Part 1: What we do at the Wildlife Refuge
What is the value of the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge to the citizens of New York? The DEC wants us to give up our ambassador animals, rehoming them to other wildlife educational centers, and I believe it is only fair that the public hear our side of the story. In the first part, I’ll review what we do here, what wildlife rehabilitators do, and in the second part, I’ll discuss our relationship with the DEC.
My wife is Wendy Hall, and we founded the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge in Wilmington. We’ve met many of you, as well as your children and grand children, when you visited and saw wolves, bears, eagles, and many other interesting animals, and learned all about their roles in Nature. I’ve written many articles for the Almanack, see https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/author/shall, and I’m currently working on my 4th book, three of them about Adirondack critters, see http://www.adirondackwildlife.org.
I’ve always been fascinated with nature, and I’ve worked with wolves for 30 years and bears about ten. Wendy is a very fine artist, a retired nurse, a first-rate rehabber, and an expert on birds of prey. Wendy is 70 years old and suffering from an inoperable sarcoma. In the heartbreaking world of cancer so many families are familiar with, her oncologists at Fletcher Allen and Havard Medical School give her four to six months to live.
We moved up to the Adirondacks twenty years ago, and with Wendy essentially retired, a weekend hobby of wildlife rehabilitation became a passion. We work with veterinarians, some of whom work pro bono. Our oldest son, Dr. Dan Hall, is a Veterinary Cardiologist while our youngest, Alex Hall, is a medic with the Vermont National Guard, just home from Saudi Arabia, and an expert on working with wildlife in general, and wolves and bears in particular.
When you rehab wild animals, most are Rescued, Rehabbed and Released back into the wild, many examples here. Many of the others die despite your best efforts, while the smallest percentage, often a bird of prey which can not fly, will only survive if they are fed and cared for. This last group become “ambassador” or “educational” animals, and these are the ones you meet at the Wildlife Refuge. Some folks prefer to never have wildlife in enclosures but may not realize that starvation is the number one killer of wildlife, and any animal that lives at the Refuge will double or triple their lifespan, as their most critical need is taken care of. It would be like you winning the lottery once a year. We have a red fox named “Pippin”, who is fifteen. He was sent to another center yesterday. Wild foxes are lucky to reach their seventh birthday, and death by what we call “old age” is a rare occurrence in nature.
Incidentally, fox and other meso predators are our number one defense against Lyme disease, just based on the sheer volume of rodents they consume. The black legged tick picks up the Lyme borrelia bacteria from rodents, which they pass on to you, so wouldn’t it be logical to ban the trapping of all rodent eating meso predators? Trapping may be the cruelest of outdoor human activities. Unlike hunting, where you hopefully can see what you are aiming at, we’ve ended up rehabbing eagles, hawks and owls who were captured in traps set for fox and other small predators. The DEC not only encourages trapping, they provide a mentoring program for kids under 12! I assume the reason there are only 10,000 licensed trappers in the state, is because the other twenty million citizens, which includes over a million with hunting licences, find trapping repugnant.
Some of the animals you meet are adopted to fill an educational requirement. Everything in nature is connected, from plants and fungi to blue whales, and the context of our educational presentations is how all that works together and comprises the natural world. We don’t have gray wolves today in the Adirondacks. We have a canid relative, an eastern coyote or coywolf, often mistakenly called a coydog, which is in reality a hybridized cross between the Eastern or Algonquin wolf, and the western coyote, and is often reported as a wolf, as Coywolves are considerably larger than the western coyotes you’ll see in Yellowstone or Yosemite. One of the members of the NPO board, Jon Way, wrote “Suburban Howls”, about studying the coywolf in Massachusetts.
Wolves are critical in understanding nature, as they take the familiar concept of an apex predator, top of their food chain, and develop it into what we call a keystone predator, which has a dramatic impact on any habitat they occupy. Through their predatory behavior, they inadvertently control the number of prey species, such as deer, elk and beaver, but they also go after their competitors, such as coyotes, to prevent competition for the prey wolves prefer. Coyotes in turn go after fox, etc. Nature is a hard place to make a living, and nowhere near as benign as we prefer to think it is.
Wolves have been sucked into that crazy political whirlwind the country is immersed in, with the amusing result that half the country loves wolves, the other half hates them, and neither side typically knows anything about them beyond media cliches and unsubstantiated claims. What is clear is that we have greatly exceeded the habitat carrying capacity for deer and coyotes, and have way too many deer, way too many coyotes, and the reason is simple. Bowing to pressure from ranching and hunting lobbyists, our federal and state governments began campaigns to eliminate gray wolves, ignoring scientist’s warnings that the result would be explosions of deer and coyotes. Coyotes are a much bigger problem with livestock than wolves ever were.
The other reason wolves are critical is that all dogs are genetically gray wolves. My second book, “Wolves, Humans, Dogs and Civilization” makes the claim that we didn’t domesticate wolves, but more likely some of the wolves realized that working with our ancestors 50,000 years ago on the Mammoth Steppe, first inadvertently and later on purpose, meant an easier safer life, and they domesticated themselves. Wolves have the most dangerous job in nature, and few live beyond their fifth year. Attacking animals anywhere from two to twenty times your own size is not a prescription for a long life. Human hunters have greater success when working with dogs, so any wolf helping one of our hunter-gatherer ancestors was much less likely to starve.
Our earliest “dogs” were just gray wolves, and it was the Agricultural Revolution, starting about 15,000 years ago, when we began selectively breeding our wolves (unnatural selection) to perform jobs beyond hunting, for example shepherding, protection and eventually surrogate children. In effect, when you learn all about wolves and their actual behavior, it’s a very good introduction to how nature actually works.
Just as wolves teach you how nature works, bears are what we call an indicator species, that is, a species whose success or failure is a good indication of how well a habitat is performing, in terms of allowing a species to make a living while avoiding disease and predation. We have rescued, rehabbed and released many Adirondack black bears over the years, and the main issues are starvation, as well as mange and other parasites. The two black bears you meet at the Wildlife Refuge are adopted from an org in Minnesota, where their parents are among the animals raised to appear in movies, photo shoots, etc. That’s why we affectionately call them “fake bears”.
We know what bears eat, and what diseases and other threats they encounter, so the condition of bears can be a window into how well a habitat is performing. Black bears have lived in North America for half a million years, and unfortunately shared habitat with short-faced bears, saber tooth cats and dire wolves, which helps explain why black bears climb trees when threatened, except when the object is to harvest fruit and nuts.
There are between seven and eight thousand black bears in New York State, at least half of them in the Adirondacks. Hunters kill about a quarter of New York’s bears every year. There has been only one fatal attack by a black bear in New York State in the last 120 years. They are fascinating creatures of high intelligence whose problem-solving capability has been demonstrated to many a high peaks hiker, who did not carry a bear canister to try to make their food inaccessible. In fact, carrying a canister is now the law when camping out in the High Peaks. My book, “Tooth and Claw: Adirondack Mammals” contains a good introduction to bears.
Wildlife Refuge and the DEC, Part 2: Our Relationship with the DEC
Adirondack Wildlife Refuge regulated by both federal and state agencies, with a fair amount of overlap, a troubling circumstance when both fed and state governments are always telling us how broke they are. The state agency is the Special Licenses Department of the Department of Environmental Conservation. We require two licenses to do what we’ve done at the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge: The Wildlife Rehabilitators License, which allowed Wendy and her Rehab Interns to take in injured and otherwise debilitated wildlife, and do Rescue, Rehab and Release.
The Collect and Possess License allows us to display non-releasable animals, as well as those ambassador animals, such as the wolves and bears. Rehab is not only a voluntary past time, but as rehab instances increase, there is a good investment of time and money. We are not rich people, and we do not know anyone doing rehab who does it to make money. When our initial NPO was first certified by the IRS ten years ago, we used donations from the public, and those who follow our activities through social media and newsletters, to allow us to expand, build new enclosures, pay for animal food and care, and to pay the six full time employees required to support the critters and educate the public.
My wife Wendy was the administrative interface to the state and feds, responsible for reporting activities and keeping a bewildering array of forms and permits up to date. This was, in retrospect, a mistake, probably my fault, as I would have been a better choice, being more computer and PDF savvy than Wendy, but I do a lot of travel to Alaska, Western Canada, Labrador, Nova Scotia, New Foundland and Yellowstone, where I observe and get inspired. The last thing I wanted was to be a clerk.
As you can see from her pastels, Wendy is an artist, as well as a natural caregiver for both people and animals, and a constant volunteer. When we lived downstate, she was the head of the Kent volunteer ambulance unit. As a clerk, she proved to be inept at keeping DEC records current, so we’d get into a “you do it”, “no, you do it” debate, one of those discussions anyone who has ever been married can appreciate.
The rules she violated are themselves confusing and hard to follow. For example, one rule says that the rehabber can not mix animals under rehab with animals who are permanent residents. An animal at the Refuge is not classified by Wendy or the DEC, but by attending veterinarians, who decide whether the animal can be released back into the wild or classified as non-releasable. As usual, the devil is in the details.
Take Barred Owls, probably the most successful owl in the country when measured by range and numbers, and who are often struck by cars while diving at or mantling over prey. Let’s further say a barred owl’s wing is broken in such a way, it cannot be repaired, and will have to become an ambassador or educational animal somewhere else, to avoid being euthanized. One solution is the International Wildlife Rehabilitation Council or IWRC, which among other valuable services, connects rehabbers who wish to adopt out non-releasable critters to other educational facilities that want to accept an animal or trade another critter. Problem is, it’s very tough to place barred owls, because almost all educators already have too many.
Since both the DEC and wildlife regulatory bodies from other states must approve all moves, a very cumbersome and tax consuming process to put it mildly, veterinarians do not reclassify the barred owl as non-releasable until the arrangement is struck. In other words, if we have a barred owl in an enclosure that we know will never be able to live in the wild again, but has not been reclassified as non-releasable, and a visitor is able to reach that enclosure, we have violated the regulation even though all parties know that Wendy did not violate the spirit of the regulation, which is that releasable animals should not be displayed to the public, because you want releasable animals to be afraid of people, as they’ll live a longer life when they’re returned to the wild.
Another odd violation concerns the bears. We were charged with not having a DEC issued ear tag on Luvey, our brown phase black bear. Ear tags identify bears the way in which leg bands identify individual loons, a useful tool in understanding and learning about species. Bears engage in rough play, and Luvey lost her ear tag while tussling with Ahote.
Bears must be anesthesized to attach the ear tags. State law forbids the Refuge from having anesthesizing drugs on hand, so the DEC must anesthesize the bear and attach the ear tags. We are wary of anesthesizing any animals unless their life may be at stake, as overdoses and negative reactions do happen. Why captive bred bears used as ambassador animals need ear tags is one question, but another is why the DEC would hold us responsible for not being able to attach a new ear tag. Can they produce an email in which they requested to come by and attach a new ear tag?
The DEC ended up not only suspending her Rehab License, but now, in the final months of Wendy’s life, they are not only declining to let Wendy die peacefully, they are also declining to pass the Head Rehabber license to other very qualified and experienced people who work at the Refuge, ensuring that a valuable educational resource can reorganize and continue to serve the citizens of New York.
The Adirondacks only has three wildlife rehabbers that I’m aware of, so it’s hard to see how this decision is good for wildlife. Part of rehabbing is transport, getting animals which would benefit from Rehabbing from where they’re collected to where they can be rehabbed. Keep in mind that the Adirondacks is such a huge area, the entire state of Vermont would fit inside the blue line. The DEC decision was so draconian, it meant Wendy could not even help residents with injured wildlife, other wildlife rehabbers, or even DEC field personnel, many of whom call us for advice.
In other words, the state views Rehabbing as a privilege, not a service to wildlife or the public. If you want to legally kill a bear in New York State, the license fee is $22. If you wish to rehab bears, the fee is relentless micro-management by the DEC. Two of the bears we have successfully rescued, rehabbed and released over the years ended up being taken by hunters. We are not opposed to hunting, but there is something sadly paradoxical about this scenario.
In addition, Wendy has been a volunteer for North Country Wild Care, an org based in Saratoga with members mainly concentrated around the Albany area, for over ten years, answering their 24 hour wildlife hotline, and helping to line up resources to deal with rehab situations. Her impending death makes this academic, but it demonstrates just what impact the DEC decision has, and makes you wonder again who is it designed to help.
The Collect and Possess license suspension is also difficult to understand when you try to figure out who benefits from it. As many of you know, our two black bears escaped about three years ago, and one of them escaped again briefly this past June. This is mainly my fault, as I took over the bears and their enclosure from the bear keeper in charge of the bears at the time of the initial escape, and I did considerable rebuilding to try to make the enclosure more secure.
The first escape was an odd hit on social media, as folks followed our attempts to find the bears and bring them home. We were aware that some of our followers were seeing the bears, and we asked them to notify us ASAP, not on Facebook, but on the phone, which would help us respond more quickly, while building a rudimentary map of sightings, most of which seemed to be within about 4 or 5 miles from the Refuge.
We were astonished to discover this, as it indicated that our prodigal bears were using the howling of our gray wolves to orient their own positions viz a viz the Refuge. This led to a sighting which allowed me to find Luvey, our brown phase black bear, on the back of Steward Mountain, after which she followed Hanna and I four miles through the woods and bogs back to the Refuge. Two days later, Ahote (a HOPI word meaning “spirit in the wind”), our larger black sow, was discovered only a mile up the hill from the Refuge, after which she dutifully followed Hanna and Caroline back home to the Refuge.
During this period, I requested bear enclosure standards from the head of Special Licenses who did not respond. I was quite surprised at how often our questions to authorities were completely ignored, as my background was in private enterprise where communications is not only helpful, but key. The only public comment we saw from the DEC while the bears were missing was that they could not know for sure whether the bears were dangerous, even though statistics on bear attacks in New York State suggest otherwise.
During the second escape, while Ahote was missing for about three days, and was discovered hanging out in our friend’s yard, about a mile away, Hanna’s team installed an electric fence inside the bear enclosure which fixed the problem once and or all, as the bears will never touch the fence again. We are concerned about rehoming animals as many die as a result. When authorities forced Wendy to begin rehoming birds of prey, we cautioned them that many of these raptors had been at the Refuge so long, they were fully acclimated, many were older, and about half would probably die, which is exactly what happened.
The DEC cites two “credible” witnesses to Wendy’s violations, disgruntled former employees, one of whom, Connor Schmitz, was fired for causing an accident through reckless driving, an act witnessed by three people, including myself, and who then basically refused to take any responsibility. The second witness, Melissa Sheely, was his girlfriend who tried to take revenge by reporting the Refuge to the Better Business Bureau, apparently unaware that the Bureau contacts targets of bad reviews for response. When we gave evidence of the lies and distortions in the review, the BBB declined to publish it. In a real civil Court of Law, such witnesses would be discredited because of the timing of their reports and the obvious alternative motives involved.
Meanwhile, we have invested over $200,000 in the last year to fix all violations cited in the DEC complaint. All mammal enclosures have been rebuilt, and the USDA, which licenses us for “Dangerous Animals”, as well as the DEC, insisted that all smaller education facilities like the Wildlife Refuge, build a perimeter fence to enclose all the mammal enclosures.
This means that even if an animal figures out a way to break out of his enclosure, each of which now features ZAA (Zoo Association of America) design standards, there is no longer any way for the critter to leave the grounds, or for trespassers or wildlife to find their way through the perimeter fence to the animal enclosures. Unimpressed, the DEC went ahead and rescinded Wendy’s Collect and Possess license anyway. They knew we were borrowing money to build the perimeter fence, and they knew there was no way they would let the Refuge keep any of the educational animals. Should a regulator take violations personally and behave in a mean-spirited and vengeful manner?
Again, who does this help? Before we moved to the Adirondacks, I ran the Executive briefing Center for a large communications company in Manhattan next to Rockefeller Center…. A lot of public speaking, interaction with major clients and much international travel.
What I love about private enterprise is that it is competitive. If you do not provide your customers with good support, they go to your competitors. When a problem develops, you focus on fixing the problem, not the blame. This usually involves some sort of negotiation involving an improvement in the support process or product. All interested parties are brought to agreement through a compromise in which all parties get something important, as a means of improving, emphasisng the positive aspects of the process, not ending the process, but moving forward.
What is the value of the Adirondack Wildlife Refuge to the citizens of New York State? For starters, 50,000 people visit the Refuge every year. To most Chambers of Commerce and Visitor Bureaus, that means more hotel and motel rooms, and more seats in restaurants. No one doubts that we are valuable to the local economies, and our reviews on Trip Advisor and other rating systems bear this out. More importantly, every school and college within 100 miles of the Refuge, routinely sends their students to the Refuge, so these professors and teachers obviously see value in exposing their students to our education program. Throughout this entire process, the DEC has never discussed or even acknowledged any values to the citizenry beyond their rules and regulations.
Wilmington Town Supervisor Roy Holzer wrote to the DEC, “The Wildlife Center has grown to be an important part of our community. The volunteers from this organization are engaged and dedicated in their cause of Wildlife rehabilitation and education. The Refuge and Rehabilitation Center is one of most unique invaluable services provided in the Adirondack Park and North Country. Perhaps even the entire State of New York.
Thousands of people come to the Refuge yearly. It is probably one of the most visited places, second to Whiteface Mountain in the Town of Wilmington. I have personally witnessed students on a narrative tour of the services and programs they offer at this facility. The staff is knowledgeable and committed to the mission of this organization.”
The Visitors Bureau wrote, “The Wildlife Refuge is by far the biggest attraction for all ages. I applaud them for offering both education and entertainment to those who may never see any wildlife outside of a traditional zoo or digital screen. Our hope is that the Refuge be able to continue offering educational tours and classes to the public while also being able to continue their mission of rehabilitating and rescuing animals. They offer a unique experience that all should have the opportunity to explore. Thank you for your consideration. I would be happy to speak with anyone on this matter if more information is needed.”
Wendy is dying, and I’ll be 74 in October. I’m looking to retire and spend more time writing and caring for the love of my life, who is now under home hospice. The DEC has many fine employees, and we’ve been friends with many, from the rangers we need more of in the high Peaks areas, to field workers in Region 5. The DEC bureaucrats in Albany, on the other hand, appear to have developed a vendetta against Wendy and I, in her case because of the violations, and me because I never hesitate to tell the regulators exactly what I believe, a strategy that works well in private enterprise, not so well with government bureaucrats whose actions are not generally understood or followed by the citizenry they are supposed to serve.
Wendy and I are already out of the picture, and the Wildlife Refuge has a great new team including vets and rehabbers who are ready and able to take over. We have requested that the Collect and Possess license be awarded to Kevin and Jackie Woodcock, owners of SkyLyfeADK, experts on bees and butterflies, as well as very learned naturalists and teachers. Jackie is a frequent contributor to the Almanack, see https://www.adirondackalmanack.com/author/jwoodcock. Kevin is a skilled craftsman who designs, and with Jackie rebuilds enclosures for our mammals and birds of prey, according to ZAA standards.
They did not start working for the Refuge until the violations Wendy was charged with had already occurred, so there is no reason to taint them with the same brush. Wendy and I are reduced to being landlords, since we own the property the Refuge is situated on, and the physical Refuge would be leased from us, and managed by Nature Walks Conservation Society, a certified 501c3 organization with their own team of producers, writers and scientists.
Unfortunately, the head of Special Licenses for the DEC seems determined to ignore all the good the Refuge does for tourism and education. With Wendy and I out of the picture, all the head of Special Licenses need do to allow the Refuge to remain open, and allow citizens, tourists and students to continue benefiting from the ongoing education the Refuge provides, is to approve the Woodcocks as the new Collect and Possess License, something he could accomplish with the stroke of a pen today. As things stand today, if the current collection of ambassador animals are not rehomed by October 25th, the DEC will “dispose” of them, a politer way of saying they will euthanize them. Doing our part, we have already found places for our ambassador animals to be transferred to, with the mixed blessing of a larger enclosure, but no trees to climb.
We welcome a public discussion of these affairs, and a response from the DEC.
If all this strikes you as unfair, and not in the interests of the citizens of the state of New York, as well as the citizens and business owners in the North Country, or if you just wish to express your opinion of all this, please contact Governor Kathy Hochel at 518-474-8390, or mail to
The Honorable Kathy Hochul
I you wish to contact DEC Commissioner
Basil Seggos Commissioner
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