The Peace of Wild Things: Veterinarian Dr. Chi Chan

Opossum being rehabbed after a cat injury.Note:  A couple of years ago, I visited the Wildlife Clinic of Rhode Island and spoke with Dr. Chi Chan. In case you didn’t read this in your local paper, the story is reprinted here. -HJM

To say the space is cramped would be an understatement. There are, in no particular order, many mice, a toeless turtle, a cormorant, a robin, opossum, several seagulls, a broad winged hawk who may be suffering from brain damage, and several other cages covered with bed sheets, from which rise an occasional flutter or scruffling sound. There is a front counter no more than four feet long at the front, most of which is covered with food and supplies. Actual walking area is probably eight feet by ten feet. This is not the lower deck of Noah’s Ark. It is the busy office of the only veterinarian in the state that cares for wild animals: Dr. Chi Chan.


Baby squirrels recovered from the ground.

Baby squirrels recovered from the ground.


“We’re trying to make a difference.”

The tiny zoo filled with local wildlife is the headquarters of the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Rhode Island (WRARI). Each animal in the cramped quarters has been brought in by a concerned person or by an official from DEM or law enforcement in the hopes of healing wounds. Some have been hit by cars, some attacked by domestic cats, others suffering from problems of unknown origins. All of them are carefully attended to by Chan and her staff.
Officially begun in 1993, the organization is nearly all volunteer, focusing on caring for injured or orphaned animals. In addition to Dr. Chan, the office is staffed by wildlife technicians Laura Kenyon and Catherine Jones, the only two who are paid employees. WRARI depends on roughly 24 certified volunteer wildlife rehabilitators around the state to care for some 2500 animals. “We just don’t have the space to hold animals for rehabilitation,” Chan says, “that’s why we need our volunteers.”

Vet technician Catherine Jones (l.) holds a Merlin  while Dr. Chi Chan examines it.

Vet technician Catherine Jones (l.) holds a Merlin
while Dr. Chi Chan examines it.

“We’re trying to make a difference in the lives of the animals we work with,” Chan says. At the same time, however, there is the harsh reality of an animal brought in that is simply too far gone to save. “If I cannot fix it close to perfection, I have no other choice than to put it down. It would be unfair to the animal to be returned to the wild and still be unable to care for itself.”

“This is not unusual to have them crawling on the floor.”

And animals are indeed brought in, coming through phone calls from home owners and wildlife officials, as well as through drop-ins. At one point, Tina and Leo Cardio, wildlife rehabilitators for the past three years, come through the door with a cat-sized travel carrier. Tina reaches in and brings out a young opossum. The animal seems less than pleased at being handled, baring its small but sharp teeth. Cardio and Dr. Chan discuss the animal, which has come through the worse for wear after an encounter with a cat. Cardio places the opossum on the floor to demonstrate its mobility, and it promptly crawls under a storage shelf, where it will remain for the rest of the visit. No one bats an eye. “This is not unusual to have them crawling on the floor,” Chan says.
Once the opossum’s physical wounds have healed, Chan will call the Roger Williams Park Zoo to see whether it might be an appropriate placement for one of their animal encounter programs. Yet there’s a difference between physical healing and psychological. “It’s possible the animal will be too stressed. It may or may not be a good move to bring it there for the rest of its rehabilitation.”
From a plastic tub near the counter, Chan retrieves one of a half dozen baby squirrels, abandoned by its mother. Chan and Cardio launch into a discussion of proper nutrition for these critters, which are still nearly naked. The day continues in an unabated flurry of feedings, visits and phone calls. Chan takes a call from a woman who awoke to find a bat in her bedroom, and the prescribed course of action is not good.
“So the bat was there when you woke up? Did you catch it? Okay, well, I’m afraid you will both need to be treated at a hospital. I know you may not have been bitten, and the chance of rabies is only small, but the consequences of not being treated are just too severe.”

Dr. Chan watering a bird.

Dr. Chan watering a bird.

“They talk to me.”

Dealing with bats and opossum are not the way Chan thought her professional life would go. She describes her involvement with WRARI: “Big mistake! When I started as a vet, I said, ‘no beak, no horn, no hoof, and no scale. I’m just going to work with domestic animals!” Then she began her current job. Her boss, Dr. Meredith Bird (yes, that’s her real name) had chosen to expand her veterinary practice to include both domestic and wild animals. When Bird was not in the office, staffers from the wildlife clinic would come to Chan with questions. Chan found herself spending increasing amounts of time researching and working with wild animals, and it wasn’t long before Chen found herself being gently pushed into WRARI.
“I didn’t want to pay the $25 (to join WRARI),” she jokes, “so they voted me onto the board of directors.” Wildlife technician Catherine Jones once brought her a cat that was acting strangely. Chan’s diagnosis was swift. “Your cat is neurological,” Jones recalls her saying, describing a brain malfunction. “She picked up on a dozen small details that were just not obvious to anyone else,” and she was right. Vet technician Laura Kenyon with a guinea hen chick.
“They talk to me,” Chan says. “We’re all a little crazy here, but the animals definitely tell me what’s wrong with them.” While Chan technically has set office hours, she finds herself on call seven days a week. For a while last year, she spent ten hours a day in her bathroom, which had become an improvised nursery to assorted baby animals that needed frequent feeding. While she may not have started out to care for wild animals, her perspective today has changed. “You just never know what will come in the door. It could be a baby osprey, a seagull, a bald eagle, a pigeon. You have to have a sense of humor.”
Turtle Mouth-to-Mouth

Along with a sense of humor, the job requires a creative streak. There is little written about the treatment of some of these animals, and Chan and her staff often have to improvise. There was the case of a jaeger, a sea bird brought to the clinic after being washed up on shore. As the animal began to recover from malnourishment, staffers discovered that the bird was having difficulty walking, and needed special care for its feet. They ended up using scrap foam material to create a pair of tiny slippers, which enabled the bird to make a complete recovery and be returned to the wild.
Another moment of improvised care came in the rehabilitation of a 30-pound snapping turtle. It had been brought to the clinic after suffering the shearing off of part of its jaw by a car. The jaw was fixed (“We glue things a lot here,” Chan says), but the animal needed two hours of mouth to mouth after surgery, as its newly created jaw and the original had to be wired together to allow the glue to set. The tool came in the form of a straw, and the turtle was later placed in a zoo.

Two of three fisher cats.  Note the claws.

Two of three fisher cats. Note the claws.

When you wish upon a star…

The afternoon continues in a nonstop buzz of phone calls and visits, and the crew performs a delicate dance to avoid colliding with one another amid the clutter. If only there were more space available…
A visit to the WRARI website reveals a tab entitled “Wish List”. In that section is a list of supplies that the organization makes use of in caring for its animals. It ranges from what one might expect, such as bird seed and paper towels, to the more unusual, including fleece blankets and baby playpens. For a long while, the last entry read, “A new, state-of-the-art facility.” Although the need was there, the request was done mostly in jest.

Feeding time at the predator cage.  This time it contains three fisher cats.

Feeding time at the predator cage. This time it contains three fisher cats.

One day, though, someone took the request seriously.
A woman carrying an injured bird made her first visit to the clinic. She was pleased with the work she saw, and when she asked about helping out, the staff directed her to the web site. She read the request for the new facility, and shortly after, she contacted Chi Chan once again. “I’m an architect,” she said, “and I’d love to design a place for you.”
The prospective design she came up with includes such things as a surgery ward, x-ray room, and even a special therapeutic pool to aid in recovery. The group has begun to fundraise in earnest, which in turn has increased volunteer participation as well. While there is no set date to break ground, Chi Chan is optimistic that the work of caring for wild animals will continue to grow.
“Sometimes I hear people complain because we are caring for a cormorant. ‘Cormorants are nuisance animals because they eat too much fish’, people say. But where do you draw the line when it comes to caring for animals? What if it were an osprey? Would they say the same thing? Try telling a person who comes in carrying a wounded creature that you won’t care for it because it’s a ‘nuisance animal’. That’s just not something I want to do.”

A tiny squirrel is about to be fed.

A tiny squirrel is about to be fed.


1 Comment

  • Unlike the opossum, I was more than pleased with this article B)))

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