batter does not enter its lungs. The baby birds must be fed every thirty minutes, so I quickly became familiar and comfortable with this process. Feeding the babies is just one of my many tasks. In between feedings, I prepare and distribute food to the rest of the animals, clean cages, refresh water bowls, spend time with the education animals, assist in releases, and check in new animals. I have also worked on securing a cheaper source of mice for the animals through UVA science laboratories’ unused lab mice.

I could not possibly list all of the information I am picking up and absorbing from this internship. From facts about the acidity of bird poop, to recognizing the sounds of an aspirating bird, and even to the current state of the wild squirrel population (devastated by a poor acorn season), I am learning so much. I am excited to learn about the new animals that come in every day. I have found myself asking many questions, both curious inquiries and advice about my work techniques. By the end of the internship I expect to be able to identify a large portion of the birds in Virginia by their appearance and song- I have already begun to recognize a few typical birds. Professionally, I look forward to strengthening my communication and time management skills, human and animal observational skills, learning more about the intricacies of the non-profit business model, developing patience, and gaining a robust work ethic!


As I have integrated into the daily routine of Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary, the time has been accelerating by. Each day I feel more comfortable with the animals, becoming more knowledgeable and skilled. I can predict problematic scenarios and independently handle more situations. For instance, the sneaky mischief of the opossums and the mallards forced me to think quickly on my feet. I never thought myself as performing well under pressure or as a gifted improviser, but this job has forced me to adapt. In the case of the opossum, he clung onto the door ledge, out of my vision, as I swung the cage door out, distributing their evening meal. He plopped onto the ground and scuttled away. Panicking, I realized I couldn’t chase him- I would need help. So I cornered him and called for my supervisor, inside at the time. She called out, “are you locked in a cage again?”  After a few minutes we managed to get the little guy back into his cage. The mallards however, escaped when I was the only one working. I managed to shepherd them up to where we keep the giant nets, and I swooped them up before they got too far, they are very quick. These experiences, although very scary, have taught me that I can handle improvising solutions when a lot is at stake.

We currently most notably have 40 skunks, a baby squirrel, and baby crows in addition to the usual gang. I proudly have successfully established a connection between a University of Virginia biology lab and the sanctuary in order to acquire free frozen lab mice! This will greatly reduce Rockfish’s food bill, mice are expensive and we go through quite a few. Furthermore, the coral snake that we have here, who previously had refused to eat for 3 whole months, was willing to eat the first lab mouse we gave her! There must be something about the lab mice that is tastier than the factory-bred mice we generally are forced to order.

I am learning the value of hard work and preparation. This internship requires a lot of physical labor everyday, from clearing out hay, carrying food bags, cleaning out cages, emptying pools of water, as well as many other demanding tasks. The maintenance all of these animals require is surprising- it is certainly not just playing with baby animals all day. There are lots of common medical problems that I am learning to identify in the animals. I have had to deal with gapeworm, round worm, depression, aspiration, breaks, and many other ailments. I am also learning which animals play well with each other and which ones do not. I can’t possibly list all of the fascinating intricacies I have been exposed to.  One of my favorite ongoing experiences is feeding a released flicker woodpecker. He was released on site, but keeps flying back near me for food whenever he gets hungry, it is an amazing feeling!

Now that I am a bit better versed in the rehabilitation business, I am entrusted with going on a few rescue pickups myself. So far I have picked up a baby bunny, a bat, and four orphaned skunks. I hope to continue to become more and more independent as I gain more experience. With each new bird or small mammal we check in, I learn so many new facts, stories, and procedures. I can’t wait to continue helping, rehabilitating, and releasing these animals throughout the second half of my internship. 

Final Reflections

The best feeling is replying to a request with, “Already done!” I felt myself saying those words quite often in the last part of my internship with Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary. Feeling confident and established, I loved going to work more and more each day because I felt as though I was doing a good job. These feelings further encouraged me to look for more ways to improve. I realized that satisfaction in the workplace is not necessarily the individual tasks you are doing, which may be mundane, but the perspective from which you view your efforts and the people you surround yourself with. From noticing a cage needed changing, setting up nursery nests before a baby arrived, to taking inventory and restocking, I felt motivated and purposeful. However, I felt a little panicked because I knew my time was running out with all of these wonderful people and animals.

Perhaps the act of caring for wild animals attracts kindness, for I have met the most inspiring, amazing people throughout my internship at Rockfish. People who are willing to drive 2 hours to drop off a few baby birds, who donate thousands of dollars to this non-profit, who graciously allow us to release animals on their land (and keep a watchful eye over them), who volunteer to scrape bird poop and muck out of stalls, who are opened-minded, caring, empathetic, and overall incredible. Above all, I have learned from each and every person I have met at the sanctuary, how to be a better person. They taught me patience, to never be afraid to ask questions, and challenged my thinking. I have consciously tried to pinpoint what it is each person had to offer, and borrow a bit from their wisdom. Be hard working like so and so, lighthearted like her, considerate like him, and so on.  I have met the people that I wish to emulate from this internship.

In addition to the people, I will certainly miss the animals as well. A crow stands in the middle of the Rockfish Wildlife Sanctuary logo, which is now perhaps not so coincidentally, my favorite animal. The crow at Rockfish had so much personality. Some of them I got to hand feed as babies, and then release them at the sanctuary after 5 weeks. Many of them would still hop around, begging for food as I distributed the evening meals. One cheeky one even landed on my tray and stole a mouse! I realized how smart these birds were, they recognized faces, knew where and how to get food from me, socialized, and were very focused. Since leaving the internship, I have voraciously read about crows and ravens, renting books out from the UVa libraries. I am thankful that these birds at the sanctuary inspired me to learn more about them!

On my last day, I showed the new intern around, and said my goodbyes to all of the animals. The owners of the sanctuary gave me a goodbye cake and beautiful wind chimes with a majestic crow sculpture sitting right on top. I was very sad to leave, and of course my eyes were teary. My boss left me with the parting words, “You are one smart cookie.” She has been such an inspiration to me and I cannot wait to apply all the knowledge and skills I have acquired from working with her. What a magnificent, unique summer I was lucky enough to experience!