PORT MATILDA - Volunteer Beth Greiff reaches inside a kennel at Centre Wildlife Care, extracts a turkey vulture and places it on the concrete floor of the recovery room. The bird hip-hops across the floor until Karen Kuhn, another volunteer, scoops it up and wraps it in a towel.
The vulture was due for a tube feeding. It had been sick but had received treatment and now is recovering.
Robyn Graboski, director and founder of the professionally licensed wildlife rehabilitation facility, pushes a feeding tube down the vulture's throat. It doesn't seem to like what's happening, but it gets its meal.
"Did you know that vultures projectile vomit as a defense mechanism," she said, wiping some food off her shirt. The dribble came from the feeding tube, though, not a defensive action.
Quarter-century of experience
Graboski became a trained and license wildlife rehabilitator in 1988.
Centre Wildlife Care started in 1995 and has been going pretty strong.
In 2011, the facility took in more than 1,000 animals. Graboski hasn't completed running the numbers for 2012, but she said they've seen far more than that already.
She's treated a wide variety, including baby bunnies, songbirds, foxes, deer and bald eagles.
"Eighty percent that come in are coming in as a result of human influence," Graboski said.
She defines human influence as construction, landscaping, poisoning, being hit by a car, lead poisoning and being caught and injured by a cat or dog.
The facility's patients usually are found by residents of rural areas and sportsmen.
"There have been people out deer hunting and found a hawk on the ground and stopped everything to bring it into me," she said.
"The hunters are conservationists," she said. "They are first and foremost. They are the people who went out and bought the game lands, preserve the habitat and help the environment."
West Nile hits hard
In 2012, Graboski said the facility had a large number of birds infected with West Nile virus, which is spread by the bite of mosquitoes and can affect humans, too.
"We have gotten at least 50 birds just with West Nile virus," she said.
Species ranged from birds of prey such as hawks and owls to crows and blue jays.
"It was extremely high. This was the worst year ever in keeping record in the U.S.," she said.
The facility treats the affected birds with a supportive treatment. They are kept in a hospital cage where it is dark and quiet.
"Just like when you have a cold, you get rest and fluids and sometimes antibiotics for secondary bacterial infections," Graboski said.
Symptomatic birds will show signs of weakness. They can't stand and sometimes have tremors.
"They are very, very weak. One bird we just released was a huge great horned owl. It fell out of a tree and a dog caught it," she said.
"Both of those things are very abnormal. Dogs do not catch great horned owls because they are very big and dangerous," she added. "It was so sick, it just fell off the branch."
The bird had been so sick that the people who brought it to the facility just walked up to it, picked it up and put it in a box.
Even with treatment, some birds do not recover from West Nile. Test results from all of the birds at the facility were given to the state Game Commission, for use in its statistics and reports.
In winter, things began to slow down at the facility, but Graboski said a number of birds still are there, recovering.
"We still have more animals than we ever do at this time of year. This has been a very busy year," she said.
Volunteers crucial, dedicated
Without dedicated volunteers and interns, Centre Wildlife Care wouldn't run so smoothly.
"We have a lot of good volunteers and interns," she said.
Graboski said about 40 care volunteers help on a regular basis. In total, about 100 people assist and serve on the board of directors.
Interns come from Penn State University and surrounding universities and colleges. Most are biology, wildlife, forestry or recreation management majors.
The volunteers help with care, transport, fundraising and animal release.
"They are all trained and skilled and are very dedicated. When you think about it, the kids that come out here and volunteer, they are the cream of the crop. Very dedicated," she said. "These kids go on to get (doctorates), veterinary degrees, become keepers of zoos, biologist for the Game Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service."
Local veterinarians also work with the facility.
Centre Wildlife Care must comply with rules, regulations and laws set forth by multiple agencies. Detailed records are kept and submitted to state federal agencies every year.
"In Pennsylvania, continuing education is required to maintain licensing as a wildlife rehabilitator. In addition, rehabilitation facilities are subject to surprise inspections at any time by the state Game Commission," according to the facility's website, www.wildaboutanimals.net.
The public may bring in animals they have found, but they should call first. Hours are by appointment.