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November 13, 2009

These Ambulance Drivers Answer Calls from the Wild

The Humane Society of the United States

by Julie Hauserman

  • The Wildlife Care Center treats a variety of species—254 last year—including the many coastal birds of S. Florida. Kathy Milani/HSUS

  • Injured animals can be treated much faster, thanks to the squadron of ambulances owned and operated by the center. Kathy Milani/HSUS

  • The ambulance drivers of the Wildlife Care Center clocked nearly 9,000 miles last year. Kathy Milani/HSUS

  • Animals picked up by the drivers are brought to the center's veterinary clinic for treatment. Kathy Milani/HSUS

It isn’t every day that an ambulance driver responds to a call at a schoolyard and ends up wrangling with an agitated, six-foot tall, sharp-clawed emu.

John Glushko arrived on the scene, handily caught the exotic ostrich-like bird, took him out of harm’s way, and chalked up another adventure in a most unusual occupation: He’s one of three ambulance drivers for the SPCA Wildlife Care Center in Broward County, now part of The Humane Society of the United States.

Keeping the engines warm

The three ambulances offer a special service for South Florida’s unusual wildlife menagerie. Combined, they clocked a total of 8,850 miles in 2008, rescuing everything from baby possums to injured pelicans, lizards, alligators, wading birds, raccoons, tortoises, snakes, and other critters that roam highly populated Miami-Dade, Broward, and Palm Beach counties.

“The ambulances really make a difference,” said Wildlife Care Center Executive Director Sherry Schlueter. “We can get injured animals in more quickly to the veterinarians this way.

“We also provide a valuable service to the county animal control officers because our direct response relieves the counties of the obligation to handle these wildlife calls that take them away from their primary duty of dogs and cats.”

The Wildlife Care Center is a busy place. In 2008, it admitted 12,620 patients of 254 species. Nearly 60 percent were released back into the wild after their injuries healed. The center gets a stipend from Broward County to help cover some gas and expenses, as well as some of the cost of treatment of rescued wildlife, Schlueter said.

“The ambulances really make a difference,” said Wildlife Care Center Executive Director Sherry Schlueter. “We can get injured animals in more quickly to the veterinarians this way.

Whatever it takes

All of the drivers have wild stories.

Driver Jacquelyn Johnston once carried an injured Great White Heron for three miles through territory infested with snakes and alligators. She swaddled the bird in a towel and held its beak and feet to keep it calm through the long hike.

“I try to understand where each species is coming from,” said Johnston, who is 27. “I try to tell people: ‘That possum isn’t growling at you—he just doesn’t want to get eaten!’ Or I’ll say, ‘That family of raccoons didn’t get the memo when you moved into their habitat.’ It helps to approach people with a little humor.”

Read Johnston's tips on interpreting animal behavior.

Unretired

Glushko, a Florida retiree who says he “got really tired of playing golf and going to the beach every day,” joined the Wildlife Care Center five years ago.

“I like the excitement,” he said. “I’m the kind of person who will climb a 35-foot tree to get a raccoon with a broken leg, or run across tile roofs, or go into algae-filled lakes.”

Glushko trains the other drivers in successful techniques to handle different species, as well as dealing with fearful residents who may not be familiar with wildlife.

All tangled up

“It’s all about educating people and living in harmony with each other,” adds ambulance driver Rochester Lewis II. “I’ll tell people: ‘Hey, this raccoon or this possum, these guys have families, too. I just try to tell people how to coexist with these animals.”

One of Glushko’s most gratifying rescues involved a pelican, caught in a fishing line, hanging in a tree on the wide Intracoastal Waterway. When he arrived, a sheriff’s department boat was already on the scene and ferried him over to the tree.

“There was no way we could reach him,” Glushko said. “I asked somebody below to throw me a tree trimmer.”

He tied a rope on the tree and threw the trimmer over to keep the boat steady. He noticed a second, unharmed pelican, perched a bit higher up the tree. Glushko climbed up and cut the limb where the injured pelican was. From the boat, the rescuers plucked the bird from the river, then Glushko rushed it to the center. 

A few weeks later, Glushko brought the healed pelican back and released it in the same area.

“He started flying toward that same tree,” Glushko said. “I looked in the binoculars and right above him, there was the mate, still there. Maybe she was waiting for him.”

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