Meet the seven-person staff of a wildlife center in Gaithersburg. They help nurse squirrels, birds, turtles and other animals back to health

Second chances

A wildlife center in Gaithersburg is nursing squirrels, birds, turtles and other animals back to health

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Courtney Thomas uses a syringe to feed a squirrel that’s about 7 weeks old. Photo by Laura Chase De Formigny

For the seven-person staff at Second Chance Wildlife Center in Gaithersburg, “baby season” in May and June is the busiest time of year. That’s when people often bring in little birds or squirrels that have fallen out of their nests.

But that’s not the only time it’s hectic. Concerned residents show up at the center throughout the year with animals in need of care, often transporting them in boxes lined with towels. A turtle hit by a car. A rabbit whose nest was destroyed by a lawn mower. A goose who swallowed a coin. More than once, a group of small squirrels has arrived with their tails tangled together, sometimes with sap from a pine tree.

Operating out of a rented 110-year-old farmhouse since 1996, the non-profit center is open every day of the year and admits about 3,000 ill, orphaned or injured patients annually. Some don’t survive, but most are nursed back to health and released into the wild. Some are transferred to other facilities for specialized care, such as a hawk that needed eye surgery.

Photo by Laura Chase De Formigny

More than half of the patients at Second Chance are songbirds. The center also cares for rabbits, squirrels, ducks, geese, opossums, turtles, raptors, chipmunks, snakes and bats. (Second Chance doesn’t accept raccoons, deer or invasive birds such as house sparrows, rock pigeons or starlings that aren’t native to the area.)

When people ask why wildlife should be saved, Maureen Smith, the center’s president since 2018, points to statistics. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the planet’s wildlife population has decreased by 60% between 1970 and 2014. As Maryland loses more forest to development each year, encounters between people and wildlife are more common—often to the detriment of the animals. Every species plays a role in maintaining balance in a healthy ecosystem, says Smith, a former head of marketing for the National Wildlife Federation, television executive with Animal Planet, and president of the Jane Goodall Institute.

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