Interested in trying something wild? Amber Warren has just the thing for you. As Animal Room volunteer manager for the Virginia Living Museum in Newport News, she can find all kinds of ways to get you up close and personal with some of the facility’s furry, finned or feathered residents.
I had an opportunity to spend some time working with Warren and her crew of volunteers, and it was a unique experience. Where else can you have a chatty screech owl perched on your finger while contemplating if the small bird with only one good eye is thanking you for cleaning their indoor habitat or just trying to talk you into an extra morsel of food?
The Animal Room volunteers have their work cut out for them. Each day they must clean and sanitize the cages and food and water bowls for all the indoor residents—those that need rehabilitation, are imprinted on humans and can’t be released into the wild, or act as animal ambassadors for the people who come to visit the VLM. And, as mentioned earlier, they are also responsible for preparing two meals a day for those animals, as well as those in the outdoor trails and the aviary.
Warren leads it all with the ease and confidence that can only come from someone who really cares for the critters—and the people—she’s in charge of. “We have a number of different tasks volunteers can do,” she says while gently coaxing a grumpy opossum from its comfy habitat to a temporary carrier so the cage can be cleaned. “It usually only takes a day or two for volunteers to learn the tasks, but I always recommend people try one or more different jobs so they can truly learn what they like and what their skills are best suited to.”
In fact, she started as a volunteer herself before becoming a staff member. She was majoring in biology at Christopher Newport University and was looking for a way to connect with animals to see if that was the path she truly wanted to follow. She didn’t want to commit to the educational requirements of a veterinarian or vet tech route, so she eased into things by checking out the VLM. She volunteered for two years, often staying late to take care of tasks when she didn’t have enough volunteers to help, before eventually joining the team. She has been a staff member now for five years.
Left: Dishes for the indoor animal crates need to be sterilized daily; Right: Fresh straw
makes great bedding for the rabbits and opossums.
The author gets to visit with a screech owl that is missing an eye. This bird would be
highly targeted by predators in the wild.
Left: All food and water dishes are marked with a special code so they can be
returned to the proper cage; Right: The author tries his hand at mixing up some
dishes for the outdoor residents at the Virginia Living Museum.
A small sample of the recipes for each of the animal residents. In addition to having
a.m. and p.m. meals, the Virginia Living Museum also varies diets by days of the
Not Your Ordinary Meal Plan
The recipe board in the food prep room is both impressive and intimidating at first. You might think it would be as easy as opening a can of dog food for the red wolves and foxes or scooping up a couple cups of beaver chow (yes, that’s a real thing), and you’re done. Nope. Each animal has a very specific diet carefully crafted for them by Kathy Long, general curator at VLM in charge of bird and animal diets, so they receive both variety and the nutritional sustenance they need to maintain optimal health. Long has access to the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) nutritionists and over 25 years of experience with the diets of the animals at the VLM. The ingredients vary by day of the week and also time of day (a.m. versus p.m.), so as you can imagine, the list of ingredients is massive. Here’s just one example:
Flying Squirrel Exhibit
1/2 tbsp seed blend
3 tsp sunflower seeds
2 rodent biscuits, halved
2 pecan halves, broken up
3 walnut halves, broken up
5 small chunks of fruits and vegetables
Monday: 9 wax worms
Monday, Friday: 1 tbsp banana, diced
Tuesday, Thursday: 1/2 tbsp cracked corn
Wednesday, Saturday: 10 Cheerios
Friday: 5 frozen berries
Tuesday, Sunday: 4 oat bran biscuits
Rewards Of Volunteering
As a volunteer, you not only get the satisfaction of caring for amazing critters and supporting ecological and conservation efforts, but there are some tangible benefits, as well. In addition to free admission to the VLM and discounts at the museum store and café, you can also receive letters of reference for school or job applications and, potentially, course credits through internships.
To find out more, and to discover all that the VLM has to offer, visit TheVLM.org.