Animal AWAREness: Nonprofit rescue organization helps rehabilitate wildlife

AWARE’s Julia Sparks and Sami Netherton with Tappy the Owl.

As the population of Atlanta continues to grow, and new developments encroach upon neighboring forests, there are more and more risks to native wildlife. Cars, refuse, diminishing local plants that typically provide food and shelter, and the effects of pesticides all have a negative effect on the environment and its inhabitants. In an increasingly unwelcoming world, who is there to look out for the animals whose presence long predates condos and malls?

AWARE, which stands for Atlanta Wild Animal Rescue Effort, is a center dedicated to rescuing and rehabilitating local animals. Located near Arabia Mountain, the organization helps around 2,000 orphaned and injured animals each year, and is the only center that accepts all species of native Georgia wildlife. At any given time, the center is full of animals, including turtles, snakes, rats, opossums, owls, hawks, pigeons, raccoons, ducks, geese, squirrels, and even bobcats, wolves, and coyotes. AWARE’s passionate carers work long, hard hours maintaining the property, tending to injuries, and make every effort to prevent the animals from becoming too accustomed to humans and therefore unreleasable back into the wild.

“It is amazing to come to work every day and be surrounded by such a wonderful, caring, dedicated team,” said Executive Director Scott Lange, who joined AWARE as a member of their board of directors in 2014. “I was an attorney who was looking for a way to help animals and get involved in the community.”

Later, when the director stepped down, Lange filled the role as a temporary solution and ended up loving it so much that he formally accepted the job.

One thing that the administrators, caretakers, and volunteers all have in common is a passion for saving and helping wildlife. “Dedicated animal care volunteers are the folks who make AWARE work,” explained Lange. “They commit to weekly five-hour shifts, receive training, and then deliver care for all our wild patients.”

Once a month, on the first Saturday, AWARE hosts orientations for new volunteers who are then trained on tending to various parts of the center, such as food prep and cleaning. The center also is open at 1 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays for brief 30 to 45 minute visitations, and they host two major events each year: the Night Owl 5K on April 21 this year and a gala and art auction called Wild Night Out which occurs in the fall.

Scott Lange and a rescued friend. 

“As a nonprofit wildlife hospital, funding is always a challenge,” Lange continued. “Food and medicine for a coyote who needs months of intensive care can really add up.”

Caring for a vast array of animals requires a multitude of supplies, food, and medicines. This is the case especially in ‘baby season,’ as they call it, which is a span of time that runs from Spring until Fall, when orphaned babies are brought into the center in spades. While many times the animals are truly abandoned and need help, there are some that are also mistakenly removed from their parents and natural habitats by well-intentioned rescuers.

Public education is a big part of the work that the center does, though it is often behind the scenes. Misinformation about the wildlife around us leads to errors in judgement, and those who work at AWARE actively try to improve the community’s understanding about these creatures.

“We have to find a way to educate the public,” said Sami Netherton, a wildlife care supervisor at the center. Originally volunteering at the center in the summer of 2016, she later accepted a permanent position near the start of 2017. Her bachelor’s in biology has served her immensely in caring for her wards, and it’s clear that she’s very passionate about the work, though she admits that “you are always learning… to the end of time.”

Julia Sparks followed a similar path. Rather than coming from a background in biology, Sparks had gone to school for humanities.

AWARE is located near Arabia Mountain in DeKalb County.

“I had not planned on being a vet,” Sparks explained, but began working at AWARE because she was interested in the work. Sometimes, being a wildlife care specialist is a particularly unglamorous job, as all of the creatures in her care require cleaning, along with their enclosures, on a daily basis. But if you ask Sparks what it’s like? “It’s very exciting,” she said with a smile.

So what can the public do to help AWARE in their selfless cause? Well, beyond offering your time and energy as a volunteer (“no prior experience needed!” assured Lange, who said interested parties should email volunteer@awarewildlife.org), the community can also contribute by attending the center’s fundraising events, contributing financially or purchasing items from AWARE’s Amazon Wish List, buying their promotional shirts designed by local artist Black Cat Tips, informing friends and family about the center and their mission.

For more information, visit awarewildlife.org.

Isadora Pennington

Photographer, designer, writer, & artist. FILA

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