by Gwen A. Baumann
Many a parent has lived the challenge of a road trip with a teenager. The promise of the Texas coast isn’t always enough to keep him strapped into the back of a Volkswagen bug when he’d rather be hanging out with his peers. It can be even trickier when the teen isn’t your own, though, or when the teen isn’t human. Just ask Kathy Milacek.
Milacek, a charter member of North Texas Master Naturalists in Dallas, took that trip a few years back with a teenage alligator, and it was quite an excursion. “A woman called and said her husband had come home from a pet store in Garland with an alligator,” Milacek said. The alligator had been living in a stock tank in the woman’s garage for years, and she had “won custody” in a divorce. After a while, though, she was ready to part with it. Over a period of time, Milacek and her friend, Prudi Martin-Koeninger, viewed the alligator in situ, contacted Texas Parks & Wildlife, jumped through a lot of hoops, and were finally able to get the gator in a dog crate and drive him south, where they released him into the marshes of Brazos Bend State Park. The road trip was interesting, Milacek said, but not her worst such venture. “You would much rather take a road trip with an alligator,” she said, “than with a band of raccoons. Believe me.”
Dealing with unwanted wild pets is but one of the challenges Milacek and Martin-Koeninger have faced since founding the DFW Wildlife Coalition about a decade ago. The organization, which has attained 501(c)(3) status, operates a website – dfwwildlife.org – that offers educational resources and a hotline for concerned citizens to call when they encounter an animal they believe is in distress. Last year, about 10,000 people did just that, and it was up to hotline volunteers to take those calls, ask the right questions, and then offer advice or contact wildlife rehabilitators.
Blackland Prairie Texas Master Naturalist Maureen Metcalf is one such volunteer. She works the 7 – 9 a.m. shift on Wednesdays, which means that come 7 a.m. she is on call to accept phone calls from throughout the DFW Metroplex about anything from a fallen baby bird to a coyote in the neighborhood. Phone calls come to Metcalf after she dials a number to route them to her anonymously. It is a virtual hotline, so she can take the calls from any phone. She also logs into the Wildlife Coalition computer system to check for voice mail messages so she can return calls, access resources, and enter detailed notes about all calls she receives.
Metcalf, a member of the BPTMN class of 2014, was looking for her volunteer niche when she found out about the Wildlife Coalition hotline. “I love animals and was looking for something I could do specifically for animals,” she said. The two-hour slot each week was the perfect fit. In order to qualify, Metcalf paid $15 for an online training course on wildlife rehabilitation out of the Pennsylvania Game Commission, passed a test and was certified, and met with Milacek in person for training related specifically to the DFW Wildlife Coalition. She then filled one of the 50 two-hour volunteer shifts each week.
About 60% of the calls the hotline receives are about songbirds and water birds; 20% – cottontails and squirrels; 10% – opossums, skunks and raccoons; and 10% – reptiles, lizards, snakes, frogs, toads and insects (normally bee hives), according to Milacek. Volunteers are provided with resources to help them answer questions about all of these urban wildlife and also have access to a supervisor at all times in case they encounter an unfamiliar situation.
“Our mission is to reduce the incidence of orphaned or euthanized wildlife in the DFW area, ” Milacek said. When wildlife makes their way onto people’s property, “we encourage humane exclusion using methods recommended by the Humane Society.” While in a perfect world “we would be put out of business,” Milacek said the next best thing would be to have a volunteer on each of the 50 shifts. “It would be great if we did not have a vacant shift,” she said. “About a third of our volunteers are master naturalists from Denton, Dallas, and even Tyler,” she said, adding that she’d love to see more Blackland Prairie chapter members join Metcalf in volunteering. “Just send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org to get started.”