The best wildlife rehabilitators always take a dose of reality before taking in animals.
"You can't save everything," said Pat Silovsky, director of the Milford Nature Center at Junction City. "A lot of people get carried away by their emotions."
Lisa Borgia, executive director of the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Assn. in St. Cloud, Minn., agreed that the most visible sign of a dysfunctional rehabilitation operation was what she calls the "backyard zoo syndrome."
Some misguided rehabilitators can't bring themselves to euthanize animals with serious physical problems or animals that have been imprinted through excessive human contact, she said.
"That's the sign of a bad facility," Borgia said. "It's a sign of a person with a heart as big as the outdoors, but keeping an animal alive in a cage doesn't necessarily do it a favor."
The goal of rehabilitation is to care for sick, injured or orphaned animals with the intent of releasing them into the wild, she said.
"It's not taking every single animal that comes your way and providing sanctuary for it," Borgia said. "What wildlife rehabilitators do is help the injured recover, get it conditioned so it can forage for itself ... and search out a proper release site and release time."
Nationally, about half of all animals brought to wildlife facilities die or are euthanized.
Di Conger, co-founder of the Maryland Wildlife Rehabilitators Assn. and of the Last Chance Wildlife Center in Thurmont, Md., said good record-keeping was essential at a well-managed rehab facility.
"If you could see, I'm sitting in my office/lab in a swivel chair," she said. "I've got tons of paperwork."
Conger, who works with all sorts of birds as well as small mammals, said she logged her work on every animal that came through her center. She submits state and federal reports annually.
"If offers accountability and you can look for patterns, such as the West Nile virus," she said.
Conger said rehabilitation facilities ran better with experienced volunteers.
Managers that attempt to micromanage wildlife centers frequently end up alienating volunteers, Silovsky said.
She said rehabilitators should check their egos at the door and be willing to share information with peers. It's important to become part of a network that takes advantage of expertise developed by other rehabilitators, she said.
For example, one center may specialize in song birds. That facility shouldn't rehab deer.
"Sometimes people get territorial," Silovsky said. "There are some turf battles."
Solid sources of funding and consistent community support is welcome, Borgia said.
She said rehabilitation facilities across the United States came in all shapes and sizes. Quality doesn't depend on whether it's operated by an individual out of a home or by dozens of staff and volunteers at a multimillion-dollar center.
"The best operate under the same overriding ethic. You are morally obligated to the animal once it's taken into your care."