Sunday, December 5, 2010

Cape Cod Bound

In 1999 I'd been a mixed practice veterinarian living in the foothills of Colorado for 7 years when I said to a friend, "By the end of the year I'll be working with wildlife full time."

As it happened, by August of that year I was packed into the biggest UHaul I could rent, towing my car, driving cross country, my beautiful malamute mix, Taqa, beside me. I was Cape Cod bound. I was going to be a veterinarian at a wildlife center full time. I was sure it was what I was meant to do and that I'd spend the rest of my career with wildlife as my only patients.

If you've read even a little bit of my profile, you know that's not how my life turned out. But back then, as I drove through the vast pastures and fields of Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois, on the seemingly endless journey from the Rockies to the Atlantic, all I thought about was surgery on great horned owls, raising robins and raccoons, and removing fish hooks from turtles. I'd spent many weeks at the Cape Wildlife Center over that summer and moving to Massachusetts to be their full-time wildlife veterinarian was a dream come true.

The journey was anything but smooth. My car's battery was drained one night in a Nebraska truck stop when a snow shoe wedged against the brake pedal left the brake lights shining all night. I'd moved the driver's seat so I could sleep in the back of the car and had missed the offending shoe (that I'd never again need, it turned out). I didn't discover the dead battery until I was in Pennsylvania and needed my car to drive to a motel (my first on the whole journey) because the transmission had given out on my UHaul-monster. A friendly gentleman jumped my car and never said an unkind word. He never even snickered. That motel bed, once I finally made it there, was the most comfortable we'd ever slept in (me and my dog).

The next day, after all of my belongings had been transferred to another truck, I was wending my way through the hills of Pennsylvania. The overloaded truck had to work so hard to get up the hills that I was being passed by mobile homes pulled by trucks. Lots of them, some of them huge. I think every mobile home in Pennsylvania was on the highway that Sunday.

Late that night, I pulled down the narrow, rutted road in West Barnstable, Massachusetts, drunk with relief and shivering with anticipation. My sisters, Karen and Jenny, met me at the Center and helped me unload my vast UHaul into the conference room and I collapsed into one of the beds at the Center. The next day I set to work as a wildlife veterinarian. But I also had, unexpectedly, landed the job of being the Center's new director. That, it turned out, would be the hardest part of my job by far.

The Center had struggled with the season -- more wildlife babies than expected and insufficient volunteers to help with the work. The staff and externs (students there for 3 or 4 weeks at a time) were overstretched with the daily chore of feeding dozens of baby raccoons, squirrels, rabbits, and song birds. Our day would start at 7 in the morning and often not be over until 10 at night. Every baby animal needed feeding multiple times per day. It had to be done in a quiet and nonstressful manner by people that were anything but stress-free. On top of the chores of rehabilitating healthy babies, injured wildlife arrived each day requiring medical and surgical care. It was a wild time of trial by fire and I felt alternately lost and exhilarated.

Student externs from all over the world would arrive and, on their days off, want to visit the sites on Cape Cod. I never could help them out about where to go. I could get to my cottage, my favorite sandwich shop, the grocery store, and the release sites we used. I was absolutely no help to the students from exotic places like Holland, Germany, and New York who wanted to experience Cape Cod. I lived there for 5 years and, I'm ashamed to say, I really didn't get to know her very well. Her wildlife yes, her culture and heritage and beautiful scenic spots, not so much. A restful day for me was one when I had time to take a walk on the marsh beside the Center or go kayaking through the marshes in the next town.

Examination of an anesthetized green heron with an injured wing
But that's the way that I wanted it -- working hard, helping wildlife, teaching students, and caring for my patients.That's a little taste of how I got there. As time goes on, I'll share a few stories. There are some doozies!