August 7, 2014 by
Photography by Sarah Lemke

With only a handful of part-time and seasonal employees, the very survival of Nebraska Wildlife Rehab, Inc. (NWRI)—and the thousands of creatures who receive rehabilitative care from the organization every year—depends on the contributions of nearly 70 volunteers.

“Not everyone comes to us with animal skills per se, but what we’re looking for are people who are dedicated,” says NWRI Executive Director Laura Stastny. “We need them, and more importantly, the animals need them in order to be returned to the wild. It’s not easy work, but it’s really, really rewarding.”

The Easterday family exemplifies the best in volunteerism, Stastny says. Anne Easterday and her 16-year-old daughter Zoë, who will soon be joined by 22-year-old son Colin, help out at the NWRI wildlife center in Louisville or in their home with tasks from cleaning and maintenance to caring for litters of baby opossums around the clock. And the relationship with NWRI has really become a family affair; three more Easterday siblings (there are seven total) are too young to officially sign on as volunteers, but they pitch in where they can with tasks like changing cage bedding or helping build enclosures.

“That family is fantastic. There’s nothing that phases them and they show all of the qualities we look for. They show true dedication and they’re willing to not only take the education they’re given, but to educate themselves and really work in the best interest of the animals,” Stastny says. “They’re amazing and we’re thrilled to have them.”

The Easterdays first connected with NWRI through a Google search after finding a stranded wild water bird.

“I had found a pied-billed grebe that had gotten knocked down in a storm and was running down the street in my subdivision. I didn’t know what it was at the time, just that it was a bird that was unable to fly. So I picked it up and brought it home and tried to find somebody to take it,” Easterday recalls. “It was actually fine. I didn’t know that a pied-billed grebe has to have water in order to take off.”

Later that summer, the family turned to NWRI again after finding a fledgling grackle with an injured wing. “We called again and turned it over so somebody could take care of it, and my kids and I thought, ‘wouldn’t it be cool if we actually knew what to do to help these things?’” Easterday says. It was Zoë who first suggested volunteering for the organization.

“I just really love animals, especially wild ones, and the idea of taking care of them and help them was amazing to me,” Zoë Easterday says. Although NWRI volunteers can help with tasks like answering phones and assisting with fundraising efforts, she and her mother signed up for the basic wildlife training program together to become qualified to work directly with animals. “I didn’t actually really know what to expect,” she says. “It can be a lot of work, but I think it’s worth it.”

Unfortunately, not all injured and orphaned animals survive to be re-released, and that’s just one of the life lessons the Easterday family has learned in their time with NWRI, says Anne Easterday.

“It really brings home the impact that human beings have on the lives of creatures that naturally live around us,” she says. “The kids have really learned and understand that these aren’t pets; they’re wild animals and there’s a difference.”

“The mission of Nebraska Wildlife Rebhab is two-fold: the first is to rescue, rehabilitate and re-release into the wild native wildlife and migratory birds. The second part of our mission is a very strong educational mission,” Stastny says. “The majority of the wildlife that we get comes to Nebraska Wildlife Rehab due to interference by human beings, often unnecessary interference. It’s only by education that we are going to teach people to live in harmony with wildlife.”

Wild animals are not suitable for adoption, Stastny says, which is why the group focuses on returning animals to their natural habitats and doesn’t keep animals in activity for educational purposes. “There are so many reasons for this but if nothing else, it boils down to the fact that it’s illegal for someone without a permit to have a possession of wild animal. So let’s start there,” she explains. “And while wild animals may be cute when they are really young, they mature and start thinking of things mature animals think about, and they can become really aggressive.”

Eastern cottontail rabbits are the species seen most frequently at NWRI, followed by songbirds and bats. Other creatures indigenous to Nebraska and seen at NWRI include opossums, raccoons, squirrels, woodchucks, red foxes, coyotes, bobcats and badgers, Stastny adds. Certain species or creatures from other parts of the country (usually transported unintentionally) may be referred to more appropriate organizations such as the Nebraska Humane Society, the Nebraska Herpetological Society or the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission. These and other animal organizations also bring referrals to NWRI.

Zoë Easterday says that her favorite NWRI experience so far has been helping usher Canada goslings to one of their first swimming expeditions. Anne Easterday says her most meaningful assignment was assisting with a great blue heron receiving medical treatment after an encounter with fishing line.

“I got to hold this great blue heron in my lap and grasp its beak,” she says. “For me, it was really special. I’ve always personally loved animals, since I was a child. I feel incredibly blessed to have such close contact with things you usually only see from a distance.”

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