Like a harried mother with too many chores, Laurie Schultz hastily lined the countertop with five preemie baby bottles in preparation for a feeding.
But the feeding that morning was not of the human kind: She was preparing to nourish a tiny squirrel and a brood of four baby raccoons she has been bringing to work with her at Woburn Animal Hospital in recent weeks. All of the animals were turned in by area residents who had found them orphaned and abandoned.
Schultz, who lives in Wilmington and works as a receptionist at the veterinary hospital, has joined forces with four other local women through a small network of wildlife rehabilitators around the state who nurse orphaned or injured wildlife back to health for reentry to their natural habitats.
The wildlife rehabilitators are a rare breed themselves, picking up tasks not normally handled by local animal control officers. The wildlife rehabilitators do not receive any state funding for their work and must pay for all supplies out of pocket. They are, however, allowed to accept donations, which are sent infrequently. For some of the volunteers, the costs for food, heating pads, kennels, feeding pens, and various other supplies could run upward of several hundred dollars annually, Schultz said.
Costs aside, the women in the group have turned over their lives for the next several months to the infants they are trying to save and nurture for their eventual release to the wild.
Schultz, who recently became certified as a rehabilitator, said caring for the tiny creatures is round-the-clock work, since they feed every three hours.
"These are my babies," she said. "Many are affected by human-created problems and they have nowhere to go. I feel I owe it to them."
The women in her group hail from different professional backgrounds. But all share a devotion to animals.
"It's important to note that the work that Laurie and others like her do is very selfless," said Dr. Anne-Ghilaine Schless, co-owner of Woburn Animal Hospital who also is a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. "If no one does this, all of these abandoned animals would die."
Schultz's group receives most of its referrals from the Tufts Wildlife Clinic in North Grafton and the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Massachusetts, which also provides some support services for the volunteers.
Tufts takes in between 1,600 and 1,800 abandoned or injured animals annually, said Robin Shearer, program assistant at the clinic. Many adult animals that receive medical care need a period of rehabilitation. Others are abandoned babies, including rabbits, skunks, and turtles, that require foster care before they can be sent out into their natural habitats. About 75 percent of the animals the center assists are birds. Rehabilitating wild birds requires a federal license in addition to the state license.
While the clinic performs surgery on injured wildlife and provides other medical services for free, it is a rarity to find private veterinarians willing to foot the bill. "I always seek out [wildlife] rehabbers, of course," said Wilmington animal control officer Ellen Sawyer, a self-professed animal lover. "It is very uncommon, though, to get vets who will work with me."
Sawyer said animal control officers are not required to hold a wildlife rehabilitator's license, and many shy away from picking up wildlife out of fear of contracting rabies. The officers have the authority to euthanize wildlife and often do so if it's determined the animals are too sick, she said. Still, she and other officers often will contact Tufts or a local rehabilitator, if one is known. But how a municipality handles wildlife is up to the individual community, Sawyer said.
Licensed wildlife rehabilitators are scarce, with just 101 statewide, according to Robert Arini, specialist for the state Division of Fish and Wildlife. Licensure is obtained by passing a one-time exam and requires annual reporting and annual renewal. The majority of license holders are in the rural Southeastern part of the state.
Of course, there are wildlife infants in need everywhere during spring, the birthing season, along with injured adults in need of care. The suburbs northwest of Boston are no different.
Deanna Smith of Billerica, who works with Schultz, is an emergency 911 dispatcher for the city of Waltham. She said she decided to become a wildlife rehabilitator after taking a call.
"An officer went out to pick up an abandoned baby raccoon in 2006, and I was hooked when I saw it."
Smith's 3 1/2-acre property is now lined with pens and den boxes for the raccoon and other critters she fosters. Its location is ideal for the animals, she said, as it abuts a pond and wetlands. Smith and the others often conduct releases in the fall on her property, although each of the women has space and supplies at their own homes for their work.
Mary Petrino of Chelmsford, who is on the board of the Wildlife Rehabilitators Association of Massachusetts, also works with the group. The program director of an assisted-living facility, Petrino has been carting four baby squirrels to work with her, and they remain in her care throughout the day, kenneled on heated pads in between feedings.
Schultz's sister, Lisa Cournoyer of Wilmington, is also part of the group and is now in training and preparing to take the licensing exam.
Rounding out the quintet is JoAnn Sequeira, who lives in Arlington and works as an elementary reading specialist for the Cambridge Public Schools. Sequeira said she became committed to the cause purely by accident, after one of her young students spotted a baby squirrel outside the classroom being eyed by a cat.
"I ran out and scooped him up," Sequeira said.
That the group is all women is perhaps to be expected. According to Shearer, most of the 101 rehabilitators in Massachusetts are women, with "just a handful" of men taking on the challenge. This trend correlates with the veterinary profession nationwide, she said, of which 85 percent of its members are women.
"Women seem to have more of a need to nurture," Shearer said. "It's a maternal instinct. However, many men are involved in supporting wildlife issues in other ways."
Lending testament to this, perhaps, is the endearing story of an 8-week-old squirrel that one recent morning ran into a Lawrence tavern where a construction crew was working.
"The squirrel ran up one of the contractors' legs," Schultz said. "He didn't know what to do with it and thought he should just bring it back outdoors."
For nearly one hour, the contractor checked on the squirrel, which had run up a brick wall and clung on, motionless.
"When he saw it wasn't going anywhere, he felt bad," Schultz said. "He took it and brought it in to me at the hospital. He's just a nice guy."
Schultz added the terrified critter to her brood.
She said she and her cohorts are planning to release their animals in the fall, when their work will have come full circle.
"It's like sending your kids off - it's awful," Smith said. "It's bittersweet. You're happy for them, while you miss them. You worry for them. You hope they'll come back."
Bella Travaglini can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.