WAYNESBORO — The Wildlife Center of Virginia has been going through an extensive rebuild this year.
So extensive, in fact, that one may call the rebuild … great.
That’s exactly how the Wildlife Center has branded its vast construction project, as The Great Rebuild looks to wrap up its $300,000-plus renovation by mid-fall.
Since 1995, the Wildlife Center of Virginia has housed and rehabilitated tens of thousands of wild animals in its facilities during their patients’ roads to recovery. Ed Clark, the center’s president and co-founder, said that after nearly three decades of service, it was finally time for the facilities to undergo some proper reconstruction.
“We’ve done some upgrades, repairs and some renovations to certain enclosures over the years, but it kind of got to a point that we really needed to bite the bullet and do a really major renovation of some of our enclosures,” Clark said. “That became The Great Rebuild.”
Founded in 1982, a simple horse barn was the original home for the Wildlife Center before the team moved to Weyers Cave. In 1995, Clark and the staff made the move back to Waynesboro, where the center has been ever since.
“In our history, we have treated somewhere in the neighborhood of 90,000 wild animals,” Clark said. “Since we’ve been in Waynesboro in our current facility, we’ve treated well over 70,000. That puts a lot of wear and tear on the infrastructure.”
Outreach coordinator Alex Wehrung is no stranger to the many patients that have called the Wildlife Center home over the years. To him, there are some guests and residents that, in particular, have left more of a literal mark on the facility’s maintenance than others.
“The larger animals, due to their size, natural histories and behaviors, can cause elements of certain closures to wear down more quickly,” Wehrung said. “I’m thinking specifically of the black bears. The black bear complex is the best example of how the size of an animal and their behaviors certainly impact the durability of what’s in that enclosure.”
Wehrung noted that after 26 years of service, it’s not just the animals that have led to the need for updated construction.
“In addition to the heavy traffic that has passed through there, the elements have taken their toll on these enclosures and these structures,” he said. “Really, what The Great Rebuild is all about is repairing and replacing all of the damaged enclosures [and] upgrading some enclosures so that they will continue to serve the Wildlife Center for, hopefully, the next three decades.”
Regarding the multiple enclosures at the center, there is one set of renovations in particular that Wehrung and some of his fellow staff members are the most eager for.
“For me, the most exciting and important upgrades have occurred to the education ambassador enclosures,” Wehrung said. “The education ambassadors live with us. Once they join our ambassador team, they’re with us for the rest of their lives, which means we have to pay really close attention to their health and happiness in captivity.”
Amanda Nicholson, the Wildlife Center’s vice president for outreach and education, also spoke highly of the construction behind the new-and-improved education ambassador enclosures. To her, animals of prey won’t just be more comfortable in the renovated facilities, but more protected, too.
“They look beautiful,” Nicholson said. “They directly impact the ambassador animals — the non-releasable animals that the public [gets] to see. They’re also very safe, which was an enormous relief for me. We had had a lot of issues with predators trying to dig into the enclosures. I’m sleeping better at night now.”
Nicholson said the center has about two dozen educational ambassador animals. Each of them originally came in for some injury or issue that has since prevented them from being released back into the wild.
Among the current educational ambassadors are snakes, turtles, opossums and various birds of prey.
While the improved facilities are currently hosting the center’s educational ambassadors, they are still not available to the public for scheduled tours or open houses.
When that day comes, however, Wehrung said visitors will easily be able to notice the improvements.
“The very first group that gets to come back on-site for a tour, whenever that happens to be, will see the result of these donations in this rebuilding effort right away,” he said. “All those education ambassador enclosures are designed not just with the handling and the training aspect in mind, but also the visibility and ability for visitors to see the education animals.”
To Wehrung, one of the best new features of the new educational ambassador facilities is much wider hallways toward the back end of the enclosures. These help the trainers better move with the animals through the spaces, which in turn helps the animals become more comfortable around people.
Additionally, one of the Wildlife Center’s cage complexes for middle-sized raptors — such as screech owls and hawks — was in such bad shape that it had to be torn down and a new one built in its place.
Clark said this renovation gave his team the chance to expand the facility and put in redesigns based on what they had learned worked and didn’t work over the past 25 years in regard to the animals’ rehabilitation.
While this facility is still currently being built, the extra space should make it easier for the raptors to spread their wings and strengthen their muscles now that there’s more room to exercise.
These new features, built with training the animals in mind, have been exciting for Clark’s staff.
However, while Wehrung believes he and his co-workers will definitely benefit from the remodeling, he thinks that all animals who find themselves at the Wildlife Center of Virginia both now and in the future will be the biggest winners.
“We will certainly benefit and it will make it easier for us to do our job far into the future,” he said. “But truly, the individuals that benefit the most from The Great Rebuild are the patients. That’s thousands of animals each year that will be living in areas and enclosures that are not only more secure but are better suited for their species in terms of size and space requirements.”
Construction soon will be wrapping up at the Wildlife Center. For Nicholson, she can’t wait to greet the first group of guests and to show off everything new that the campus has to offer.
“We are really excited for that day,” she said. “Once we get back to those in-person tour days, I think it will be really exciting for people to see all of this hard work that’s been going on all a while.”
Nicholson was also quick to thank everyone who’s donated to The Great Rebuild, noting how none of the work would’ve been possible without their generosity.
“I feel like I can’t talk about the rebuild without saying how thankful we are to our amazing donors,” Nicholson said. “This was an expensive project list and no small undertaking, but now here we are in September and fundraising has gone so well. Really, that’s only because we have the best supporters.”
For Clark, the upgrades will serve as a hallmark for everything the Wildlife Center has achieved in its first four decades of service, as well as everything to come for the next 40 years and beyond.
“We’re undertaking a lot of this in anticipation that next year, our 40th anniversary, is going to be a year where we look back on our accomplishments and plan for the future,” Clark said. “We’ve got some pretty ambitious plans on the drawing board right now.”