CUTENESS: Volunteer Denyelle Surrell feeds a baby squirrel through a syringe fitted with a nipple at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick. Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

CAPE NEDDICK, Maine — When the folks at the Center for Wildlife finish feeding, weighing and cleaning all the orphaned baby squirrels in their care, they rest.

For about 10 minutes.

Then, they start all over again. With about 80 whiskered faces to feed, there’s not much down time. There’s even less when you add the infant opossums, motherless birds and dozens of other wayward creatures also in their care.

It’s endless work that, more often than not, is in vain. Most orphaned animals don’t make it. But some do. That hope, coupled with 32 years of sustained effort, has grown the center into the largest wildlife rehabilitation and educational facility in Maine.

“We are one of 20 centers, in terms of size and scope, in the whole country. There aren’t many centers, like ours, that exist in the whole United States. What sets us apart, locally, is that we do both conservation medicine, as well as environmental education,” said Development Director Emma Balina.

The Center for Wildlife treats nearly 2,000 injured and sick wild animals each year. It handles native creatures from small mammals to large hawks. Snakes, turtles, squirrels, mice, finches and owls all get the same level of care. Releasing them back into the wild is always the goal.

Credit: Troy R. Bennett | BDN

The center also hosts around 20 “ambassador” animals that cannot be released. The ambassadors, which include a porcupine, a crow, a turkey vulture, several owls and an opossum, are used in educational programs.

“We do about 350 education programs a year at schools, libraries, state parks, senior centers, nursing homes and community centers,” said Balina, who grew up in Bangor.

The ambassadors have a standing engagement on a Portland television station and the public can visit with them at the center.

Doing all the work at the Center for Wildlife are about 80 volunteers, seven full-time staff members — all of them women — and about 30 college interns.

This year, the center’s operating budget is $430,000. None of it comes from the federal or state government sources. The bulk of it comes from individuals, with education program fees, private foundation grants, and local businesses rounding out the rest.

The Center for Wildlife was founded in 1986 by York state lawmaker Dawn Hill and Gary Beekman, a local veterinarian. At first, it operated out of a trailer with no running water or electricity.

Now, the center hums in a crowded, 1,200 square-foot ranch house near the foot of Mount Agamenticus. Outside, there are close to 30 enclosures for animals on the mend and permanent ambassadors.

Later in 2018, after four years of planning and fundraising, the center will break ground on a larger, purpose-built facility.

MORE AMBASSADORS: Sarah Kern, (above top) shares a moment with a clever crow named Dante. The crow is too imprinted on humans to be released. The staff at the center goes to great lengths to ensure the intelligent bird enjoys a stimulating life of games and interaction. Lotus, an eastern painted turtle (above left) swims in a tank in the front office. The turtle was found by a realtor in an abandoned house, floating in a blackened tank of filthy water. As a result, she suffers from shell rot and cannot be released into the wild. A bit of mouse fur dangles from a turkey vulture’s beak (above right) after feeding time. The vulture, named Violet, has a wing injury that prevents her from being released. Kern (above) checks in on a one-eyed eastern screech owl named Lady Willow. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

“I started as a baby bird room volunteer when I was going to the University of New Hampshire for wildlife ecology. So, as much as I now do our budgeting and financing and grants, I still try to do some hands-on things that remind me of why this work is so important. This morning we had nestling songbirds come in that are like two days old. I worked to try and identify them. People didn’t know what species they were. That was my fun, little quiz for the day. They were house finches. One of them is actually just an egg. It’s hatching right now.” — Kristen Lamb, executive director

MANY MOUTHS TO FEED: Sam Cox (top photo, from left) Denyelle Surrell and Candace Wiedemann feed baby squirrels at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick. Kim Andre (above left) feeds one of 11 baby opossums. At five weeks old, the opossums should still be in their mother’s pouch, but she was hit and killed by a car. Staff at the center must now feed them four times a day with a tube and syringe. Andre (above left) retrieves a baby squirrel from an enclosure. This spring, the center is raising upwards of 100 baby squirrels. Each of the 11 baby opossums (above) has a different color applied to their ear so staff can tell them apart during feedings. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

“We give everyone the best chance possible. We had a couple of snakes come in over the winter that were in people’s basements. We kept them alive all winter and released them this spring. Just one squirrel can plant 2,000 trees a year. That squirrel that we raise might go out and plant 6,000 trees before it gets eaten by a predator. They bury tons and tons and tons of nuts and acorns over the course of the year and they only recover 20 percent of them.” — Libby Peck, senior medical clinic apprentice

CUTENESS: Volunteer Denyelle Surrell feeds a baby squirrel through a syringe fitted with a nipple at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

Tips for rescuing a wild animals

The Center for Wildlife Assistance Hotline and Medical Clinic is available 365 days per year between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. at 207-361-1400.


– Use a towel to cover the bird. Use a dish towel for small birds or bath towel for large birds.

– Place the bird in a well-ventilated box and transfer to Center for Wildlife or local rehabilitator.


– Remember to move turtles across the road in the direction they were headed – they know where they’re going.

– Large snapping turtles can be helped across the road by encouraging them to bite a sturdy stick and pulling them across the road on top of a towel to avoid scraping the underside of their shells.

– If a turtle was hit by a car, please bring it to the center. They may be able to bracket its shell or extract eggs from a female.


– Use a towel to cover the animal. Use a dish towel for small mammals or babies.

– Place the animal in a well-ventilated box and transfer to the Center for Wildlife or local rehabilitator.

All animals

– Keep the car as quiet as possible. Turn off the radio and talk quietly.

– Keep pets away from the animal.

– Most wild animals are in shock after being injured. Please avoid talking to, or holding, the animal as that can increase its stress.

– Keep the animal warm.

– Do not attempt to feed the animal. Wild animals have special diets and an injured animal could have internal injuries.

PLENTY OF WORK TO DO: A sign (top photo) tells staff and visitors at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick just how many animals are in care and how many they’ve served to date for the year. Candace Wiedermann (middle left) folds stacks of towels and blankets. Volunteer Robert Becker (middle right) washes mounds of dishes, measuring cups and mixing bowls. Wiedermann (above) sweeps up while Diana Dumais (center) and Abby Schofield work with the computer. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

“It’s a really awesome group of people that are here and dedicating their time to helping their community and wildlife. That’s really what it’s all about: Being here as a resource for the community and educating people — and also being able to help wildlife and make connections.” — Shelley Spanswick, medical clinic director

INCOMING PATIENTS: Baby house finches (top) vie for a meal fed through a syringe at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick. Karyn Lesinski, a wildlife specialist (above left) looks in on injured baby squirrels in a cage brought by a local resident. Libby Peck (above) a senior medical clinic apprentice, checks a baby squirrel after an arborist brought it to the center in a backpack stuffed with leaves. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

“A lot of what we do is like hospice, for wildlife. If somebody finds an animal and is able to catch it, a lot of times it’s so debilitated that there’s not anything you can do to save it. You provide a safe spot for it, or help it along through that process of dying. Euthanizing an animal is not the best part of the job. But you do get to release their spirit. All of them would have died if we weren’t here. So, if you’re saving 30-50 percent of them, then that’s good. You have to maintain a balance. You can become overwhelmed with the work. There’s a high degree of fatigue and burnout in this field. Releasing an animal is the best part of the job.” — Shelley Spanswick, medical clinic director

NOT ALWAYS A HAPPY ENDING: Wildlife Specialist Shelley Spanswick (top photo) and Kim Andre (left) examine a barred owl under anesthesia at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick. The owl had been in the center’s care for some time, recovering after being hit by a car. The feathered creature had a permanent neurological injury, however, that prevented it from flying or feeding itself. Spanswick had to make the difficult decision to euthanize it. Wildlife specialist Diana Dumais (above left) listens to the final heartbeats of a male house finch through a stethoscope. The finch came to the center with extensive wounds after being mauled by an animal — possibly a house cat — and had to be euthanized. Kim Andre (above right) checks a baby squirrel for a heartbeat after Adrienne Bowie (left) found it unresponsive in its enclosure. The animal did not survive. Spanswick cradles the dead barred owl’s head (above left) after euthanizing it. Dumais notes the death (above) of a euthanized baby mouse in the record book. The mouse was too young to survive without its mother. The center ensures that animals it cannot help do not suffer needlessly. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)

“This is a place that’s doing something every single day — and immediately. We don’t have to wait until legislation has passed over five-to-ten years. If there is an injured hawk on the ground, our clinic can do something, immediately, for that hawk. Our education team can share that hawk’s story and how to prevent those things from happening. It feels very powerful, to me.” — Kristen Lamb, executive director

BACK WHERE THEY BELONG: Libby Peck (top) a senior medical clinic apprentice at the Center for Wildlife in Cape Neddick, releases a yellow-bellied sapsucker in the woods behind the facility. The bird had suffered from a lower beak fracture after hitting a window in Portland. Wildlife Specialist Karyn Lesinski (above left) examines an orphaned Canada goose. A few days later, the gosling was successfully introduced to another goose family in the wild, to be raised as their own. Lesinski (above right) prepares to put a snapping turtle into a bathtub. The approximately 10-year-old turtle is recovering after a car ran it over. Turtles heal slowly and can sometimes spend two seasons at the center before being well enough to release. A red-tailed hawk (above left) flies in an enclosure a week before it was released. It came to the center after being hit by a shotgun blast. At first, staff did not think it would survive but it eventually recovered. Even so, it went back into the wild carrying more than a dozen steel pieces from the shell in its body. More than 30 people gathered to watch it soar into the air. (Troy R. Bennett | BDN)
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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.