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Riding Along With The Animal Rescuers Of The Washington Humane Society

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These two robins were just a few days old when their nest went for a spin on a porch fan in Northwest, D.C. Washington Humane Society Animal Control Officer Cindy Velasquez transported the babies to City Wildlife.
WAMU/Cindy Velasquez
These two robins were just a few days old when their nest went for a spin on a porch fan in Northwest, D.C. Washington Humane Society Animal Control Officer Cindy Velasquez transported the babies to City Wildlife.

This story is the first part in special collaboration between Metro Connection and Animal House in which reporter Lauren Landau will be shadowing the animal control officers of the Washington Humane Society.

It is dark outside when Raymond Noll, director of the Washington Humane Society’s animal control field services, arrives at his destination in Southeast D.C. He is there for an injured bird that his dispatcher said is probably a fledgling, a baby that has most likely fallen out of its nest or been placed on the ground by its mother.

In April, W.H.S. took in nine non-migratory birds, such as European Starlings, House Sparrows and Pigeons. In May, that number jumped to 66.

The resident walked the animal control officers around to the back of the house, where there was a baby sparrow, lying in the grass. High above heads and out of reach, a nest is wedged in the wooden beams of the second-story balcony.

The resident does not want us going through his house, but Noll quickly realizes it would be a pointless venture anyway. Even lying on his belly on the second-story balcony, his reach is not long enough to return the fledgling to its nest. More importantly, there would be no one there to nurse the little guy back to health. The mother and siblings are missing. Noll says it is possible that the rest of the birds were strong enough to fly and this bird got left behind.

Back at the truck, he pulled out a towel.

“It’s a living animal, so we want to just dry it off real good. And it’s hungry,” Noll said. “It’s breathing. Hopefully I can get some food into it and we can get it down to rehab tomorrow. Get it warm.”

Noll handed over the bundled up baby bird while he opened up a cabinet in the truck.

“Okay buddy. Yeah I know you’re hungry. Give me a few. Let’s see if I hopefully get some worms at the shelter to feed you. It’s nice and warm in there. Okey doke. Off to the shelter,” Noll said, coddling the baby bird.

Noll rolled down his window and reached for his cigarettes. When asked if this kind of call upsets him, he seemed either disarmed by the personal nature of the question or irritated by the suggestion that he might be stress smoking over a baby bird, but he shot a look.

“I hate to like say that you get desensitized. These type of calls don’t affect me that much because I look at it more of, it’s like the cycle of life sort of kind of thing to me that you know, only the strongest survive,” he said.

“I mean, I get probably more affected when I see animals like a domestic dog or cat that’s been taken in by somebody who supposedly is going to treat it and love it like their pet and then neglect it or not care for it properly and then it runs loose out on the street, gets hit by a car. I’m not saying that wildlife is any less or that I’m less sympathetic to it, but at the same time, if this bird survives, great. We get to release it. At the same time, it’s the cycle of life I have to look at. Not every animal that’s born in the wild is going to survive," he adds.

As soon as he arrived back at the shelter, Noll dove into work, trying to help the little fledgling. A vocal group of dogs is outside the “exotics room,” which holds a variety of animals. Noll sets the fledgling up with a heating pad and rummages through a cabinet for some meal worms. There are bottles of food for fish, turtles, rabbits and mice, but nothing for sparrows. Luckily, it is a rainy night. He grabs a shovel and flashlight and we head back outside.

Noll finds a few earthworms and rushes them back inside to the baby bird. The fledgling refuses to open its beak. Noll selects one of the smallest worms with a pair of tweezers and pokes it into the little guy’s mouth. After a few failed attempts, including a resilient worm that keeps wriggling back out of the bird’s beak. Noll places the fledgling back on the heating pad, next to a bowl of dissected worms in case the baby bird wants a late-night snack.

He names the fledgling Spring. Every animal that gets here is given a name.

Unfortunately, Spring doesn’t make it through the night. During the past five months, 16 percent of the birds cared for by Washington Humane Society were dead upon arrival, died in custody or had to be humanely euthanized. Twenty-five percent were returned to the wild, while the majority was transferred to a wildlife rehabilitator, usually an organization called City Wildlife. Some of the birds placed in rehabilitation do not survive either.

Cindy Velasquez, an animal control officer, first came to W.H.S as a volunteer when she was just 16 years old. She says she never imagined she’d be doing this kind of work.

“I never expected for me to go above and beyond for an animal, because I really do. If I hear that an animal is in distress, if I have to jump a fence, I will. If I have to go to like a dark like a sewer space, I will. Whatever it will take to get the animal out. Just the adrenaline just kicks in. Nothing stands in my way to get to the animal,” she said.

But Velasquez admits she can only do so much.

“There are some times I just can’t get there fast enough to save them. I think that’s probably the hardest part for me, just not being able to save everything. And I think it took me awhile to understand that, but you know, I get to every call that I can as fast as I can to try to save whatever animal needs me,” she said.

Velasquez is responding to a report of multiple injured baby birds at a house in Northwest, D.C. On the porch lay tiny, featherless birds that can’t be more than a few days old.

The night before, the homeowner had turned on her fan, not realizing that a robin had built her nest on it. Two babies were ejected from the nest and one died after hitting the cement. The second was lucky enough to land on a cushion and was Velasquez there, barely breathing. She dragged over a chair and used her phone’s camera to peek into the nest. She was checking for more birds, and found one.

“Well that one I’m going to take it to probably City Wildlife. That might be the easiest place to take it to euthanize it because it doesn’t look like it’s in really good shape,” she said. “He probably would have had a chance if he would have been picked up last night, because they have to keep warm and he’s so cold right now.”

Velasquez gingerly placed the two surviving birds in a nest and wrapped them in a t-shirt to keep them extra warm while en route to City Wildlife.

At City Wildlife, Velasquez tells Wildlife Biologist Abby Hehmeyer what happened.

Sadly, these baby robins, like Spring, the fledgling sparrow, don’t make it. That can be a hard reality for people like Velasquez to accept. But as she said earlier, she can’t save everything. For the animal control officers at Washington Humane Society, taking the good with the bad is all part of the job.

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