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Wildlife rehab center aims to fill gap for injured critters

ALBURTIS, Pa. — They arrive in baskets and cardboard boxes, bleeding from near-misses with lawn mowers or snatched from the jaws of neighborhood cats. It’s birthing season in the Lehigh Valley, and that means a steady stream of injured baby rabbits, squirrels, opossums and songbirds will be showing up at Melissa and Michael Descant’s door.

Michael, a second generation veterinarian, and Melissa, a veterinary technician, have been patching up wild animals for years. But until recently, under Pennsylvania Game Commission guidelines, they were required to transport recovering animals to a licensed wildlife facility, in most cases within 48 hours.

“The problem was there were no wildlife rehabbers nearby,” Melissa Descant said. “Regardless of what direction we went it was about an hour drive. Sometimes that hour drive would be enough to stress the animal and it would die, even after successfully going through surgery.”

The couple decided to remedy the situation by opening their own facility last week, Cricket Wildlife Center. After months of construction and red tape, they transformed their four-acre Alburtis property into a sanctuary for wounded and orphaned animals.

During their first week of operation, the nonprofit took in 15 animals, and have already released their first patients, four juvenile rabbits, back into the wild.

“That was a great feeling. I tried to take a photo but they took off like a shot when we opened the cage,” Melissa Descant said.

It’s illegal to keep or treat injured wildlife in a home. According to the Pennsylvania Association of Wildlife Rehabilitators, there are no licensed wildlife rehabilitators in Lehigh or Northampton counties. The nearest centers are the Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Stroudsburg, Monroe County and AARK Wildlife Rehabilitaion & Education Center in Chalfont, Bucks County.

Schuylkill County has one facility, the Red Creek Wildlife Center, Inc. in Schuylkill Haven, and there’s a rehabber for bats, Pennsylvania Bat Rescue, in Rockland Township, Berks County, not far from the Descants’ operation.

The center is named for Cricket, a 40-pound serval, a wild cat native to Africa, that the couple rescued in 2012 while Michael Descant was attending veterinary school in Tennessee. Servals are legal pets in that state. Cricket’s owners surrendered him because he had a habit of eating rubber household objects and kept getting intestinal blockages that required expensive surgery.

Pennsylvania has strict rules about owning exotic cats like servals, so when it was time to move back home, the Descants had to complete an extensive permit process to bring Cricket along, including permission from state and local officials and documentation of at least two years of experience with the breed.

Luckily, they’d been caring for him in Tennessee for that long, plus Michael Descant had completed courses in exotic feline medicine. The couple spent an entire summer building Cricket a 400-foot enclosure, complete with a heated hut and an elevated run that winds through their wooded property and allows him to sneak up and scare the family’s chickens through a fence.

“Getting him here was a headache, but he’s a good reminder that with determination you can achieve almost anything,” Melissa Descant said.

The work is a family affair, Melissa Descant said. Their children, 7-year-old Maggie and 5-year-old Nikolai, are used to people knocking on the door at all hours of the day with an injured animal in their arms.

“My daughter especially, she absolutely loves it. She wants to be a veterinarian like her father and grandfather. She gets to see it all, she gets to help. There’s been times we have to go to the clinic at 11 at night, and they’re happy to go along.”

On a recent afternoon, Nikolai helped his mother give a tour of the center, carrying around a young chicken while his mother peered into incubators holding baby opossums and a garter snake that had been slashed by a cat.

The wildlife center is still a work in progress. While the couple has built a barn with pens for different species, they are still working to raise $30,000 to install the specialized enclosures required by law to hold animals classified as rabies vectors in Pennsylvania — raccoons, skunks, foxes, coyotes, bats and groundhogs. Cricket Wildlife can still accept these animals, but must transfer them to another rehabber.

Rabbits are the most common animal brought to the center, followed by squirrels and birds. Cat attacks are a chief reason for their injuries. Michael Descant works at the Lehigh County Humane Society’s veterinary clinic, which is helping to reduce the number of free-roaming cats by providing low-cost spay and neuter surgeries on cats captured by volunteer trappers.

In the last two years, Humane Society veterinarians have performed more than 2,000 surgeries through its trap, neuter, return program, CEO Hal Warner said.

This time of year brings an increase in calls about fawns and fledgling songbirds that people find in their yards. In most cases, the animal’s mother is nearby and the babies are fine, Melissa Descant said, and the homeowner just needs some assurance that they’re doing the right thing by leaving them alone.

“If someone is concerned they can certainly call and we’ll talk them through it,” she said.

If a fawn appears injured, the finder can bring it to the center. The exception is deer found in certain parts of Berks County where there is a quarantine in place to prevent the spread of chronic wasting disease.

The center cannot accept migratory birds, due to federal laws. Most wildlife species in Pennsylvania are managed by the state game commission, but migratory birds are overseen by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The Descants do not charge a fee to treat injured animals, but do accept donations. They recently created a Facebook page for Cricket Wildlife Center and are working on a website. Between caring for wounded critters and filling out the reams of paperwork required to get their nonprofit off the ground, there’s not a lot of extra time available, Melissa Descant said.

“It’s hard work, but it’s something that’s really needed in this area. We just want to get the word out and let the community know that we’re here for them.”

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