Christie Huffman tends to injured crows at her home in suburban Washington, D.C. Diana Roché and her husband care for hundreds of rabbits, roadrunners and other creatures each year at their desert residence in Arizona. There was a time when such Good Samaritans might have been considered a bit strange, but today thousands of caregivers all over the country are earning praise from public wildlife officials for the rehabilitation work they do. "It used to be that if [an] animal couldn't be safely released it was often destroyed because there was nobody who could or would legally hold it," says a New York state biologist. "Rehabbers give animals and us a better option."
Rehabbers spend from a few hundred to several thousand dollars a year on their hobby. Virtually all say their principal purpose is to relieve pain and suffering. Beyond that, they are rewarded by becoming more knowledgeable about and intimately acquainted with animals.
In conventional conservation terms, rehabbers' work has little significance. Their patients are generally abundant creatures, and there is almost no data about how many of them are successfully reestablished in the wild. Does it make sense to "save" deer and other animals that are overpopulating many parts of the country? Rehabbers think how they spend their time is at least as sensible as how golfers, antique restorers and hunters spend theirs. Many, like Texan Vivian Steele, get started because their children bring them orphaned birds. "I just tell people," says Steele, "that I don't like to see animals, especially baby ones, hurting, so I try to help them."